Twenty years ago, I was living in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles, in a cozy little town called Claremont, when a jury acquitted the four police officers who had beaten Rodney King. I didn't live far away; in my mind I lived next door, and I felt it like it was my home that was burning in the riots that followed. But I might as well have lived far away. I went to work; I went home; I shopped at the mall. I looked at what I could do, and said to myself that I still had a job to do, and so I did what people do when they feel like they want to help but they don't want to interrupt their lives much: I wrote a couple checks, to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army or someone, and to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. A few weeks later we drove through Koreatown, and there were plenty of burned out buildings, and we gawked like tourists.
So, practically, I wasn't very affected by the LA riots, and I don't have anything much to say that other people can't say better, or with more authority, or insight. But I remember it as a time when I woke up a little bit, and I grew up a little bit, and maybe those events exerted a little gravitational pull that has helped set me on my current course.
I am thinking about a couple things, though, this twenty years later. One is that what sparked the riots then seems so commonplace today. Maybe that isn't anything other than me having woken up a little more since then. But video surfaces of police beating the crap out of an unarmed civilian, and it doesn't lead the evening news every night the way it did then, and it doesn't lead to commissions or prosecutions or much in the way of general outrage. It's just the way we expect things to be.
The terrific KCRW radio program "Which Way LA," which began in response to the riots, spent this week reflecting on what happened then and what has happened since. The first show in the series looked at the LAPD then and now. The whole thing is worth listening, to, but the first ten minutes or so, in particular, are striking: how the pre-riot police department that’s described, and the actions that helped create the conditions for the riots, resemble the police department we have in New York today.
The second thing I'm thinking about is a column by Meg Greenfield, the former editor of the Washington Post, about the attacks on Reginald Denny - Denny was a truck driver who had the misfortune to be at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central on that afternoon, and was pulled from his truck and beaten by rioters while news crews watched from helicopters and the police failed to arrive.
Greenfield's column is about four individuals who left what they were doing and traveled to Florence and Normandie to rescue Reginald Denny. They almost certainly saved his life. They each had their own motivations, but what unites them, she says, is that they ignored all the reasons not to go help. Maybe the column is sentimental hogwash, I don't know. At the time it offered some possibility of faith in humanity, I suppose, which is not nothing. Today, for me, it maybe points to a way forward that doesn't involve burning down the police precinct.
That's really all I have. It was a sad time. Looking back, and listening to Warren Olney's radio program, makes me think about who I was and where I was then, and the life I lived, and all the lives not lived.