I couldn’t have picked a better time to watch LA 92, the 2017 documentary about the 1992 Los Angeles riots. I first watched it in July of 2020, as the U.S. was in the middle of being shaken by a summer-long rebellion against racism and police violence after the murder of George Floyd.
LA 92 was directed by Daniel Lindsey and T.J. Quinn, who directed Undefeated, and was co-produced by Simon and Jonathan Chinn, who also produced Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. That pedigree shows in the quality of this production: it’s an excellent film.
It’s also very personal for me. I was living in L.A. that year; I was in my junior year of film school at the University of Southern California, and I witnessed the riots firsthand. I spent the entire week at my girlfriend’s house, smack in the middle of the riot zone, encircled by smoke and burning buildings near and far.
That time has always remained vivid in my mind, but the texture and power of this documentary reminded me of a lot of details I hadn’t thought about for ages.
So, LA 92 hit me hard for two distinct but related reasons: my own experience of the rebellion depicted onscreen, and the urgency of the rebellion which was, at that moment 28 years later, taking place nationwide — indeed, all over the world, including Sydney where I live. The George Floyd rebellion consumed my attention for months, clarified my politics, and gave me hope for the future. LA 92 was so relevant and impactful and just electrifying in that context. My wife and I watched it over two nights; on both nights, I ended up pacing around the house afterwards, with my thoughts racing.
This past April 29th marked the 30th anniversary of the uprising, and so it’s fresh in my mind once again.
This essay starts out as a review of the film itself, but then it switches gears and becomes a personal account of my recollections of the uprising. Finally, it ends with some political conclusions. LA 92 definitely shed some light on the summer of 2020 for me, and vice versa.
A note about nomenclature: the events that began in Los Angeles on April 29th, 1992, are most often referred to as riots. People who approve of the actions taken by the masses of L.A. against the police and the establishment will often refer to it as an uprising, and sometimes as a rebellion. I use all three terms interchangeably. I most often favor uprising (thus, the headline of this piece), but I don’t mind riots either. I think the act of rioting is perfectly justified at times, and those who engage in it should not be shamed — they should own the term.
As with Senna, Amy and some other noteworthy docs from recent years, LA 92 is entirely made up of archive footage — newscasts as well as amateur home video — and there are no talking heads or narration. This is thematically very appropriate given the unrest was sparked by an amateur videotape: the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers in March of 1991, filmed by the unwitting George Holliday, a white plumber who’d just bought a new video camera.
That lack of intrusive guiding narration is always welcome in a doc for me, but it especially suits the contentious and harrowing material here. It gives LA 92 a raw immediacy, as if it were breaking news — which it might as well be even after 30 years — and creates a lot of space for counter-narratives, despite the evident liberal bent of the filmmakers.
What I mean by that is judging the overall narrative as expressed through the editing, the music, and so on, the position of the filmmakers seems to be a left-liberal formulation like this: Riots are the language of the unheard. The blame squarely rests with a racist society and a renegade police department — but still, the violence and destruction was a tragedy.
So there’s a bit of what you might call riot-shaming. Within the narrative created by this film, it’s clear that Lindsay and Martin favor calls for peace and unity over calls for struggle and rising up.
For example, consider the score, which was composed by Danni Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s that kind of Michael Nyman-ish droning contemporary classical that’s become a bit standard for docs like this (though it’s still very well done). The music frequently signals a mood not only of heightened drama but of tragic conflict.
It’s fun to imagine how different some sequences would feel if they had used Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up,” an unabashed celebration of the uprising, or Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man”, instead of the dramatic piano riffs.
I’m fine with these problematic aspects of LA 92; I still thought it was a great film. I don’t expect every political documentary to match my revolutionary views.
To Lindsay and Martin’s great credit, they make sure there’s a lot of extra complexity and realness in how it’s all presented. They include a number of more radical voices countering that liberal narrative — clips of speakers who argue that the uprising is justified, looting is good, and “burn baby burn.”
An example of this is when Black L.A. mayor Tom Bradley is shown denouncing the Rodney King verdict with anger and clarity that would be impressive for a liberal politician even today; but later, Black protesters are shown denouncing Bradley himself as a sellout and an Uncle Tom.
The editing, by Lindsay and Martin with Scott Stevenson, is so good. It creates a great deal of suspense — more suspense than most fiction films; I was tense the entire time watching it. The passages showing the massive protest at the Parker Center, the downtown headquarters of the LAPD, on the first evening just after the verdict feel like an action movie. The crowd keeps growing, and so does its anger, until it boils over. They push the line of cops back into the building and lay siege to it, dismantling or burning anything they can get their hands on, before the cops regroup and push them back, and a running street battle ensues. Thanks to extensive news coverage of all this as it was unfolding, Lindsay and Martin have plenty of footage to work with; and the comprehensive way they put it all together, with brilliantly intercut shots both from behind the police lines and within the crowd, is worthy of the Maysles brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s groundbreaking coverage of the disaster at Altamont in their classic Gimme Shelter.
