Wednesday, April 29, 2009

20 Days in the City of Angels: The 12th Day (Getting Along)

Reginald Denny and his attacker

Certainly the city of Los Angeles and its hundreds of suburban communities were aware of the April 1992 trials, held in the outlying community of Simi Valley, concerning the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of beating Rodney King on March 3, 1991. We had all watched the tapes, played over and over in the public media, of King's 1991 beating, and almost everyone I knew was outraged by the police brutality. Although the police and their lawyers declared that King was violent, resisting arrest, and insisted that not everything occurred as it seemed on George Holliday's amateur camcorder, we felt it represented a truth that was hard to erase. Both the tape and pictures of King after the incident testified to the outrageous anger of the police.

It came as somewhat a shock, accordingly, when on the afternoon of April 29th, 17 years ago from today, the jury decision came down at 3:15, acquitting all four officers of assault and acquitting three of the four of using excessive force.

That night, however, was something that few of us could have imagined. It began at about a quarter of seven as many in the city were watching the evening news. At the corner of Florence and South Normandie Avenues in South Central Los Angeles, crowds had been gathering for some time. Suddenly they attacked a stopped truck, dragging its white driver, Reginald Denny, from the vehicle, beating him, culminating in someone throwing a concrete fragment at his head as he lay unconscious in the street. News helicopters hovered over the entire scene, and dinnertime watchers were forced to witness not only the beating but the horrible whoop and dance of derision by one of Denny's attackers. Police stayed back from the scene, and Denny was saved only by an African-American, Bobby Green, Jr., who, watching the scene on television, rushed to the location and drove Denny, in his own truck, to the hospital.

Other beatings followed, including a local construction worker, Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant who was pulled from his truck and robbed of almost $2,000 while Damian Williams slammed a stereo into Lopez's head and another rioter tried to slice off his ear. Upon losing consciousness, Lopez was spray-painted by members to the crowd across his chest, torso, and genitals.

The terrifying savagery of these events, witnessed by millions of viewers, horrified the city. Within about an hour and a half, the entire area near Florence and Normandie had been looted and burned, and rioters began moving into other neighborhoods, torching cars, beating drivers, looting stores, and burning homes and offices; even a Black bookstore was destroyed. Protestors at the police headquarters, Parker Center, began to throw rocks at the entryway to the building. Responding firefighters throughout the city were met with rocks and gun-fire. Some flights at Los Angeles International Airport were cancelled or diverted. The police seemed to have disappeared as a mad and frenzied lawlessness had exploded into the streets.

By the morning of April 30th Los Angeles mayor, Tom Bradley, declared a state of emergency and California Governor Pete Wilson activated the National Guard.

That same morning, I received a call from my shipper, Reggie Jones, a Black man who lived in South Central. In a hurried and near-breathless tone he recounted the horrors of the night, how numerous homes near where he and his family lived had burned to the ground, how intense the noise had been, and how he had spent much of the night attempting to put out local fires which the Fire Department were unable to reach. "I feel like I'm sort of reporter calling in from the warzone of some foreign country," he gasped.

"Reggie," I think it may be safer if you don't try to come in today, particularly since you do it on bicycle." He agreed, but by about noon, Reggie arrived, almost out of breath.

"I just couldn't stay there anymore. It was just too difficult to remain," he explained.
At 12:15 Bradley announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and Reggie and I began talking about possibly closing the office—located on one of the major thoroughfares of Los Angeles, Wilshire Boulevard—early. Soon after, I received a call from my companion, Howard, who reported that the museum had suggested its employees leave for the day. As he crossed the street to go home, he'd encountered a long line of cars and trucks, each filled with shouting beings, armed with long sticks and guns. I ran to the porch of my office and saw the procession moving toward us.

Together, Reggie and I watched as they jumped from the cars, vandalizing and looting the May Company department store (now part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), located a block from the Sun & Moon offices. Again, there were no police in sight.

I quickly demanded that Reggie come inside with me, locking the doors. As the angry procession passed us without incident, I told him we should both leave while we could. He agreed, but was determined to stay a bit longer, hinting that he had nowhere else to go. As I left, I told him to keep the doors locked.

