LA riots: How The Independent covered the events on this day in history

Surreal scenes and seething anger after acquittal of four white officers who beat black motorist

Monday 04 May 2020 01:41 BST
News footage shows 1992's LA riots as Los Angeles marks 28th anniversary

[This article was originally published by The Independent on 4 May, 1992. The author was John Lichfield.]

He was about 15 years old. A good-looking black boy in a blue woollen hat, He had jumped out of a yellow Cadillac next to my rental car at a traffic light. Now he was standing at my window pointing a shiny, new-looking revolver at my head. “Open the door,” he said.

The car radio had just announced: “It’s a bright, breezy day in Los Angeles, apart from the smoke drifting over the Hollywood Hills.”

I mumbled the first foolish thing that came into my mind. “I can’t open the door.”

This was Manchester Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in the epicentre of the riots. On every second corner a building burned. But the cars were still stopping for red lights. We were hopelessly boxed In. All over town white motorists were being dragged from cars and beaten or shot.

The boy, looking puzzled and scared, smashed the window with the gun butt, covering me in glass splinters. My companions shouted “Get out of here”, which is exactly what you should not do when a scared child points a gun at your head.

I pressed the accelerator and rammed the car in front, turned the wheel and, bumping another car, jerked forward into the oncoming traffic. For some reason – nerves, surprise, he was only kidding? – the boy did not shoot me. We ran through the first red light, then another. The yellow Cadillac gave chase.

Racing through the red lights I was thinking (insanely) “I hope there are no police cart around”. My companions were more practical, saying. “Look for a police car”. We did, and it escorted us between burning strip malls to the freeway.

South-Central LA ls the heart of the inner-city black community, the place where the worst US urban riots in 20 years began on Wednesday. By late Thursday night the looting and fire-bombing and random shooting had spread scattered, senseless, self-destructive violence and opportunistic pillaging across the immense LA conurbation. Many friendly black people, concerned for our safety, warned us to leave the area.

“You’re never going down Crenshaw,” said a large lady, leaning out of her car door. Five hundred yards later a bottle was thrown at our car and we retreated.

It is easy to be misled into a sense of security. This is a desperately poor and desperately violent area. But the streets are broad and tree-lined and the bungalows well kept. Compared with the dreary, ruined ghettos of Detroit and New York, this could at first glance be an upwardly mobile suburb. Deeper into the neighbourhood, a few police officers huddled behind cars, parked like circled wagons. Every street corner business, every fast-food restaurant and store was burning, burnt or being looted before being set alight. Still, a kind of bizarre normality reigned. Traffic was busy, whole families cruising through drifting smoke, at if going shopping.

1992 LA riots: ’Please, nothing has changed' says Henry Keith Watson in 2012

The LA riots are not set-piece affairs, with properly drawn battle-lines. They are guerrilla riots: small bands of 10 to 100 youths, mostly black but not all, attacking buildings or motorists at random. In one example, 20 youths stop a pair of white motor-cyclists in Long Beach and drag them from their machines. One is shot dead; the other severely beaten.

In another, a stolen van, captured on film from a TV helicopter, repeatedly rams the iron grille defending a jewellery and pawn shop in east Hollywood. The grille breaks and the crowd pours in.

Many rioters undoubtedly feel a sincere rage at the acquittal of the white police officers in the Rodney King beating case. But for others there is a cynical opportunity to bring the daily, deadening violence of their lives to a wider audience.

The looters trail along afterwards. At one big intersection, a supermarket was being systematically stripped bare. Human chains led from the store, across a broad car park to waiting vans and supermarket trolleys, loaded with clothes, shoes, bed-quilts.

Only a tiny part of the black community is involved in the violence, but a sizeable part of the community joins joyously In the looting. In some areas, local people have turned out to protect neighbourhood stores. But more typical was the attitude of a well- dressed, middle-aged woman who said: “It’s not stealing. The jury did us wrong.”

With me in the car was Karen Willie, a photographer, who was in LA on her way back from a trip which included covering the last days of the Afghanistan civil war. Asked which experience was the more terrifying, Afghanistan or Los Angeles, she said: “This afternoon. Without question.”

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