On the other hand, the sequences that are stitched together out of shaky home-video footage — shot by ordinary people in locations far from where the news vans were converging, at least at first — are even more stunning. One such passage details the developing events at Florence and Normandie, the intersection in South Central L.A. that was an early flashpoint of the rioting. It comes across like an experimental film made up of short bursts of extremely shaky, pixellated shots of spontaneous street protests, mass anger and shocking violence — most of it from the perspective of the people doing the rioting, which is both cinematically gripping and politically valuable.
There are moments that take the quick-cut editing rhythm to an extreme, with the montage reduced to short, sharp bursts of videotape and ambient noise broken up by stretches of silent black screen. These staccato eruptions of visual and audio noise create an impressionistic sense of the chaos and violence; they feel like explosions or gunfire, with an almost physical effect on the viewer. It’s a very flashy, maybe even heavy-handed technique of communicating a riot onscreen, but worlds ahead of the standard, boring talking-heads approach. It works for me.
Of course, the riot at Florence and Normandie is infamous, and symbolic of the uprising as a whole, because of internationally televised footage of rioters pulling Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, out of the cab of his truck and beating him almost to death in the street. Some of that footage is shown here. I hadn’t actually seen it before; I’d only seen stills of it. I hadn’t seen much footage of the riots at all. I didn’t have a TV at the time, and I would have avoided mainstream coverage anyway, to avoid its racist perspective. Seeing the beating of Denny for the first time was harrowing to say the least.
You have to be very clear when discussing all this. The phrase “Florence and Normandie” itself is a Fox News cliche of a race riot. For the last 30 years it’s exactly what racists think of when they think of any protest against racism or the police, however peaceful it may be.
I am definitely not trying to feed into that cliche. If it’s not already obvious, I view the 1992 uprising as justified, even necessary. At the same time I believe that what happened to Denny was misguided, tragic and plain wrong. But tragedies happen in times of upheaval, even if the upheaval is necessary; there was plenty of tragedy and innocent blood shed in the French Revolution.
The rioters at Florence and Normandie had clear intent and they state it in the video footage here. They equated white people with their oppression, and who can blame them? Who could have explained to them that dividing the working class along racial lines is integral to the functioning of capitalism, and that white truck drivers are not their enemy?
One of the participants in the mayhem at the intersection, Henry Watson, recently said he doesn’t regret anything and would do it all again. Given the reality in America to this day, it would be pointless to argue with him. It’s also worth noting that Denny himself forgave his attackers, and was admirably lucid about the racism and economic oppression that led to the incident. “This is a civil war,” he said. “This is not me against Mr. Watson — it’s not a personal vendetta. The problems were happening before Mr. Watson and I were born.”
The filmmakers also make extensive use of pre-broadcast feeds showing news reporters about to go live, while they’re checking their equipment, communicating with their producers and so on. This is a great technique, capturing the raw, unstudied emotion of bewildered reporters coming to terms with what they’re witnessing, or simply caught up in angry crowds.
It also lets us see what an asshole President George H. W. Bush really was. Before addressing the nation during the riots, he jokes around in his pre-broadcast feed like some bored Vegas showman, suddenly perking up when the camera goes live and taking on a stern, lecturing, even threatening tone. He sounds uncannily like Donald Trump, truly his political and spiritual heir — no matter how much liberals try to whitewash the Bush legacy.
We also see how little voice Rodney King was given by his white lawyers. After his famous (or infamous) speech on the third day pleading for peace (“Can we all just get along?”) there is a pause, during which a lesser doc would have cut away, and then the lawyers tell the assembled media there will be no questions for Rodney, but they will take the questions instead.
LA 92 begins with footage from an old black-and-white news documentary about the Watts rebellion of 1965 — the massive six-day uprising against the LAPD, and eventually the National Guard, by the residents of a predominantly Black L.A. suburb. The rioting in Watts broke out after cops brutalized and arrested a young Black man along with his mother and brother; this was the match that lit a powder keg of frustration with racist police violence, as well as poverty, housing discrimination and the terrible state of schools and infrastructure in the neighborhood. Thirty-one people were killed in the fighting, which was basically open street warfare at its peak.
At the end of the film, the audio from that same old clip is repeated, this time laid over a montage of the L.A. riots, to provide dual commentary on how little had changed between 1965 and 1992. It was also intended as triple commentary given the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings that took place a couple of years before the making of LA 92. The poster, with the tagline “The past is prologue,” makes this explicit. As I said, viewing it during the George Floyd rebellion added even more layers of meaning.
