1992 was a terrible and amazing year in Los Angeles. It was the height of the city’s gang crisis. More then 2000 people were murdered in LA County within 12 months, nearly half of them dead as a result of gang violence — a bloodier tally than we’ve seen before or since. The famous Blood/Crip truce was also forged that year.
And, then, of course, there were the riots, the insurrection, the uprising, whatever you want to call those days at the end of April into May that, like the Watts riots before them, changed how our city saw itself.
Sunday and yesterday, as I read some of the articles and opinion pieces assessing what has and has not changed in the fifteen years between then and now, I found some of my own 15-year-old memories floating to the surface.
The first section that appears below is excerpted from G-Dog and the Homeboys, the book about Father Greg Boyle and the gang members of the Pico Aliso housing projects of East Los Angeles, that I was, then, researching.
Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, until their renovation a few years ago, combined to form thelargest public housing project west of the Mississippi. In the years that I drove to Pico-Aliso daily to research the book, the community known to locals as “the projects” had the highest level of gang activity in Los Angeles—and, frankly, the nation.
When the verdicts were announced, for projects residents—and for me by extension—the possibility of citywide violence was a secondary concern. The primary issue on that day was a murder that had occurred three nights before between two projects gangs. A kid from the Latino gang, The Mob Crew, shot and killed a kid from the East Coast Crips, the Crip set that claimed territory in Aliso Village. It was a particularly cold, near-execution-style murder, and we all feared there would be deadly retaliation on the night of the 29th of April.
But then the city preempted all such micro concerns when it exploded into conflagration. Fifty people died, thousands were injured, and—in an odd weave of blessing and curse—the open wounds caused by the individual gang killing in Pico-Aliso were cauterized by the heat.
The following is my own small shard of the collective LA story of the day our city exploded.
April 29, 1992
At 3:16 KFWB all-news radio announces each one of the verdicts separately: Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. The content of the announcement is momentarily confusing. How can one be found not guilty of something that the whole country saw one do on video? The radio announcer says that there may be unrest.
. However, as I drive toward Dolores Mission…. the likelihood of citywide violence seems a distant concern. Pico/Aliso currently has its own unrest, which feels infinitely more up-close and personal.
At the church, a group of community mothers have gathered with the idea of marching to Parker Center to protest the King verdicts. Instead, I accompany Greg [Boyle] to Kirby Detention Center where he is scheduled to say mass every first Wednesday of the month.
During the mass, kids are more agitated than we have ever seen them. After mass, Greg always visits various “cottages” in order to talk to kids individually. Tonight each cottage has a TV on and, although the kids seem glad to see the priest, they can barely wrench their eyes away from the violent, balletic images which careen across the screen. A news clip of a white man being pulled from a truck and horribly beaten is being replayed over and over, in an eerie reverse image of the tape of the King beating. In the cottages, the Kirby kids are even jumpier than they had been at mass, their bodies twitchy, unable to light anywhere for long.
….We head back toward the projects around 9:00 P.M. As we near Los Angeles, we hit a colossal traffic jam. The sky is bright to the northeast of us and also to the south, and there are veils of smoke. For the first time since the afternoon we turn on the radio and learn what the rest of Los Angeles already knows.
When I finally drop Greg and the two homeboys at the church parking lot, Pico/Aliso is quiet and dark, a seeming haven from the storm that is quickening everywhere else.
I am now fully occupied trying to imagine a safe route home. To my right is Hollywood, where the palm trees are fantastic torches lining the freeway with furious light. To my left is South Central—the epicenter. Using the radio news as a guide, I decide to head west across the First Street bridge, straight through the middle of downtown.
The first sign of trouble is at the New Otani Hotel. Most of the windows have been smashed and there is evidence of fire damage. A few blocks farther is Parker Center, which is protectively surrounded by a shoulder-to-shoulder string of a two hundred police officers all top-heavy with riot helmets.
“Get over to Third Street,” one of the cops yells to me. I take his suggestion, not realizing that the insurrection is a live thing now, which no one can track or predict. Although I see signs of mayhem, at first the Third Street route seems clear. Then, as I round a barricade at the corner of Flower and Third, I run smack into everything I am trying to avoid: As far as my eyes can see, crowds of people—brown, black, many white—race and twirl in zigzag patterns across streets like whole teams of football running backs turned crazy. The sound of glass erupting in a musical clatter repeats from all directions. Gunfire is close but sporadic, the bullets, I think, spent more for effect than for injury. Flames slash angrily from the inside of certain stores and only barely sequin the facades of others. All trash cans have been lit on fire as if every rioter has seen the movie Blade Runner. I weave from street from street, no longer stopping for anything. Everywhere I turn there is madness.
I am not scared when I am in the middle of the downtown craziness. Nor am I scared once I get on the Santa Monica Freeway, nor later on the Pacific Coast Highway, or still later snaking up the curvy road that leads to my rural L.A. canyon. Only when I am actually in my house and with my child again do I allow myself to be scared. It is safe here. My kid is safe here. As safe as safe gets, anyway. Tonight that is all I care about.
For the next forty-eight hours in Los Angeles, everything stops and everything is in motion. However, in Pico/Aliso, there is no rioting, no looting. Although some residents are known to have made forays into other areas of the city, most of the community huddles together like a family riding out a hurricane….
All of us who lived in LA that year, have some piece of the whole within us. It is this collective reality that Ana Deavere Smith captured with her brilliant and indelible one woman play about the riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles.“
The riots started on a Wednesday. On Thursday, I stayed close to home. Then on Friday, I went back to East LA. There was still a curfew, and the violence would continue in shuddering fits for a few more days. But by that night, everyone knew that the fever had broken and spontaneous barbecues bloomed like sudden wildflowers in front yards all over the projects, simply out of relief. I made a big salad and joined in one of them, welcoming the ritual.
I also remember one other incident. It occurred on that first wild and deadly night as I tried to circumvent the violence , and instead ended up running smack into gunfire and the chaos.
I’d braked to a halt at one downtown intersection clogged by running, shooting looters, when my gaze locked with that of a lithe, thirty-ish black man, who was one of the runners.
My eyes were, by then, as big as dinner plates as I struggled to control a rising panic. Yet, in a silent exchange that could have taken no more than a second, the man communicated as clearly as if he’d spoken aloud to me: Keep going, his gaze said. You’re okay. This is not about you.
I did as he instructed. I kept my car moving slowly but insistently through the crowd, around corner after corner, until I was clear.
In the days that followed the storm, like hundreds of others, I joined in the street clean-up in South LA, gathered and brought clothes and food to various churches, and attempted in whatever tiny way I knew how to help my city repair itself.
But for me personally—selfishly maybe—the memory that still comes back in the best and deepest way is of one man’s wordless act of empathy in a flame-studded intersection on April 29, 1992.
I have tried, in the intervening years, to pass along the blessing of his kindness.