Sunday, April 29, 2012

Civil Unrest

I remember exactly what I was doing twenty years ago today. It was a Wednesday. I had spent the day grading papers. I was teaching Freshman Writing at the University of Southern California, and we did this group grading thing to help ensure that grading across the sections was equitable. Our group finished at about 3:45. I needed to have a prescription filled, so I went to the student health center where I overheard two African American women saying that they couldn't believe they had gotten off. Even with no context, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Anyone in Los Angeles would have. We had all been thinking about it. Waiting. Expecting the opposite.

I took the shuttle back to my dorm in downtown. LA's downtown at that time was mostly a place where no one lived. There were very few places to eat. Almost none were open for dinner. When the business people went home, the sidewalks rolled up. It didn't matter to me; that was one of the nights the dorm served dinner. (It was an unusual graduate student living experiment; communal dinner was only served a few nights a week.) I ate and went back to my room to calculate final grades that were supposed to be turned in before Friday. It was warm in my room. I opened the window. Weird...I smelled smoke.

Later I noticed I had a message. My sister: "I just wanted to make sure you were safe. Call me." I called the dude (we had been dating for just about three months and he lived two floors up). He didn't know anything. I went to my next door neighbor, who had a television. The city was on fire. At least that explained the smoke.

Thursday was another bright and sunny day in Los Angeles. Classes were over, and so a group of people who lived in the dorm went out for lunch. We went to Hamburger Hamlet. Normally it would have been a huge wait behind long lines of businessmen. That day, we were seated right away. We lingered over lunch. Finally, the manager came over, "When you leave, we're closing and sending everyone home." We could take a hint; we left. On the walk back to our dorm we noticed handwritten signs in all kinds of businesses. Places were closing early. I was on the phone with my parents when I noticed the Lady Footlocker next door being looted. That night, no dorm dinner. Fortunately for us, The Pantry has never closed. (Not even for the unrest.) A few friends called me and offered to come take me away from downtown. But in the end, the places they lived (Santa Monica and Pasadena) would not escape unscathed. That night the rioting continued.

On Friday, Rodney King asked if we could all get along. Those of us who remained--loads of people had gone home--were in lock down. USC's administration sent food for us. And the R.As had a series of movies for entertainment (which is why I will always associate When Harry Met Sally with the riots). USC put forth a policy for the outlying dorms: they told us to pack a bag and be prepared to evacuate to campus. Those of you who know USC will perhaps find that counterintuitive, bringing us into South Central for the emergency. But USC had (has?) the only riot trained campus police in the country.  More security officers who were licensed to carry were sent to our dorm. On Friday night, I moved to the dude's room because my room faced the street. I remember listening to the helicopters and asking if he thought this was what it was like to be in a war. (Perhaps, in retrospect, a bit overwrought.)

On Saturday, the Marines came. The President had promised a federal investigation. There was a Peace Rally. It was strange, but you could feel that there was a change in the air, and to me, it seemed not to come from the Marines or the President, but from the Angelenos themselves. On Sunday people started cleaning up. It wasn't over, but it was.

Twenty years ago today.


  1. I remember the verdict and wondering if the jury had seen the same video I had. Your story gave me the chills.

  2. Quite the experience you lived through.

  3. What memories! Being "a bit overwrought" is perfectly understandable in that situation. Usually we hear stories about natural disasters putting an area in the path of destruction. To me, it seems so much scarier when the disaster is man-made. Thanks for telling us your story.

  4. Anonymous8:45 PM

    "a bit overwrought"? I think not.

    That week I was driving with a friend from Texas with his car, we took back roads and we took our time. The first day of the riots we were singing son gs on the radio, drinking soda, stopping at bbq joints for lunch and dinner and it wasn't until we got to the hotel and saw the news that we knew anything was going on. It was like a whole different world.

    The next few days we listened to the radio and everything seemed so much more serious even though we were half a country away.

    Thanks for sharing your memories.

  5. NOt many can say they lived thru a well-known piece of our history, Most of us were on the "fringes", just listening to the news, etc.


  6. I was working in Manhattan and my boss closed the office early because there was concern about copycat rioting in NYC. A bunch of us went to a bar and sat there for hours watching everything unfold on TV.

  7. Personal memories of events like that are always so interesting. My story isn't so dramatic but this reminds me of being in college in DC when the Million Man March took place in 1995. People were scared there would be violence, looting, etc. so colleges and neighborhoods and businesses buttoned themselves up tight and people stayed indoors. Nothing happened, as it turned out, except for the city being really eerily quiet and empty that day ...

  8. I, a white woman, was living in the San Fernando Valley with my African-American boyfriend and our three year old daughter at the time of the verdict and riots. It was a very tense time. I remember watching in horror as Reginald Denny was pulled from his big rig and beaten on live tv and seeing all of the looting and devastation. We were afraid to go anywhere. It seemed like the whole city was on fire. It's hard to believe that twenty years have passed, the memories are still so vivid.