In depicting the moment the not-guilty verdict was read in Simi Valley, LA 92 crosscuts between various locations as people around the region, including outside the courthouse, wait in suspense, and then react to the outrageous-but-not-really-surprising decision. The sequence is very well-cut, and it vividly recreates the shock, fear and devastation of that moment. There’s a particularly haunting shot of an older Black man — old enough to remember Watts as well as the Civil Rights movement — silently staring into space with tears in his eyes and a lifetime’s worth of fathomless grief and anger.
As good as this sequence is, if you weren’t in L.A. at the time it’s hard to fully explain the impact of the verdict. It was like a bomb had gone off, radiating outwards from Simi Valley to encompass all of Southern California — a bomb made up of information and memory and emotion carried via electromagnetic radio waves. It was an almost physical feeling, like a shockwave that knocked you over, and everybody felt it. The minute you heard the verdict, you knew something big was going to go down.
At that moment — 3:15pm on Wednesday, April 29 — I was with my girlfriend Nayeli a few blocks north of the USC campus, looking at a room to live in for the summer. We were in an upstairs bedroom of the sharehouse, talking with the leaseholder about the rent and other details. It was a sunny day, as most days are in L.A. I have a weirdly vivid memory of the sunlight streaming into the empty but furnished room.
We hadn’t been there long when we heard a commotion from the downstairs living room. The verdict had been read just then, and a couple of the other residents were reacting with vocal alarm. Someone called out, “They found them all not guilty!” I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach, followed quickly by a surge of anger and adrenaline.
We followed the leaseholder downstairs. I remember at least one young man and one young woman, both white; I read them as a fratboy and a sorority girl, whether or not they actually were. They looked shaken. The young woman was saying there was going to be a riot and we have to get out of here. She ran to the phone, probably to let a loved one know that she would be leaving soon. I was really struck by this. The verdict was only seconds old and the fear and panic was immediate and palpable in the room. Whatever their politics, she and the others had the clarity to know instantly that without justice there could be no peace. But their reaction to that was fear, and not the strange mix of rage and elation that I felt.
Before I go on you need some background.
USC is a very wealthy private university located in a neighborhood that was at the time among the most disadvantaged in the city, if not the country: South Central L.A.
When SC was founded, in the late 19th century, South Central was an enclave of the Angeleno middle class, who left behind lots of roomy Victorian houses (ideal for housing several students at once and hosting big parties in my day). But by 1989, when I started film school, decades of civic neglect, racist housing policies, white flight and overpolicing had turned South Central into a bleak and underprivileged place.
Racist and classist media coverage didn’t help. At that time, the name “South Central” was practically synonymous in the mainstream with gang violence and the crack epidemic.
Media bias aside, it was a tough place. In the years I was there, police helicopters were a nightly soundtrack, and it was common to hear gunshots.
So USC was like an island, or perhaps a fortress, in the middle of a sea of poverty and crime. The campus was literally a walled fortress, with its brick walls, security gates and armed private security guards. The majority of the students were white and well-off, whereas most residents of South Central were Black or Latin and working-class or poor. The pleasant gardens and ivy-covered buildings of the campus, in contrast with the urban blight that started literally across the street, was like a meme about rich versus poor.
I’m sure if it had been technologically possible to lift the entire campus into the air and transplant it north or west into a higher-income neighborhood, the university’s trustees would have done it in a heartbeat.
Making the contrast even more jarring, SC was a very conservative institution. University campuses, especially in California, are seen as enclaves of weirdos and hotbeds of radicalism; at least in my day, SC couldn’t have been further from that image. In my experience, the typical SC student was not a hippie but a business major from a wealthy East Coast family who was there to party in the sunshine. Fraternities and sororities were and still are are dominant on campus (and notorious for their rape culture). Weirdos like me were decidedly in the minority, marginalized at social events and often ridiculed in the campus newspaper. Back then, I could only wish the cliche was true!
As you can imagine, the attitude among USC students towards neighboring South Central was one of fear riddled with cliches about urban crime and “the ghetto,” ranging in their racism from casual to blatant. Watts came up in conversation all the time — 24 years later that most infamous of riots still haunted the white students of L.A., few of whom had been born when it happened. Watts is, by the way, a different neighborhood, and a good deal further south than South Central. Despite this distance, many students referred to the adjacent neighborhood as “Watts,” either out of queasily racist symbolic association, or sheer ignorance.
The area north of campus, known as University Park, with lots of student housing and shops and restaurants catering to students, and which was patrolled by USC security, was “safe” compared to South Central — though walking around at night was still considered dodgy. Students almost never ventured south or west of campus into South Central itself (except for Trojans games at the Coliseum south of campus, immediately across the street). The cultural and psychological barriers marked by Vermont Avenue and Exposition Boulevard were profound.
