‘I had a gun pulled on me’: What it was like covering the LA riots of 1992

Interview: Reporter threatened with gun minutes away from city’s international airport

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 04 May 2020 01:40 BST
News footage shows 1992's LA riots as Los Angeles marks 28th anniversary

John Lichfield did not have to go far to discover a page one story.

Dispatched by The Independent from Washington DC to cover the growing violence in Los Angeles sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who had savagely beaten a black motorist, he soon found himself in neighbourhoods seething with anger. Along with a photographer and her boyfriend, Lichfield began driving down streets dotted by petrol stations and shops ablaze.

Several black residents warned him and his colleagues, who were also white, that they were not safe and should turn around.

“It was surreal scenes, driving down those big, wide Los Angeles boulevards and avenues, and traffic moving normally and then stopping at traffic lights,” he says.

“And then you come across a supermarket that was on fire or a petrol station on fire, and people were just driving past. There was a certain amount of looting and rioting going on…As you got further into the neighbourhood, various people sort of wound down their windows next to me and said you shouldn’t be here.”

On the city’s Manchester Boulevard - Lichfield was born in the UK city which is one of the reasons he remembers the location - the journalists were stopped when he heard a knock on the car window right alongside him. There was a young man armed with a gun, pointing the weapon at his head and indicating he should wind down the window.

“He wanted us to get out and, you know, there were all sorts of thoughts crossing your head at that moment. But if we got out of the car, there wasn't much chance for us. So I sort of shook my head and refused.”

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Lichfield, now aged 70 and long based in France where he continues to work as a journalist, says the young man then smashed the window with the heel of the pistol, and in panic he drove off, hitting the car in front but somehow managing to avoid other traffic.

“The other cars must have seen what was was going on and they all pulled out of the way and I drove off and he didn’t shoot me. He didn’t shoot at the car.”

Lichfield, who had previously written about social justice, civil rights and the African American community in Washington DC and Chicago, likened the anger and outrage he and others witnessed to that on display during the Paris riots of 2005, when disenfranchised and marginalised residents of the outer suburbs took to the streets for three weeks of violence and destruction.

There he reported on young people, mainly of North African descent, setting fire to cars and public buildings.

“It was very hit and run, and of groups of kids showing off to each other by attacking targets and so on,” he says. “That reminded me very much of the LA riots, but with one big difference - there were no guns in Paris.”

Lichfield says during the week he spent in Los Angeles working with other Independent journalists, including Phil Reeves, he spoke to countless residents who outlined how the anger had built over years with black residents forced to live in squalor and deprivation. To this day, Los Angeles includes some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the nation.

Over the course of several days of rioting, only ended by the dispatch of the National Guard, at least 63 people were killed. The cost of the damage caused by the violence was estimated at $1bn.

“A sort of pressure cooker had to go off at some point. And that was brought about by the by very unfair [acquittal] of the police officers.”

Lichfield says he returned to Los Angeles several times though was not able to find the precise location where the gun was pulled on him. He never met the young man carrying the weapon.

“In all my long career in journalism that was the first time and and only time I've ever been in a situation like that, where I was threatened by a gun.”

Lichfield says he had technically been dispatched to Los Angles by the Independent on Sunday. Yet he realised his first-hand insight into the hopelessness and anger that was fuelling the riots could not be sat on. He filed it for the daily paper which promptly put it on the next day’s front page under the headline “For some reason the boy did not shoot me”.

“The [Sunday foreign editor] was furious that I did it for the daily,” says Lichfield. “But you could not sit on something like that for three or four days.”

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