Schoolyard on Fire: Coming of Age During the L.A. Riots

Twenty years ago this weekend, a jury acquitted the LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King -- and the city burst into flames. Here's how the inferno changed the world of a teenage boy.

riot.jpgA California National Guardsman stands watch in front of a graffiti-covered wall during the 1992 L.A. Riots. (Lee Celano/Reuters)

On Wednesday, April 29, 1992, I left Emerson Junior High School in West L.A. and took the RTD bus -- colloquially, the Rough, Tough, and Dangerous -- to Fairfax and Wilshire. I walked the two blocks north to the barracks-style community Park La Brea where I lived with my single mother, and, once inside the gates of what I'd begun calling the White Man's Projects, plopped down on the couch and turned on the TV.

Angelenos are used to the odd car chase, mudslide, earthquake, or fire disrupting regularly scheduled broadcasting, so it was with something like ennui that I flipped through the live footage of urban infernos on every channel -- fire, fire, DuckTales, fire, guh. I stared at the helicopter shots in a trance until something slipped the bolt of my attention and I realized I was looking down on the roof my apartment.

I jumped up off the couch shouting with pride, and then with confusion. How disorienting to see the city, the neighborhood I knew down to a molecular level, from this new vantage point. That landscape I'd prowled so often that I would have noticed a new cigarette butt, a different blob of gum, a new tag or sticker, was here somehow changed, shrunken in scale but magnified in importance through the looking glass of the tube.

For the next five hours I watched the stores, malls, and streets where I'd grown up burn to the ground -- and with them the protective walls around my adolescent idyll: the corners where we'd joined Hands Across America were now homicide crime scenes; the area of Koreatown where my mom worked now looked, in the aerial shots from news choppers, like the neighborhoods in Baghdad we'd gotten to know so well the year before. But none of this footage felt far off, abstract, as the Gulf War had. It was personal, the topographic map of my own memories. It was also right around the corner, and the fear came knocking.

And where were the police? In a flash, their circle of protection had vanished like surf on hot sand as they receded to gather around the mansions in Beverly Hills. And the chaos rushed in. After a month of watching Rodney King flayed alive in grainy Hi-8, and now seeing the acid revelations of institutional racism rain down on the LAPD, our faith in them disappeared just as they did.

I now remembered overhearing a man the week before telling a department store clerk that if the verdict came back Not Guilty for the cops charged with beating King, he wasn't going to be anywhere near Los Angeles. As a 14 year old still in the protected garden of innocence, I hadn't been able to grasp the potentialities he was imagining. But here I was watching them in horrific close-up on KCAL 9.

In fact, it may have been the very moment when "Football" Williams smashed the point of a brick into Reginald Denny's temple that I really turned on as a human being. Before, I'd been nodding in Nintendo-induced apathy, having only seen war on CNN; now, suddenly, we were in the shit. Immediately I wished I hadn't only dozed while my parents, the former flower children, bemoaned the consolidation of wealth under Reagan and then Bush Sr., or blinked, yawning as the pundits railed against the disenfranchisement of the inner cities. With a wince I regretted longing, albeit abstractly, for my own cause, for my generation's Vietnam, a rallying call, as I watched my city burning in slow-mo shots of a man's brains spilling onto Normandie Boulevard.

That night the jewelry store across the street from our apartment was looted. Fires raged and, in the cacophony of car alarms and sirens, we didn't hear the sound of the gunshot that wedged a slug in our brick wall. In the morning my mom packed me off to my friend Mike's house near Century City for the duration. Classes were cancelled citywide and, instead of whiling away the afternoons listening to Del, Guns 'n' Roses, or The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Mike and I watched storeowners prowling their rooftops, doing gun battle with looters in the street. Instead of tromping through the back yards of his neighborhood or sneaking into the pool at the Century Plaza, we wondered what was valuable enough to kill or risk being killed for.

***

While the notoriously segregated and ever-dangerous playground of Los Angeles degraded into trench warfare, our public schools mirrored it in microcosm. My own sun-dappled Neutra-designed homeroom was rife with anxiety -- racial and otherwise -- and more and more cliques were cohering along ethnic lines.

A recent census broke down the school's current population as 54% Hispanic, 22% black, 17% white (including a sizeable Iranian community), and 5% Asian, which is roughly how I remember it. And throughout my time there, Ralph Waldo Emerson junior high made claim, perhaps apocryphally, to a tradition called the Royal Rumble. Legend had it that, at the end of spring semester every year, the 9th graders would gather in our cement-bound playground and fight until, if not the death, at least the very bloody. There were tales of bats, chains, shanks, and brass knuckles -- tales that make Hunger Games look like a Pixar movie. And implicit in every tween Homer's retelling of them was the racial concession: the unspoken acknowledgement that, during the rumble, bands of rioters would align with like-skinned classmates to wage war against all others.

Presented by

Christopher Wallace

Chris Wallace is a writer and editor in New York. 

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