I was on a scholarship to study film at SC. Coming from a working-class background, from a military family who always struggled to make ends meet, and graduating from high school in Columbus, Georgia, I never fit into this place — this sun-drenched playground for rich kids. Everything about them made me feel different, from the way they dressed to their lifestyles. I’d never been skiing in my life, for example; and I’d never eaten in a “nice” restaurant. Even their teeth seemed weirdly perfect — my teeth are visibly crooked, and my family could never afford braces. These physical differences made me feel like some kind of backwards alien. Having undiagnosed autism made everything harder and more awkward.
I did my best to make friends with all the other weirdos and outcasts on campus, went to punk and hip-hop shows in Hollywood, started going to raves in my junior year, joined the campus activist group that pushed for an end to USC’s investment in South Africa (then still an apartheid state), and protested the first Gulf War. I even started discussing Marx and Lenin with my best friend Jason, who studied political science and philosophy.
Being a huge fan of hip hop, then in its golden age, I was highly influenced by the radical and Black nationalist politics that were such a part of the music and culture at the time. This was an important step in my political awakening. I first learned to fear and loathe the police from N.W.A. and Cypress Hill, and learned that the brutal reality of our economic system gave many young Black and Latin men little choice but to hustle. Under the influence of Public Enemy and X-Clan, KRS-ONE and the Jungle Brothers, I read Malcolm X and learned about the history of the U.S. government’s war on Black movements and leaders, and about the Black Panthers and African liberation struggles. Jason and I even went to hear Louis Farrakhan speak at the Coliseum. We were among a small handful of white people in the huge stadium.
Though it would be many more years before I fully embraced Marxism and joined these strands into a coherent worldview about capitalism and oppression, I already had some developing ideas about how white supremacy benefitted the ruling class, and why it required enforcing by the police. But I wouldn’t have even been interested in Marxism if it wasn’t for this era of Black radicalism expressed through hip hop.
I was young and fired up and passionately wanted to be part of a multicultural movement to smash racism, but I was also painfully aware of being white and caught between worlds. I didn’t fit in with the rich white kids; I definitely didn’t fit in with the Black and Latin populations on the other side of the wall, though I suspected I had far more in common with them.
There was one incident in particular that brought home the violence of the LAPD for me. On Halloween of 1990, in the first semester of my sophomore year, a 17-year-old Salvadoran kid named Julio Moran was murdered by police right across Hoover Street from where I was living, in a USC-owned student apartment a few blocks north of campus. He was unarmed, but they shot him 18 times. The cops — plainclothes members of LAPD’s anti-gang unit — said they thought he had a gun wrapped in the sweatshirt he was carrying. That was their justification for brutally snuffing his life out like it was nothing. The frightened nuns in the convent on the corner said it sounded like machine-gun fire; trick-or-treating children across the street took cover inside a bus shelter. I wasn’t home when it happened, but it shocked and infuriated me all the same. Every day when I walked home from classes I saw the small memorial of flowers and candles on the corner, left by grieving, bewildered relatives, or perhaps the nuns.
The killing of this boy inspired in me an early act of political graffiti: late one night, I crept out with a can of blue spraypaint and wrote JUST SAY NO TO POLICE BRUTALITY on a concrete fence by the park across from the scene. I hadn’t yet learned any kind of flow, so my letters were a hesitant scrawl; and afterwards I wondered why I hadn’t come up with a shorter slogan. I’ve always been long-winded, as anyone who reads this blog knows, but in this case I was risking arrest for it. Anyway, it stayed up for weeks, very visible to anyone who walked or drove past on Hoover, and I was proud of that.
One Friday night not long after Moran’s murder, I was with friends at a house party in South Pasadena, which featured live bands and got loud and unruly enough to be broken up by police. Heading out with the rest of the disappointed crowd into the balmy L.A. autumn night to find my friends, I was overcome with anger. Deliberately in earshot of a couple of the cops who were standing by, I yelled out something along the lines of, “Too bad we’re not teenage Hispanic kids or you’d be able to get away with shooting and killing us!” At that, one of the cops stepped forward, grabbed me by the arm violently, and said with poisonous, bullying vehemence, “I’m guessing you’ve had a few beers tonight?” I nodded, heart pounding in my throat, mute with fear, feeling completely sober. “Then I’ll let you go this time. You better get the fuck out of here now if you know what’s good for you.”
I now recognize my behavior as an autistic meltdown. The abrupt end to the evening’s plans and the chaos of the scene as the party was broken up made me feel overloaded, leading me to lash out in a way that could have gotten me hurt. No wonder autistic people are more likely to be victims of police violence.
Four months later, the news of the Rodney King beating hit when Holliday’s video was broadcast by local TV station KTLA. I was as sickened as anyone else possessing a shred of human empathy, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d already learned enough about the LAPD, and the police in general, to know that this was not an isolated incident, and it was only the fact of Holliday’s tape that made it stand out.
