LOS ANGELES – Traveling north on Western Avenue, the black smoke from Florence and Normandie rising a few blocks behind me, my VW Bug was lost amid a sea of automobiles. I’d never seen Western so filled with people, dashing across streets, running down sidewalks.
A dozen or so angry black men, eyes fixed in a daze, stood lined on the street and the sidewalk, baseball bats in their hands. One propped his weapon on his shoulder, bent down and peered into my window. I lowered my black face to the passenger window and raised a clenched fist. He backed away and went to the car behind me.
A sign of relief. I was black. I had survived.
Maybe someone on that street would not this night.
It was April 29, 1992 when a predominately white, Simi Valley jury acquitted four white L.A. police officers of viciously beating black motorist Rodney King, igniting a fierce uprising that left more than 50 dead, some 2,000 injured and nearly $1 billion in property damage. Over five tense days, the city was ablaze in protest and chaos, leading many to wonder when would it end – and how.
I understood the anger, the frustration, the sense of despair. I was angry too – but I was a reporter, a spectator. It was my job to interpret the reaction to the verdicts. I didn’t have to ponder much.
“People are mad, baby,” a black woman at Florence and Normandie told me.
People are mad. It was as simple as that.
Making matters worse, Los Angeles was enduring one of its worst heat waves, a subtle mockery of the way people felt. The humidity was high and temperatures were over 100 degrees, a rarity here in L.A. The fiery heat of the setting sun made me dizzy and sapped my strength. I was in a miserable, anxious, surreal existence I found hard to believe.
Many protesters, though, walked around about like the scorching weather didn’t matter, driven by a sudden, mysterious rush. We had been tucked away in our homes, cooling off in front of our air conditioners as the Rodney King trial unfolded on Channel 11. But that was old news. The trial had ended. The thing to do now was hit the streets.
Everywhere, somber looks and makeshift signs hung in residential and business windows. “Where’s the justice?” Car horns blared. Raised fists protruded out of car windows. It seemed everybody was outside standing on their lawns or on the highways. It looked like the whole city was awake and moving about.
I wasn’t supposed to be here. My editor had assigned me to cover the big rally scheduled at First AME Church. The event was supposed to be a celebration since practically everyone expected convictions. Event organizer Kerman Maddox said the “not guilty” verdicts shocked everyone. All that afternoon, First AME officials and Mayor Tom Bradley’s office shifted to deal with a new, more somber reality.
I didn’t want to delay coverage of the First AME event, but someone had to go to Florence and Normandie. Not that I wanted to be that person. It wasn’t clear what was going on, or who was being beaten. Or why. I lived about a mile away off Florence and Van Ness. I grew up about a mile north at 58th and Normandie. I had to find out what was happening in my neighborhood.
Tossing aside my fears, I jumped in my Volkswagen and raced through the streets toward Florence and Normandie. Parking a few blocks away at 74th and Brighton, I jumped out of my car and rushed down the residential block toward the intersection. I jotted in my notebook, “Trim lawns. Neat stucco houses.” Mostly women and children were gathered in the front yards.
I found the men down on Florence staring at the mostly young men zig-zagging past burning cars in the street. I watched one of the young men run out of the crowd and spray paint “F— police” on a white picket fence.
“People are mad, baby.”
Amid this drama, I had to figure out who and what were being attacked and why. The police were sure to be targets, but they were nowhere in sight. I hadn’t seen one police officer the whole two hours since I left my job at the Wave Newspapers to interview people at Florence and Normandie. I hadn’t seen one police car under siege. Not one police car on the streets. Not one. I was sure they were somewhere mobilizing and calling in reinforcements.
Protesters started passing the word that the police were parked in a convoy down the street. I expected them to roll in any minute. I left after a man with a shotgun walked past me. I helped a mother race her little boy out of potential crossfire and headed back to my car.
About 8 p.m., I drove north on Western, intending to go to First AME. That’s when I ran into the black men with baseball bats, suddenly realizing that the rioting and unrest were not confined to one area, as the 1965 Watts riots largely had been. The rustlings of anger and protest I saw on the way to Florence and Normandie had shot to another level. Turning right on Slauson, past a swap meet with flames flaring up, filling the gray dusk with black plumes, I went to my old neighborhood on 58th Place.
Surely, my editor would understand why I did not go to First AME.
I’d kept in contact with a childhood friend, Elaine Crawford, and decided to take refuge at her house. I spent most of the evening sitting on my friend’s porch, listening to radio reports as they played out on the streets all around us. I went inside occasionally to watch the newscasts.
“South Central is on fire!”
“Snipers are firing at firefighters!”
“Police are in retreat!”
“A state of emergency has been declared.”
It was eerie that night – helicopters, gunshots, shrieking voices, billowing smoke, high-flying embers and flames licking the sky. I felt closed in, trapped in hell, not knowing if I would perish in a furnace.
“Did you ever think our neighborhood would look like this?” I asked Elaine as flames taller than skyscrapers burned all around us.
“Not in my lifetime,” she said sadly, cradling her newborn son.
Dozens of lives lost, some 2,000 injured, almost $1 billion in damages, a city nearly leveled to the ground – not in some foreign country, but in my backyard. Traveling home about midnight, I saw building after building burning to the ground, passing through walls of fire on either side.
The LAPD verdict revived some of my deepest pain; personal experiences I tried to forgive and forget in the name of progress. I didn’t protest in the streets that April in 1992, but I understood why it happened. It was the threat to our security, to our future, to all we had worked for. Rodney King could have been any one of us, or even worse, one of our sons.
I wasn’t supposed to release my feelings. I wasn’t supposed to let my mind wander, but how could I avoid it? This was like a bomb dropping on my front porch. This was my story. This was my problem. This was happening to me.
Naomi Bradley is a L.A.-based freelance writer who was a reporter at The Wave from 1990-1992. She covered the L.A. riots for The Wave and later worked on the PBS Frontline documentary, “L.A. is Burning,” about the city’s uprising.