I had just turned 28 when the verdict was read in the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King. I was living in East Los Angeles and working at an inner-city Catholic high school, teaching religion and serving as campus minister.
When you live in Los Angeles, you live in all of L.A. Angelinos know Long Beach, Santa Monica, Downtown and Compton. A trip to the airport takes them through Inglewood and Baldwin Park. Depending on the starting point, a Dodgers game takes you through some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in the city. The Coliseum sits at the northern end of South Central L.A., while the Nokia Theatre and Staples Center welcome you to downtown, not far from the garment district and skid row.
Los Angeles is really a much smaller city when you live there and so, as the riots unfolded, it was very personal for most residents of the city. It was certainly personal for me. The riots erupted on the south side of the Interstate 10 corridor between Highway 405 and Highway 101. Some of the best and most eclectic food in the world can be found within three blocks on either side of the Santa Monica Freeway. I was and remain familiar with much of it.
The riots quickly spilled across the Santa Monica Freeway and into Korea Town, where armed Korean merchants stood their ground in the absence of police support. I had good friends in Korea Town and spent much of my time there. It was the starting point for my orientation to the city having moved to L.A. just after college. I traveled easily through Korea Town, the Wilshire corridor and up through Miracle Mile. Lew Mitchell’s Orient Express was a favorite watering hole.
My favorite Indian restaurant was just off the I-10 on Olympic Boulevard. It was a walk-up, fast-food type of place that easily had the best Tandori chicken I have ever tasted. It would have played a starring role in Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives had it survived. It was burned to the ground on the second day of the riots.
In the midst of the riots, schools closed, followed closely by the entire city. I hunkered down with friends in Montebello, glued to the television to make sure we were still a safe distance away. The riots did brush Pico Rivera, about two miles from the home where I was staying. For most Angelinos, I think the experience was surreal.
Freeways were closed, the airport shut down for six days and sporting events were canceled. An acrid smoke lingered over the basin, casting an eerie orange pale that reinforced the thought that this might all be just a dream. But it was painfully real, destructive and deadly. Fifty-three people lost their lives in the riots, and 3,000 businesses and buildings were destroyed, with most of those concentrated in South Central Los Angeles. The aftermath was like a foreshadowing of Armageddon.
It was a deeply personal experience for me and my students. We talked a lot about the implications of the riots in the days that followed; what changes might need to occur, what hope and opportunities might spring from the ashes to give some purpose to the death and devastation. Their responses were touching, hope filled and sincerely cognizant of the forces behind the violence. I and they were so very wrong.
Little has changed in 20 years. The concerns about inner-city poverty and racial injustice are empty and impotent. It is those same areas that were painted with hopelessness and carved with aggression that suffer most in this new economy. We still send far too many minorities to jail, passing judgment while effectively locking the door to possible prosperity, trapping them in a cycle of poverty.
I left Los Angeles at the end of that school year. The riots and their aftermath did not have a conscious effect on my decision, but I did move far away to a place that was both familiar and safe. My friends from Montebello followed soon after. At some level, I know I left Los Angeles with feelings of helplessness and shame, feelings that well up each time I revisit the ghosts of personal landmarks lost in the flames.
Some years later I met a member of the Rodney King jury who was a really decent guy. I can’t quote his words exactly, but I will paraphrase: “It is easy to judge from the outside. But the simple fact is the evidence was not presented. Really, how eager do you think that prosecutor was to convict four officers of the law?” Indeed. Instead, an entire city was convicted and the punishment soundly delivered.