As the years passed, I never forgot about Julio Moran. The grudge I held against the cops for his killing was on my mind when the rioting started a year and a half later, and I mentioned him in an essay I wrote for USC’s alternative weekly on the one-year anniversary of the riots in 1993. More than 30 years later the grudge is still there. It still shapes my politics.
Back to the day of the verdict. Now completely distracted from our househunting mission, Nayeli and I headed over to Jason’s place a few blocks away. We needed someone on our political wavelength to commiserate with about the monumental injustice of it all. Our friend Rich, a fellow SC student, was there and the two were watching the news, which was cutting its live broadcast back and forth between several locations around the city, including the protest at the Parker Center as it grew bigger and more angry. As expected, Jason and Rich were as upset as we were, but they were also animated and buzzing with excitement. They were rolling a joint and making plans to drive downtown and join the protest.
I felt a bit overwhelmed. Not only by my own roiling emotions, but by the atmosphere in general. I imagined I could feel the entire city quivering with outrage and panic. It was like being able to sense an earthquake in advance. In fact I probably could hear people in the surrounding houses talking or yelling about it, along with police sirens, helicopters and beeping horns from the nearby streets and avenues, as people raced home, or fled the city. Now that I understand more about my own autism, I understand how unstable situations like this can impact me. I was for the protests, but even positive stress can cause dissociative anxiety in me.
Filled with unfocused energy, I grabbed a can of Jason’s spraypaint (he was a graffiti artist too, and a good one) and ran outside to spray PIGS DIE! on a whitewashed brick wall across the street.
Jason and Rich wanted me to go to the Parker Center with them but I had a work shift at the university library scheduled for that evening. For the entire 30 years since I’ve struggled with feelings of regret or even guilt about not going, but at the time it didn’t even occur to me to skip work. It seems crazy to prioritize a student job over such an important protest — to blow a chance to take part in history. I don’t think it was a case of chickening out; I would have certainly gone if I’d felt at liberty. I think I was just proceeding with the normal course of things because I couldn’t think outside it, or maybe because it calmed my anxiety. It’s likely I would have been arrested, since Jason was, along with many other protesters, but that doesn’t lessen the regret at all.
They didn’t spend much time trying to change my mind; in short order they jumped into Jason’s Volvo and headed downtown. Feeling bereft and disoriented, I walked Nayeli home, another few blocks away. As a safety precaution, she lent me a bike to get to work, so I would at least have more mobility.
I biked south to campus and to the library, a stately old building that overlooked the park in the middle of campus. As soon as I arrived I knew I shouldn’t have bothered. My manager, a middle-aged Black woman who was very softspoken and polite and had always been warm and nice to me, looked shaken. I didn’t know it yet, because I hadn’t been near a TV for half an hour or more, but by then Florence and Normandie was headline news, and looting had already started. She told me we would be closing shortly, along with most other offices and facilities on campus; it was too dangerous to stay open at this point.
The nightmare of every USC student was coming true.
I biked over to a student dining hall and grabbed a bite to eat and a soda. It was about 6pm. I could hear sirens in the distance; this would be a constant soundtrack for days. There were TVs in the hall and I caught up a bit with the breaking news. Among everyone around me there was a sense of heightened alarm. Both in the hall and outside it, students, faculty and staff were rushing back and forth, talking too loud, making plans to get out. It all felt unreal to me, like watching a bad disaster movie.
Walking out of the hall and onto McClintock Avenue, one of the streets that runs on-campus, I still felt that tremendous energy. My anger at this racist society and even my resentment of this elite university were bubbling to the surface. For some reason I spontaneously threw my cup of soda and ice into the middle of the street. The ice and liquid scattered everywhere. Just at that moment a car that was speeding up McClintock suddenly screeched its tires, braking and swerving around the cup and the ice, then accelerating again somewhat recklessly towards the nearby gate. The driver, no doubt desperate to get out of the area, must have imagined the cup of ice was a Molotov cocktail. I remember feeling bad about this but also finding it funny.
I called Nayeli to check in (at a payphone, for my younger readers), and told her I’d decided to bike to my apartment to get a few things before heading back to her house for the night. At the time I lived in a cheap and shabby apartment building on a side street across Vermont Avenue, near the southwest corner of campus. In other words, I lived in actual South Central. Despite being close to campus, my place was in an area many students would hesitate to venture into.
When I got to the security gate on Vermont that was across from my street, I paused. Peering across the width of the avenue, I saw smoke on my street, and people milling about in the middle of it, as if behind a gauzy curtain.
My street was burning. I wasn’t going home that night.
At that point it occurred to me that I should call my mom and dad. They lived on an army base in upstate New York, a million miles away. I found a payphone and called collect.
