The Night They Burned My City Down: Remembering the LA Riots

It started 20 years ago today. The first time in my life I’d experienced a sense of true anarchy and danger, the safety of our families and homes left completely in our own hands as the police seemed to evaporate into the shadows. It was just days away from the birth of my son and to feel such vulnerability at that very vulnerable time was profoundly unsettling. For a girl from a Midwest farm town who had, heretofore, lived a protected existence even in the feistier environs of Los Angeles (my 80’s era gang-infested Argyle Avenue neighborhood notwithstanding!), this was a stunning turn of events. As my husband and I watched the advancing columns of smoke, the marauders making their way from points south toward Hollywood and beyond — burning, looting and killing along the way — it became cold-water clear that we were in the crosshairs and there was no one to call.

I looked at my husband with trepidation and said, “We live in a Hollywood Hills Tudor — albeit a shabby one — and they won’t know we’re renters!” See, word had spread that the pack was headed north with intentions to “Molotov” the homes of “rich white people,” and while we qualified for two out of those three defining features, it was unlikely any distinction would be made for our modest bank balance. My husband pulled his old hunting rifle down from the garage shelf, the only gun in our possession, and we kept vigil at the windows while neighbors gathered to stand watch over the only way in to our little cul-de-sac. We survived that night and it was in the days to come that we discovered they’d burned within just blocks of our neighborhood.

As someone with my own tale of police brutality (Loudly Against the Language of Racism), I’d felt particular pangs while watching the infamous George Holliday video of Rodney King’s beating and, subsequently, paid close attention to the trial, emotionally invested in its outcome. It was impossible to believe the four accused cops would not be convicted of at least some charge of brutality, and the justice being called for felt valid and assured. The date was April 29, 1992, it was a beautiful spring day and from the top of our neighborhood we could see the trees blooming throughout the hills all the way to downtown LA. I felt such a rush of affection for my beautiful city, a sense of community and goodwill. Maybe it was just hopeful hormones, but I wanted to believe the place of my son’s birth could fulfill the sense of the peace and beauty it exhibited that day. I don’t remember having the TV on at the time but somehow I became aware that the King verdict was in and called my husband to join me to watch the news report. We sat on the couch waiting for what we felt would be an inevitable conviction and when it was announced that all four defendants had been exonerated without charge, we looked at each other, stunned, and both of us acknowledged: “This is not going to be good.” And it wasn’t.

The tipping point was palpable, no doubt similar to the one felt prior to the Watts Riots of 1965, and the ramp-up was one of many rough years. Los Angeles had endured a particularly corrupt era of policing during the 80’s (when my particular story happened), one that would metastasize over two decades until it finally exploded into The Rampart Scandal in 1997. But until they named it, until it was on the radar, it was all Police Gone Wild on a daily basis: racial harassment, illegal arrests, false accusations, trumped up evidence, and vicious beatings that were not caught by any camera. The subsequent rage was deep and real but it was tamped down by the fear of crushing consequences, the fear that regardless of truth, these rogue cops, powerful and so entrenched in the systemic corruption of the department at the time, would have no compunction about destroying lives to get a collar. While surely there were good, honest cops somewhere in that mix, they, apparently, weren’t the ones patrolling the mean streets…that nefarious group ran things like it was the Dark Ages, clearly with the alliance of the controversial and inflammatory Police Chief at that time, Daryl Gates.

Given that prelude, imagine the sense of vindication when some hapless videographer actually caught an incident that mirrored what so many others had experienced with no one watching! It ripped both the lid and the scab off and response from the beleaguered inner city communities most impacted was loud, as was the outrage from those who were horrified by this exposé of blatant corruption and violence. As shocking as that video was, it paradoxically incited some hope, hope that for once the justice system would look beyond race and rap sheets to see the immorality of the act and judge accordingly. But that didn’t happen…and all hell broke lose.

On that seminal day after the verdict, we watched, in unedited real time, as white trucker Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten mercilessly. I screamed at the TV, “Where the _____ are the cops??!” while unfettered thugs circled and almost killed a man on live TV. Good Samaritans saved Denny’s life, as well as those of several others caught in the melee, but the cops seemed to have disappeared in those first incendiary hours. It was mayhem in its purest form and it spread like wildfire.

We were lucky to get through that night unscathed, unlike countless others, and while the worst of it was over the first three days, the official “riot schedule” ran for six. Six days of madness. Once the authorities found their footing (balls?) and the police were back in control, curfews were set and fiercely enforced. I remember being terrified that I would go into labor at an unwieldy hour and find myself handcuffed along the freeway while hightailing it to the hospital in Santa Monica! As it was, my son was born May 9th, five days after it was over, and even then we discovered completely empty streets as we drove from Hollywood westward, eerie and post-apocalyptic, particularly as you traversed smoking neighborhoods that looked as though War had paid a visit. It had.

