Los Angeles

There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?

LA palm trees

I usually get annoyed when one topic takes over news and culture podcasts for the week (e.g., Girls, Sharon van Etten’s latest album, Baratunde Thurston’s book tour). This week I didn’t get annoyed by the excellent coverage of the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots (or Uprising, depending on how you saw the situation) on LA’s traditional and social media. Instead, I haven’t been able to get enough.

I was 11 years old during the Riots and living out in the suburbs 20 miles away from any of the action. I definitely was aware of what was going on. I knew the name Rodney King and had seen the video. Everyone had, but I didn’t know the excessive force used against him by the four LAPD officers was not an isolated incident. I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du. I’d never heard of the Watts Riots of 1965. Nor did I know anything about police* brutality, institutionalized racism in the justice system, redlining, de-industrialization, and a recession that hit the poor and working class communities of LA hard. (*In my mind, the police were there to serve and protect, and warn us about doing drugs with the DARE and SANE programs.)

Like millions of others, I watched the coverage of late April and early May 1992 on the news. I was scared and saddened. I didn’t understand why people were burning buildings in their own community. I don’t remember being worried that the burning and looting would reach East LA where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived. I highly doubted that anything would happen in Hacienda Heights; though something did happen a town over.


I remember talking about the looting with some kids who lived down the street. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but he either bragged about looting or just said he wanted to be out there. I also remember watching Edward James Olmos doing a cleanup (I was a fan at the time). I think my cousin who lived in East LA went out to help.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read more about the Riots and talked to people who were closer to the action and/or remember it differently. I’ve also learned a lot more about the conditions that set the stage for such an uprising in LA. I’m not a clueless 11 year old anymore, naturally. I’ve had not-so-great experiences with police and been at marches/rallies that got sketchy. Luckily, I never took a rubber bullet to the eye or got pepper sprayed. I no longer live in the suburbs, but in an LA neighborhood that might have seen some burning and looting 20 years ago. It’s changed a lot in the 12 years I’ve been here. We even have a light rail line (Expo!).

A lot has changed in LA in 20 years. At the same time, we haven’t come that far, but it feels good to know that there are many in LA who are still working to effect change.

Ed at [view] from a loft has a great roundup of 20th anniversary coverage. More from LA Observed and KCRW and KPCC.


6 thoughts on “There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?

  1. I lived 45 minutes away but I was glued to the TV, watching all the looting and rioting. I just started college, and made plans to transfer to L.A in the next year. All the smoke in the air, I remember it clearly. It was a scary time because everyone was unsure whether or not the violence was going to spread inland.

  2. It doesn’t feel like that happened 20 years ago. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. I was watching a news segment about it over the weekend and it hit me that things really haven’t changed in our country. The Martin case has gained national attention and while there haven’t been riots, I feel like it’s similar in that the underlying issue is bigger than just that one case and people are fed up, angry and want change.

  3. I was 14 years old living in Oxnard, California. I was very worried about my father who commuted to Long Beach on a daily basis to support his family. If traffic was congested he would sometimes exit the 405 and stop to get a bite to eat or he would use the side streets to get to the 110. I remember watching the riots unfold on TV. I could believe it was real. My father made it home safe that night.

  4. Momo says:

    I was at school in the 6th grade in South Gate. We had a substitute teacher that day; I think our regular teacher was too scared to come to work from her home in San Pedro. I couldn’t understand why people took to looting and causing fires as a result of the Rodney King verdict. It didn’t make sense to me at the time. From the playground, I could see smoke from the fires across town in Lynwood. The drug store with my favorite ice cream counter, Clark’s Drugs, on MLK Jr. Blvd. and Abbott, was burnt down. I remember fearing that I would come home to a burnt-down house as we lived only two blocks away from the drug store. I didn’t walk home alone from school that day. They made our parents pick us up. Now, there’s an elementary school where the drug store once stood.

  5. At the time, I was in my teens living in Compton, right in the heart of the riots. I had a mother who pretty much let me do anything I wanted. No father in the picture to tell me otherwise. A friendship or atleast acquaintance with most of the “dangerous” people in the area. Then the riots hit and the city went into chaos.

    Anarchy basically. Theft. Crime. A race to see who can get the most from abandoned stores. It was a free for all.

    I must admit, it was exciting and dare I say, fun. Not because of the symbolism and romantic reasons given by ethnic studies professors who dont shit about reality in the ghetto, but because having free reign of the city, and doing whatever you want is fun at 15. I didn’t really participate in any of the thefts. It was kinda like a Wal-Mart during black Friday. Too many people fighting over too little things (and could be dangerous, chinos are protective over their stores – some would shoot at you!). That wasn’t really my thing. But the excitement of the whole thing could be overpowering.

    Then the national guard came in and ruined it all. 🙂

  6. Ivette says:

    I was four, we were living close to Florence and Normandie. My dad’s upholstery shop, on Manchester and Vermont, burned to the ground–it’s been an empty lot ever since. My dad doesn’t talk about it too much, but we have old polaroids of it all burned to the ground. Poor dad, he had two toddlers and a wife. Now he has three kids who all went to college.

    I wonder how many other Latino-owned businesses were affected by this “fun.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s