My mom picked up, and brightly asked how I was doing and was everything okay. I told her I just wanted to let her know I was safe. She asked, “Why, has there been an earthquake? I haven’t seen the news.” “More like a people quake,” I replied. Yes, I really said this. It’s an incredibly corny line, but it’s what occurred to me in the moment.
“Hmm?” she queried earnestly. In as even a tone as I could manage, I told her, “They found all four police officers not guilty in the Rodney King beating.” “Oh,” she said, her voice completely changed. “Oh. Are you all right? Where are you?” She understood immediately, without any further explanation.
Just as with the sorority girl earlier, I was struck by the clarity my mom had about the situation without having even seen the news. Mind you, there’s a vast gulf between her politics and mine. A year later, when she read my essay about the riots, in which I argued that they were a great thing, it made her really sad and upset. But again, regardless of what she felt about it, she could instantly predict the outcome of the verdict, just as most people could.
I headed north to Nayeli’s house. Maybe it was hearing my mom’s voice, but I started to feel like I should not be wandering out here alone. The sun was low in the sky and the sense of emergency in all directions was enormous.
Biking across the empty parking lot of the shopping plaza north of campus, in the diffuse pink light of the L.A. sunset I saw two adolescent Black kids approaching on foot from the other direction. As I passed them, maybe 20 yards to their right, one of them suddenly and without warning threw something hard at me, about the size of a baseball, either a rock or a chunk of brick or concrete. It hit my front tire and bounced off, with only enough force to knock the speeding bike a couple of inches off course, not enough to damage anything or knock me down. I kept biking north; glancing back, I confirmed they weren’t chasing me or anything, and in fact had barely paused as they kept moving south.
The encounter was strangely casual, as if it was mostly for fun, like something unpleasant but harmless that would happen at a playground. Just offhandedly throwing shit at a random white guy because I was there and because it was the day to do that. I didn’t take it too personally.
But given everything that was going on, it was easy to imagine a more troublesome confrontation. I was relieved when I arrived at Nayeli’s place.
At this point, I could have biked downtown, but again I didn’t, and for much more practical reasons. With how things were developing it made no sense to go back out. Watching LA 92 reminded me in a visceral way how dangerous a place the city was that night. Looking back, it’s clear I gave up my chance to take part in it all, and with safety in numbers, when Rich and Jason left. It would have been dodgy to head out on my own at sundown. And I wasn’t going to leave Nayeli behind or demand that she go with me either.
Beyond that, I felt, rightly or wrongly, that the struggle was not my struggle. Largely speaking white people were not welcome. I didn’t feel like I could join in any more than I could have joined the Viet Cong, however much I would have supported them.
What I would say to myself now is that this should be everyone’s struggle, and even with how things were I could have found a way to take part — at least to protest in solidarity. But LA 92 at least made me recall why I made some of the decisions I did, and maybe forgive myself a little.
Anyway I was a naive 21-year-old film student and budding radical with undiagnosed autism and lots of political developing to do. I’m pretty sure I was doing my best. My approval of the uprising aside, it was still a heavy and dangerous time to live through.
You get a sense of how a violent uprising can contain that heaviness and danger and even sorrow, while still being perfectly justified, in the Wailers’ “Burnin’ and Lootin’.” That song became an anthem for me in the days and years after the riots. How many rivers do we have to cross?
The next morning, I woke up in a curfew. We spent the rest of the riots holed up at Nayeli’s place — two days and three nights of heavy burning and looting, with authorities largely unable to contain it (or unwilling to try), followed by a few more days of military occupation and sporadic violence.
A lot of USC students and faculty fled the area, but we felt safe there — a rented room in an old two-story house on a quiet side street in University Park. Our reasoning was that we had nothing anyone would want to loot or burn. It helped having a political perspective on the uprising, as opposed to the culture of fear that was the norm on campus.
During those two days it seemed so huge and out of control, it seemed like it might never end — and I didn’t want it to! The truth is I thought it was glorious — the greatest thing that had ever happened. The people were rising up, driving the cops out of the city, and taking control. With a frothy mixture of rage at the system and naive youthful optimism, I thought this might be the revolution. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven. Even the looting of retail stores seemed like a revolutionary act to me, and an entirely rational one. People who had been deprived of material goods their entire lives were just going out and taking them. If that sounds strange to you… well, you probably stopped reading this article long before now.
That morning, Nayeli and I ventured out to take a look around the neighborhood. We met a couple of other friends and, judging it to be reasonably safe, we headed towards campus on foot. The area was eerily deserted. One of my most vivid memories of those days is crossing Jefferson Boulevard, the northern boundary of the SC campus. Normally a very busy four-lane thoroughfare, it was completely dead. There wasn’t one car on it as we jaywalked across it. Something about that made me realize the enormity of it all. To my restless, yearning mind it was like a state of anarchy had been achieved. There was no authority — no cops to write us a ticket for jaywalking, they had all fled. No one around to bother us or tell us what to do. The pavement was ours. The street was ours — the city was ours, to use any way we wished. And plenty of people out there were doing just that.
