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Lorraine Devon Wilke Headshot

The Night They Burned My City Down: Remembering the L.A. Riots

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April 29, 1992, the first time in my life I'd experienced a sense of true anarchy and danger. To a girl from a Midwest farm town who had lived a protected existence even in the feistier environs of Los Angeles, this was a stunning turn. As my husband and I watched the advancing columns of smoke as the marauders shifted from points south toward Hollywood and beyond -- burning, looting and killing along the way -- it became cold-water clear that we were in the crosshairs and there was no one to call.

Feeling particularly vulnerable at 9 months pregnant, I looked at my husband with trepidation and said, "We live in a Hollywood Hills Tudor -- albeit a shabby one -- and they won't know we're renters!" Word had spread that the plan was to "Molotov" homes of "rich white people," and while we qualified for two out of those three defining features, it was unlikely that distinction would be made for our very modest bank balance. My husband pulled his old hunting rifle down from the garage shelf, the only gun in our possession, and we kept vigil at the windows while neighbors stood watch over the only street into our little cul-de-sac. We survived that night and it was days later that we discovered they'd burned within just blocks of our neighborhood.

As someone with my own tale of police brutality (Loudly Against the Language of Racism), I'd felt particular pangs while watching the infamous George Holliday video of Rodney King's beating and, subsequently, paid close attention, emotionally invested in the trial outcome. It was impossible to believe the four accused cops would not be convicted of at least some charge of brutality, and the justice being called for felt valid and assured. When the verdict came in and it was announced that all four defendants had been exonerated without charge, my husband and I looked at each other, stunned, and acknowledged: "This is not going to be good." And it wasn't.

The tipping point was palpable, no doubt similar to the one felt prior to the Watts Riots of 1965, arrived via a ramp-up of many rough years. Los Angeles had endured a particularly corrupt era of policing during the '80s, one that would metastasize over two decades to explode into what became known as the Rampart Scandal in 1997. But until they named it, until it was on the radar, it was Police Gone Wild: racial harassment, illegal arrests, false accusations, trumped up evidence, and vicious beatings that were not caught by any camera. The subsequent rage was deep but it was mitigated by the fear of crushing consequences, the knowledge that, regardless of truth, these rogue cops, powerful and entrenched in the systemic corruption of the department at the time, would have no compunction about destroying lives to get a collar. While certainly there were many good, honest cops in that mix, they, apparently, weren't the ones patrolling the mean streets... that nefarious gang ran things like it was the Dark Ages.

So imagine the vindication when some hapless videographer actually caught an incident that mirrored what so many had experienced with no one watching! It ripped both the lid and the scab off and response from the beleaguered inner city communities most impacted was loud, as was the outrage from those horrified by this exposé of blatant corruption and violence. As shocking as that video was, it paradoxically incited some hope, hope that for once the justice system would look beyond race and rap sheets to see the immorality of the act and judge accordingly. But that didn't happen... and all hell broke lose.

After the verdict, we watched, in real time, as white trucker Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten mercilessly. I screamed at the TV, "Where the _____ are the cops??!" while wild-eyed thugs almost killed a man on live TV. Good Samaritans saved Denny's life, as well as those of several others caught in the melee, but the cops seemed to have disappeared in those first incendiary hours. It was mayhem and it spread like wildfire.

We were lucky to get through that night unscathed, unlike countless others, and while the worst of it occurred in the first three days, the official "riot schedule" ran for six. Once the authorities found their footing (balls?), curfews were set and fiercely enforced. I remember being terrified that I would go into labor at some unwieldy post-curfew hour and find myself handcuffed along the freeway while hightailing it to a hospital across town!

Much debate followed about why, how and what to call it. Some stuck with "riots," others demanded the more redemptive "civil unrest"; I waffled between the two. There was no denying the racial component of what had happened, but the riots were hardly reserved for righteous anger. There was far too much footage of people of every race and color grinning at the cameras as they looted stores with bold-faced impunity, shopping carts en tow to transport their loads of ill-gotten goods. The larger message of necessary reform and the rejection of racism was abundantly pertinent, but so was the rage felt for the, mostly, young men in wolf-packs responsible for the deaths of 52 people and massive damage to innocent shopkeepers, home owners and commercial districts. It was excused by many as an unavoidable response to bottled-up anger, an inevitable reaction to long-running social ills, but while this was true for some, the enormity of the destruction muddied the message: Over one billion dollars of property damage, over 2,500 injuries, some severe, and, most egregiously, 52 people lost their lives.

Interestingly, the incessant media coverage allowed us to witness both the best and worst of those involved, the most compelling contrast found between Damian "Football" Williams and his sociopathic beating of Reginald Denny, juxtaposed against Denny's noble rescuer, Bobby Green, Jr., who hoisted the critically wounded man into his truck and rushed him to the hospital through burning streets and danger to himself. Both men of color, Williams and Green, they embodied the deeply conflicted feelings that permeated the event.

I woke up the morning it was all over and looked down at my smoking city and, in that moment, felt such a loss of common purpose and any hope for acceptance and coexistence amongst our diverse population. The city awoke, too, relieved to be alive but with every bone battered and broken. Civil unrest still seems never too far from the radar of this city, but hope did recover and remains. Hope that we have more compassion for each other, hope that our police department has excised its bad apples; hope that we can do better.

We've found unexpected outlets for our anger (can you imagine if Twitter and Facebook had been around at the time?!), we have effective forums and legal recourse in which to properly expose corruption and discrimination, and, mostly, we've come to a sharp, unvarnished awareness that turning a blind eye to any injustice will surely destroy our vision.

Additional resources: LA Weekly's Then & Now: Images from the Same Spot as the LA Riots, 20 Years Later, which offers details and compelling comparative photos of neighborhoods and places, then and now, and Wikipedia's 1992 Los Angeles Riots page, which does a good job of laying out the timeline.

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