Much debate followed, most of it deeply heated, about why, how and what to call it. Some stuck with “riots,” others demanded the more redemptive “civil unrest”; I waffled between the two. There was no denying the racial component of what had happened, the civil rights trigger to the event, but the riots were hardly reserved for righteous anger. There was far too much footage of people of every race and color grinning at the cameras as they looted stores with bold-faced impunity, shopping carts en tow to transport loads of ill-gotten goods. The larger message of necessary reform and the rejection of racism was abundantly pertinent, but so was the horror and rage felt at the, mostly, young men in wolf-packs responsible for the deaths of 52 people and massive damage to innocent shopkeepers, home owners and commercial districts. It was excused by many as an unavoidable response to bottled-up rage, an inevitable reaction to long-running social ills, but while this was true for some, and certainly a major component at the inciting moment of the verdict, the ensuing days of death, injury, looting and continued destruction stepped way beyond the bounds and muddied the message. The incessant media coverage, in fact, allowed us to witness both the best and worst of those involved, the most compelling contrast found between Damian “Football” Williams and his soulless and sociopathic beating of Reginald Denny, juxtaposed against Denny’s noble rescuer, Bobby Green, Jr., who hoisted the critically wounded man into his truck and rushed him to the hospital through burning streets and danger to himself. Both men of color, Williams and Green, they embodied the deeply conflicted feelings that permeated the event.

I woke up the morning it was all over and looked down at my smoking city feeling such loss; loss of community, loss of common purpose and any measure of acceptance and coexistence amongst our diverse population. The city awoke, too, relieved to be alive but every bone battered and broken. And the wounds were deep. The animosity between Blacks and Koreans, in particular, was brought into full relief, uncovering a deep chasm of distrust and hate that continues today in many communities. Beautiful neighborhoods were destroyed, blighted ones as well. Countless restaurants and retail stores, including the venerable Samy’s Camera, went up in smoke. Street after street of both residential and commercial districts were so knocked down, some have not come up to this day. Many people lost their businesses, never to rebuild, while others faced crushing financial burdens to reemerge. In fact, over one billion dollars of property damage was assessed after all was said and one.

But the human toll was most egregious.  Over 2500 injuries, some severe, and, most horrifically, 53 people lost their lives.

The LA Weekly has a good piece out, Then & Now: Images from the Same Spot as the LA Riots, 20 Years Later, which offers details and compelling comparative photos of neighborhoods and places, then and now. It’s both education and hopeful.  Wikipedia’s 1992 Los Angeles Riots page does a good job of laying out the timeline and naming the players. There are countless other articles; it’s a big story that will be analyzed and dissected throughout history.

My personal view is through the prism of my son’s birth (always to be connected to the event), my husband’s protectiveness; the coming together of people and neighborhoods in solidarity and defense, and the sad dispelling of hope about racial harmony in our city, at least then; is it better now? Los Angeles is a complex and beautiful metropolis that encompasses a staggering diversity of people, places, and beliefs. Civil unrest seems never too far from the radar, as hate and bigotry continue to brew in certain lower contingents of mankind, here and everywhere, but hope recovers and remains. Hope that we have more compassion for each other, hope that our police department has excised its bad apples. We’ve found unexpected outlets for our anger (can you imagine Twitter and Facebook after the Rodney King tape was revealed?!), we have effective forums and legal recourse in which to properly expose corruption and discrimination, and hopefully we’ve recovered with a sharp, unvarnished awareness that turning a blind eye to any injustice will surely destroy our vision.

LDW w glasses


Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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8 thoughts on “The Night They Burned My City Down: Remembering the LA Riots

  1. Dorena S

    What a time! I lived in the West Adams district at the time and it was hit hard. It made me lose faith for awhile in mankind. Especially when I’d watch all those people emptying the stores that were looted. What did have to do with “revolution”?? I understood the anger and felt it myself but somehow we have to find other ways to vent it. Otherwise we’re just as bad as the people who do injustice. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Great story.

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    1. LDW

      Thank you, Dorena. I agree. And I hope we’ve evolved enough as a city and a community that this sort of thing could never happen again. I’m an optimist! LDW

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  2. Kim

    Too bad some people think the only way to fight injustice is to destroy. It was a terrifying time for me. I was in school at USC and it was all so close to us. But it did inspire a lot of discussion, debate and even arguments, which ultimately opened a lot of eyes. Thank you for writing about it. For some of us it was our first experience with social unrest.

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Kim. I think it was a first for many people. I’d been witness to riots in college but never on this scale. Pent up anger can be a powerful beast. Which speaks to why we must always listen and pay attention. Appreciate your comment. LDW

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  3. I was living in the sheltered cocoon of Fairbanks, Alaska at the time this happened. And I can remember the riots being a topic of conversation and everyone saying things like, “Why would they destroy their own city?” We all thought we understood what was going on, but there’s no way from our isolated cocoon that we could really comprehend the magnitude as did all of you folks who had to go through it. I just can’t imagine it.

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    1. LDW

      It was SO big, all the elements leading up to it, it was like the “perfect storm,” to use a slightly hackneyed phrase. So much had been percolating under the surface that all exploded on that day. I don’t think the marauders were thinking about destroying their city; they weren’t thinking at all. It was gang, wolf-pack mentality and the psychosis of “war adrenaline.” It was only after that people tried to ascribe nobler reasons, and while there certainly were some, as I said in the piece, for MANY, it was just a chance to behave badly. But I was angry too…I was outraged by the verdict and could understand the spark it set. Too bad there were too many ready to burst into flames to keep it from taking hold like it did.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, David. I can only imagine what madness it must’ve looked like from up there! LDW

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  4. Deb D

    Loving your post The Night They Burned My City Down: Remembering the LA Riots | Rock+Paper+Music. I was in LA at the time and remember it well. Also I am just starting out with a blog and it’s great to come across other sites that deal with interesting stories. Keep up the great work, I will be back again soon to see what’s new.

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    1. LDW

      Thanks, Deb. It was a pretty memorable time, wasn’t it? Thanks for your comments and good luck with your own blog. And certainly, come by and keep up with new posts. Appreciate it! LDW

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