On April 29, 1992, I began the day worrying about the threat of gang violence, not city-altering conflagration that the afternoon’s news would bring.
As every local media outlet has been discussing all week , twenty years ago on Sunday, Los Angeles exploded in what is generally considered to be the worst civil disturbance of the 20th Century. But even before the four LAPD officers were acquitted by a Simi Valley jury, triggering a citywide spasm of violence that would kill 63 people, Los Angeles was already living through the deadliest period in its history, with homicides skyrocketing past the 2000 mark county-wide in 1991, and headed still higher in the first quarter of ’92, with nearly 40 percent of the killings marked as gang-related.
It was one of those gang killings that had an initially skewing effect on the way I experienced the events of April 29, 1992.
At the time, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ reaction to what would come to be known as the decade of death in East and South LA, was to institute a clumsily designed and brutal policy he named Operation Hammer. The Big Blue Hammer, as it was sometimes known colloquially, consisted mainly of massive gang sweeps in which as many as a thousand young people were arrested at a time, with sometimes no more pretext than the kid had on a black Raiders’ jacket. The broad brush arrests resulted in a miniscule number of actual charges, which could have been better accomplished with normal police work. Yet they gave permission for lots of acts of deliberate humiliation and ongoing incidents of cop-administered beatings, most of which were never reported, since the mothers of the beat-up kids learned that the complaints went exactly nowhere. And still the homicides continued to rise. The Hammer’s main collateral effect was to drive a wedge between law enforcement and the communities that were most in need of the LAPD’s protection and service that would take years and two enlightened chiefs of police to undo.
In was into this climate that the verdicts were delivered.
At the time, I was spending most of my working hours reporting on gangs in the Pico Aliso housing projects of East Los Angeles, where I was researching a book on Father Greg Boyle, and on the six active street gangs who claimed territory within the mile-square boundaries of Pico-Aliso. This meant I was often in the projects late at night when shootings erupted, and I had frequently seen first hand the aftermath of an LAPD beat down that resulted in no arrest.
I had also been to an unhealthy number of funerals of kids I’d gotten to know and like.
On April 29, 1992, the afternoon that the verdicts in the Rodney King beating case were announced, I was on my way to the projects to talk to some homeboys whose lives I’d been tracking for the book, after which time I was going to pick up Father Greg at his office inside Dolores Mission Church, which was situated between the twinned housing projects, and then I’d accompany him on a series of errands, as I often did during the four years I all but bungee-corded myself to the priest’s ankle.
Entirely apart from the citywide storm that would break with staggering force before the day was out, it was already a perilous week in the Pico-Aliso projects: A few days before, a member of the East Coast Crips,—a smallish Crip set that was one of the six projects gangs—had been shot and killed by a member of one of the other projects gangs, The Mob Crew, or TMC, and retaliation was expected to be imminent.
The murder itself was already round two of a deadly game of tit-for-tat. It seemed that in the midst of an argument over some territorial issue or other, the dead boy, who had the unlikely street name of New York, had pulled out a gun and shot a TMC homeboy in the foot. Rumor had it that a second TMC homeboy had a gun trained on New York from a nearby apartment roof and fired a couple of warning shots, thus discouraging the Crip from shooting a second time. It was assumed that the foot-shot gangster, a baby-faced 16-year-old who would later go to work for Power 106 radio, or one of his homeboys, most likely the roof shooter, had tragically upped the ante by killing New York.
By this time, I’d been reporting on Father Greg and the various clusters of gang members for nearly two years, so I knew most all of the significant players in the gang world of Pico-Aliso, and had come to care about many of them, and their mothers, sisters, cousins, and little brothers, some of whom regularly tumbled in an out of my car like rowdy puppies. In other words, I had long ago lost most of my reportorial distance. In this case, although I had not known New York, who was just out of prison, I did know the two TMC teenagers in question, either one of whom I realized with dread could easily be New York’s killer, and could therefore also easily become the next victim in the projects’ latest escalating cycle of gang madness.