Like I said, I didn’t want it to end. But I also started wondering, if it was the revolution, would I ever see my family again? Would the university ever reopen?
I’ve felt this giddy feeling during the breakdown of order several times since — like walking on a high wire with no net. I felt it in New York on 9/11, and during the big blackout of 2003. And of course I’ve felt it many times during the pandemic. Abandoned city centers, empty streets, the normal rules of society set aside. It isn’t always as exhilarating as it was that day. More often it makes that dissociative anxiety balloon out of control.
Anyway, we didn’t light a fire or build a skate ramp in the middle of Jefferson or anything. But we did ascend one of the high rises on campus so we could survey the city from fifteen floors up. It was an amazing, apocalyptic sight: dozens of fires in every direction, the billowing angry clouds of smoke blotting out the gentle hazy blue of the L.A. sky.
(My friend Wade took the below photo later that evening, from the rooftop of another building on campus.)
Later that afternoon, Nayeli and I decided to drive to my apartment on the other side of campus to see if it was still standing and, if it was, to get my things. We were planning on moving in together that summer anyway, and the possibility that my building could burn down at any time had pushed the agenda forward.
The building was still there, but the little shopping plaza just adjacent to it, on the corner of Vermont, was a scene of devastation. The small grocery store, where every morning I bought my extremely collegiate breakfast of a packaged danish and a half pint of chocolate milk (the one with the bunny on it), had been burned to the ground. Licks of flames were still visible in the smoking ruins.
A crowd of people was milling about the plaza, including some kids. Some of them were in the process of looting the Chinese restaurant on the corner, a freestanding structure across the plaza from the ruins of the store. There was a block party feel to it all, with people laughing and joking around and bumping music on their car stereos. Revolution is the festival of the oppressed.
Nayeli parked her 70s Volvo by my building’s gate (yes, the two people closest to me both drove used Volvos), not more than 30 yards from the activity at the restaurant. I lived on the second floor of the building, which resembled a cheap motel; we made our way upstairs in some haste, considering the volatile situation, and quickly started packing my stuff. It didn’t amount to much, just some clothes, books, a couple of portable stereos, my CDs and cassette tapes, and the films I’d made in class, which were on actual film. I felt like I was looting my apartment. That thought made me laugh out loud as I was packing.
On one of my trips downstairs to throw stuff in the trunk, I saw one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.
Someone had backed a station wagon up to the Chinese restaurant and hitched something to its trailer hitch on a long chain. I saw the station wagon suddenly accelerate recklessly into the street, while the heavy metal object it was pulling swung back and forth and all around, clattering dangerously on the pavement. I realized it was the restaurant’s safe attached to the chain. I think they were hoping they could break it open by dragging it that way. As they turned the corner onto the street, tires screeching, the safe swung by its chain, like a mace swung by a giant, into the low buff-colored stone wall that separated the plaza from the sidewalk, knocking some of its stones out of place with a violent crash. Then the station wagon peeled away, the safe emitting sparks as it dragged behind, like some warped wedding celebration, while the people standing around watching hooted and cheered. When I looked at the restaurant again I saw it was on fire.
I didn’t feel any fear; I’ve felt more afraid in job interviews than I did in that moment. If anything I was exhilarated again. But though I still believed we weren’t a likely target, and though Nayeli was from Mexico, and though I even felt some irrational sense that our sympathy for the rioters would protect us, I felt more urgency about getting out of there soon. There was clearly a nonzero chance of someone just randomly setting upon us; we were white people packing a trunkful of things that weren’t valuable but may have looked it.
Back upstairs, for some reason I decided to quickly call my sister in Florida before we left.
“Hey! How are you?” she greeted me in her perpetually bright tone.
“I just wanted to let you know I’m okay.”
“Why, what happened?”
“Haven’t you seen the news?” The rioting had been going on for almost an entire day now. Why is everyone in my family so behind on the news? I wondered.
“No?” I heard the rustling of a newspaper as she picked it up. It must have been right next to her. “Holy shit! Are you okay?!”
“I’m okay!” I repeated, smiling. At that exact moment the Chinese restaurant blew up.
The boom was thunderous. My sister yelped in alarm as she heard it over the long-distance line. “What the hell was that?!”
“Uh, the Chinese restaurant next door just exploded,” I said nonchalantly. I stretched the phone cord to the door and peered out, but the restaurant was on the other side of the building and I couldn’t see much of what was going on.
“Jim, get out of there!”
“I am. Don’t worry. Love you. Bye!” I wished I hadn’t called her as I hung up. Leaving the apartment in a shambles, I locked the door and we jumped in the Volvo and broke out. I never saw that apartment again.