I quickly walked home, looking back only to see the violent revelers attacking a small shopping mall just west of me. We later heard that the cars and rioters had been turned back at the edge of Beverly Hills, a few blocks further west. The police there were evidently not intimidated. But the gang, in turning, attached a sports shop, loading up, so I heard, with guns and other weapons. Fifty-three people died over the six days of the riot.

At home everything was eerily quiet, but as I sat watching the television set in horror, I suddenly told Howard that I was afraid that Reggie left without locking the door. He had forgotten the keys to the building before, and there was every reason that he might have forgotten today.

Howard and I began to drive toward the office using the back way, taking Eighth Street instead of Wilshire. Not a soul was in sight. But suddenly out of nowhere a car came racing toward us, almost forcing us to take to the sidewalk, the driver and passengers screaming obscenities to us as they passed.

The building was wide open. I quickly locked it and returned to the car, and we rushed back home again.

As the sun begin its slow set, the television helicopters revealed hundreds of fires throughout the city. At times it looked as if the entire metropolis was ablaze, and we could see the sky over our courtyard lit up with yellow and orange flames. Curls of paperous ash fell to our balconies and walkways. Yet a few minutes later, it seemed that every child in our building was in the pool, which our windows overlook. "Why are all the children suddenly swimming?" asked Howard.
"I think their parents were probably afraid of their watching any more television, and sent them out so they could play."

"That seems reasonable," Howard answered. But as we turned our eyes from the flaming city upon the television set to the screaming and shouting children frolicking in those blue waters the scene seemed surreal, as if somehow all those in our building could not comprehend the severity of the situation.

Finally, as darkness prevailed, and the children returned to their apartments, a strange quiet overcame everything as we listened to the newscasters softly echoing their dismay from nearly all the units of our condominium building.

By the morning of May 1st, the National Guard units had reached the size of 4,000, moving throughout the city in Humvees. Rodney King appeared on television, asking his simple, but profound question that would haunt the city for years: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"

Reggie called in, reporting that he and his girlfriend had spent much of the night helping to fight fires in our neighborhood, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's warehouse, near Pico Avenue.

Although no one could condone the acts going on about us, many of us also recognized the extreme bigotry of the community. While Los Angeles is always proud to boast that it is one of the most diverse places on earth, we also know that the layout of the city is a jigsaw puzzle of segregation, with the Hispanics clustered in the East, Blacks restricted to South Central, with vast areas to the West and North of these communities of Central Los Angeles populated by Japanese and, particularly, Korean immigrants. Hundreds of small Koreatown stores and shops had been hit by the virulent wave of riots, and Asians were particularly outraged by the absence of the police to protect their "American Dreams."

Despite a black out in areas that had been hardest hit, the night of May 1st was calmer. Sports games and other events had been cancelled. Public figures began to speak out, some, like Bill Cosby, attempting to alleviate the hostilities, others like George H. W. Bush, seemingly stirring them up by denouncing what he described as "random terror and lawlessness." Still other figures attempted to explain the African-American anger and resentment, pent up for years after the 1965 Watts Riots.

In some respects, all who spoke were right. The actions of the rioters were ugly and violent, and demonstrated some of the terrors we might expect when the city is hit by a strong earthquake—which will inevitably happen. But the police, long profiling individuals from the Black and Hispanic communities, needed to change their behavior and attitudes. It's hard to know whether those changes were ever thoroughly effected, even though Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates, lost his job because of police irresponsibility and inaction.

At the time, I attempted to put down some of my feelings and reactions in a letter I sent to a few friends, most notably Lyn Hejinian. Lyn seemed a little overwhelmed by what she read; I think she thought I had been a bit melodramatic. But even now, as I relive those awful few days, my eyes begin to tear.

Order was finally restored on the fifth day, and the curfew lifted on Monday, May 4th.
Can we all get along? Some weeks it appears that we have wonderfully achieved that goal, but at other times it seems we still have a long ways to go. But the answer is "yes," if only we seriously try.

Los Angeles, April 29, 2009

Describing this planned essay to my dear friend, poet Will Alexander, he noted that he experienced both the Watts Riot and the Rodney King Riot at "ground zero," and suggested the he also planned to write about his experiences. I strongly encouraged him to do so. We need a large number of recountings of those events, I argued, if we are to release ourselves from the hateful past these events represent and remind ourselves of the changes still necessary to bring this vast, disparate community of Los Angeles into a caring and shared future.

Los Angeles, April 20, 2009

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