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.
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.
Few of us had classmates we'd known from the first grade. A huge number of us were bussed in and, to quote Tupac, when these kids were growing up rough, that's not even what you called it. Shouldering their way into the Lord of the Flies hierarchy of the student body, some were forced to form alliances with, shall we say, fraternal organizations. Our bullies didn't want your milk money, they were bustin' caps for their set -- XVIII Street Crazies, West Side Locos, and other fan favorites were well represented.
At the best of times, the gangbangers on campus were like roving jokers, ready to unleash chaos -- at the worst, ticking time bombs you ran from first and asked questions about later. Though we loved them, the vaguely affiliated tough black girls who had "Poison" airbrushed on their overall shorts (one strap undone) wouldn't tolerate li'l white boys. Not even the security guards would tell the face-tatted vatos in creased khakis and wife-beaters to get to class. And already on edge, after the video of a Korean liquor storeowner executing Latasha Harlins at point blank range went public, Asians throughout the city, and certainly at school, were forced to bond together and radicalize to protect themselves from blowback.
About a week after the National Guard trucked in and shut down the city, effectively ending the looting, we went back to classes, but the school was on lock down. Even if the Rumble had been a yearly occurrence, in the present climate it was not to be. But still the student body roiled. For some never-explained reason, two of my tagging buddies -- one black, one Hispanic -- suddenly turned on me and, instead of confronting me themselves, organized, through a circuitous series of maneuvers, for me to fight a (black) patsy.
On the appointed day, we met, as they did in the movies, at 3 o'clock in the parking lot of the Catholic school adjacent to ours. The dusty musk of eucalyptus in spring had finally replaced the dingy ash in the air. A circle of backpacked fight fans ran round us as we, the combatants, stepped forward, slightly more nervous than the others, and did our best to harm one another. When we collided and went to the ground together, wrestling like the gangly kids we were, the two frenemies descended on us with kicks and 'bows. Joseph Campbell will tell you that indigenous peoples, like gangs, have violent initiation rituals to invite a child into manhood. But this was not a welcoming party.
My friends in the peanut gallery did nothing to stop the pile on, so outnumbered as I was, I ran. In a world more conscious of appearances than Pitti Uomo, this was a disgrace, and the few remaining school days were excruciating. I lay low; I quit tagging and hardly ever skated. I did my best to hide from the turncoat friend who was hardening, hanging with his gangbanger buddies, and just looking for a reason. The bottom had been tested, and it had, without providing much resistance, fallen out. I now knew that my friends could turn on me like the wind, the city could go up like a tinderbox, and there was nothing and no one who would stop it.
Then, a month later, about the same time I was trying out for the high school football team, uncovering the first real passion to give my life shape and meaning, my former friend, the flip-flopping ringleader of the fight, was fingered for an attempted manslaughter. Instead of high school he went to prison for 9 years.
"The center was not holding," Joan Didion wrote a few decades earlier, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring.... The market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job.
For some, the riots proved a galvanizing moment, opening a portal to a personal future -- it was Tupac's direct response to them that made him the voice of our generation. Others' soul searching, hand-wringing, and ditching the blame on random doorsteps resulted only in pastiche -- 20 years of cop dramas (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, the insultingly awful Crash, and Rampart) have done less to correct LAPD corruption than turn it into a cinema subgenre. But for the rest of us, April 29 was the day the world revealed itself.
And what have we learned? Twenty years ago we would have thought it far-fetched that we'd have a black man in the White House and a Latina in the Supreme Court. But during the past month of race baiting in the media around Trayvon Martin's murder, you would think we were hell-bent to go back to 1992. You might have even heard someone saying, affecting irony, that they didn't want to be around if a jury acquitted George Zimmerman.
Every time I go past my childhood home, I remember when the city was on fire. I still see the ghostly flicker of the rage and violence that surged right up to our doorstep, to the very corner where Tommy Lee Jones turned back the terrible lava flow in Volcano, and where, a couple years later, it would return in the form of hot lead to pepper the body of another Christopher Wallace.
Whether it was the one we wanted, the one we needed, or the one we asked for, that Wednesday, April 29, 1992, our generation got its wake up call. Whether we've responded in kind, squandered the opportunity, or sunk ever deeper into our own lethargy in the 20 years since will be decided by what we do next.