Thus it was that this other, much closer-to-hand threat of violence was most on my mind when, at 3:16 pm on Wednesday, April 29, I listened as KFWB all-news radio announced each one of the Simi Valley verdicts separately: Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. I remember that the content of the announcement was momentarily confusing. How can one be found not guilty of something that the whole country saw one do over and over again on video? The radio announcer said that there might be unrest, which anybody living or working in South or East LA already knew. Yet, as I drove toward Dolores Mission to meet Greg, the likelihood of citywide violence still seemed a distant concern with the shadow of Pico/Aliso’s own potential unrest looming much nearer.
By the time I arrived at the church, a group of community mothers were gathered with the idea of marching to Parker Center to protest the King verdicts and asked if I would come with them. I declined explaining that I’d already promised to accompany the priest to the Dorothy Kirby Center, a therapeutic juvenile facility run by LA County probation in which around 70 kids were housed, and where Greg went to say mass every first Wednesday of the month.
I’d been to Kirby with Greg multiple times before, but this visit was markedly different. During the mass, the kids were oddly agitated. After the service ended, Greg made a habit of visiting various “cottages” in order to talk to kids individually. It was just before 7 pm when we reached the first cottage where we found all its occupants gathered in a single, jittery clump around the cottage’s television. Hearing us enter, the kids looked up briefly and seemed glad to see Greg, but their gazes were drawn quickly back to the TV where a news clip of a white man being pulled from the cab of a semi truck and horribly beaten by a bunch of young black men, was being replayed over and over in a violent, balletic series of images that careened across the screen in an eerie visual reverse of the tape of the King beating. Greg attempted conversation at each cottage, but the point of diminishing returns was reached quickly; the kids were too agitated, unable to light anywhere for long, even for him.
After Kirby we drove to a Jesuit retreat house in Azusa where Greg had managed to wangle temporary employment for two Pico/Aliso homeboys. Their work as assistant groundskeepers had reportedly gone well, but they were both dreadfully homesick so Greg promised to pick up the two and bring them back to L.A. for a short visit.
Once homeboys and priest were safely stashed in my car for the trip back to the projects it was nearly 9:00 p.m. As we neared Los Angeles, we were surprised when we hit a colossal traffic jam, which was our first inkling that something might truly have gone terribly wrong in the city. Squinting ahead, I saw that the sky was bright to the northeast of us and also to the south, with veils of smoke wafting across the night’s waning crescent moon. I hurriedly flipped on the radio and we learned what the rest of Los Angeles already knew.
When I finally dropped Greg and the two homies at the church parking lot, Pico/Aliso was quiet and dark, a seeming haven from the storm that was quickening everywhere else else. I would not learn until the next morning that, after I left the church, Greg and the homies had remained trapped inside the sanctuary after cars full of Crips showed up and proceeded to drive up and down Gless Street for hours, the dull shine of gun barrels visible out open car windows.
Ignorant of the soon-to-be menacing Crips, I occupied myself with the task of trying to figure out some kind of safe route home. To my right was Hollywood, where the palm trees had become fantastic torches lining the freeway with furious light, and causing the shutdown of the 101, which would have been my usual path back to Topanga Canyon, where I lived with my then-six year old son. To my left was South Los Angeles, which still seemed to be the epicenter. Plus an hour before, Mayor Tom Bradley had ordered the closing of many of the exit ramps on the Harbor Freeway and maybe some on the 10, so going south seemed unwise. Using the radio news as a guide, I decided to head west across the First Street Bridge, straight through the middle of downtown.
I saw the first sign of trouble at what was then the New Otani Hotel at First and Los Angeles Streets. Nearly all of its ground floor windows were smashed and there was fire damage—although, by the time I passed it, the rioters had moved on. Hoping for more up-to-date information than the radio was able to provide, I veered north on Los Angeles Street to the LAPD headquarters at Parker Center, which was protectively surrounded by a shoulder-to-shoulder string of two hundred or more police officers top-heavy with riot helmets, their order to guard the building while the rest of downtown LA was evidently on its own.
I pulled to the curb and yelled that I was looking for a route west. “Get over to Third Street,” one of the cops yelled back. Relieved, I took his suggestion and raced back along Los Angeles Street toward third. But the insurrection was a live thing now, which no one could track or predict. After swerving around first one and then a second set of street barricades, I rounded yet one more corner and ran smack into everything I was trying to avoid.
Up and down the intersecting streets in front of me as far as I was able to see, several hundred people raced and twirled in zigzag patterns across streets like whole teams of football running backs suddenly seized by mania.
The craziness was auditory as well as visual. Glass erupted in a musical clatter seemingly from every angle, sometimes close, sometimes father away. Some of the people had guns in their hands, and I heard gunfire, close by, but sporadic, the bullets spent, I remember hoping absently, more for effect than for injury. Lots of stores were extravagantly on fire, while flames only barely sequined the facades of others. Every single trashcan on the street was burning, which caused me to think stupidly of the only sensory analogue I had for what I was seeing, the movie Blade Runner.
I crept my car cautiously forward into the darting crowd hoping that, although I seemed to be the only vehicle on the road, if I kept moving steadily, I would simply become another part of the cacophonous wallpaper. As I drove, my hands clinging with white knuckled correctness to the ten and two o’clock positions on my steering wheel, my eyes the size of dinner plates, I wished desperately for a camera.
Now, of course, I always carry a camera with me, in the form of a cell phone, if nothing else. But then I was a narrative journalist, not a hard news reporter. Plus in those years, reporters didn’t usually take pictures. That was left up to the photo pros. Yet, that night as I threaded and swerved around the runners, I longed for some method other than memory with which to capture what I was witnessing.
I also longed to get home safely, a goal it still wasn’t yet clear I could accomplish. I didn’t feel frightened exactly. The intensity of the moment didn’t leave room for fear. But I wondered in passing if I should be afraid. After all, that Reginald Denny guy had been in a truck, and look what good it did him.
With that thought still lingering, I braked to a halt at one last downtown intersection clogged by running, shooting looters, and my gaze locked with that of a thirty-ish black man who was one of the gun-holding runners. The moment occurred as he passed in front of my car and stared curiously in at me through the windshield. Then, evidently seeing something in my expression of which I still refused to be cognizant, in a silent exchange that could have taken no more than a millisecond, the man communicated as clearly as if he’d spoken aloud to me with brief but consummate kindness: Keep going, his gaze said. You’re okay. This is not about you.
A minute or two later, I did make it through the chaos of downtown, then over to Olympic Blvd. to La Brea, south to the 10, then west to PCH, and north to Topanga, where I sent the baby sitter home and hugged my son longer than he thought was seemly.
For the next forty-eight hours in Los Angeles, everything stopped and everything was in motion. However, in Pico/Aliso, and most of the rest of East LA, there was no rioting, no looting. Although I knew that some people made forays into other areas of the city, most of the projects residents huddled together like a family riding out a hurricane. The gun toting, church-circling Crips of Wednesday night, stayed at home too, their grief and fury subsumed for a while by the larger collective grief and fury. More gang violence and more heartbreak was to visit the projects in the months to come, but for now anyway, there was pause.
On Thursday, I stayed close to home, checking in with Greg a couple of times during the day. But by Friday I could no longer bear what felt like the psychological remove of the West Side. I went back to the projects. The dusk ‘till dawn curfew that Mayor Tom Bradley had called was still in place, and the violence and destruction would continue in shuddering fits for a few more days. But by Friday night, everyone knew that the worst of the fever had broken and spontaneous barbecues bloomed like sudden wildflowers in front yards all over the projects. I made a big salad and, at the invitation of some of the projects mothers I knew the best, joined in one of them, grateful that I had a place that would welcome me for the much needed communal ritual.