As we turned left on Vermont, I stared in amazement at what was left of the restaurant, immediately to our left on the corner. Thick black smoke from whatever had just exploded (possibly the gas stove) was roiling into the bright blue sky, mingling with the smoke from the rest of the shopping plaza and hundreds of other fires in the city. As we made our way north on Vermont, which was surprisingly heavy with traffic, I noticed a couple of other cars that were full of possessions, like ours was. It felt like being in a mass of refugees fleeing a war zone, though we were only going a few blocks.
The next morning Nayeli got a phone call from Jason and I talked to him. He’d been bailed out of jail after 24 hours. He sounded exhausted and shaken but also giddy, and had so many stories about that night. We talked about the prospect of the uprising continuing and becoming a revolutionary situation. Earlier, when I’d seen a news recap of solidarity protests around the world, including footage of protesters in Paris furiously hurling cobblestones at cops, I was so elated I jumped up and down in Nayeli’s room. At that point something bigger seemed possible if you were a naive 21-year-old radical with a lot to learn about revolutionary theory. But as we spoke, tens of thousands of National Guard troops were occupying the city, and the regular army was on its way.
That afternoon, Rodney King went before the media and made his famous plea. I remember being angry about that. I felt that King had been manipulated by his white lawyers. You had to get Rodney to stop me.
A day later, when Mayor Bradley announced that the rioting had been for the most part contained, I actually cried.
That night, I got drunk. Somehow, I came up with a 40-ounce of malt liquor, and drank it by myself in the living room of Nayeli’s sharehouse, in the dark, dancing to hip-hop CDs cranked up loud on her boom box. Specifically The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest’s world-changing masterpiece which was still new then; and a compilation of old-school tracks called Street Jams: Hip Hop from the Top Vol. 2. I had a strobelight, which I’d recovered from my apartment that week, and I turned it on in the dark living room in a lo-fi effort to simulate a rave.
One of the tracks on that compilation is Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three’s 1982 classic “The Roof Is on Fire.” Not many people remember Rock Master Scott’s name, but everybody knows the climactic refrain to that track: The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn! Burn motherfucker, burn! One of the all-time great party refrains, and it was like it was made for the moment. But of course the whole context of the 60s Black rebellions is fundamental to hip hop; so it wasn’t exactly a coincidence either.
I got really into it. I must have been releasing a lot of pent-up anger and anxiety, and I must have felt like I was celebrating something too. I kept turning the volume and the bass up, losing myself in the dance, while taking the 40 straight to the head.
Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, I was interrupted by a group of Nayeli’s housemates, opening the front door and crashing my solo party. I had no idea they were in town. One of them had a baseball bat, obviously for security in case they were accosted by last-minute rioters. Very typical conservative white USC students, what we would now call “normies,” they’d never gotten along with Nayeli. Here they were, confronted by the sight of her tall, gangly, dreadlocked boyfriend, dancing by himself to very loud hip hop, in the dark living room of their house with a strobelight flashing, in the aftermath of the biggest riot in American history.
They looked at me like they were having an alien encounter. I froze mid-stomp, shocked by their wide eyes and the baseball bat, while the strobe kept flickering. Dazed and hardly able to stand up straight, I quickly switched off the boom box and stumbled to Nayeli’s room. It was one of the funniest and most awkward things that’s ever happened to me.
The following days are a blur to me. At that point, in early May, the spring semester wasn’t quite done, but I have little memory of going back to campus to pretend everything was normal again. It must have seemed like a dream. I can only imagine that whenever a classmate tried to engage with me like, “Dude, it was so crazy,” I was like, “I know, it was awesome, right?”
Reflecting on the last 30 years, I never regained a sense of “normal.” There was my life before April 29th, and my life after. Knowing intimately what it’s like when order in our society — our oppressive, bloodsucking society — breaks down completely: that will change you.
It can also inspire you. To see what’s possible in those moments and imagine how all that pent-up rage and energy could be channelled into a movement that could overthrow the system and replace it with a truly just and humane one.
I do have one really vivid memory from the aftermath. One night, perhaps 48 hours after the uprising was effectively ended, I was walking south on Hoover towards campus, like I’d done a hundred times before. As I passed the shopping plaza there — the same place where the kids threw the rock at me — I realized I was passing an army checkpoint. A wall of green sandbags had been constructed in the parking lot, parallel to the street I was walking along and maybe ten yards to my right. I saw dozens of soldiers, armed with assault rifles, some crouching behind the sandbags and keeping guard, others standing around in the parking lot behind them. As I walked along, trying to look nonchalant but with a sudden knot of tension in my stomach, I felt the guards peering at me intently as I made my way past them. I heard voices on their radios relaying information about me. “…headed south… unarmed…“
The first thing that occurred to me is this is what it must be like in Belfast, or Palestine. I was so glad to get past them; and tripped out and angry that I couldn’t walk around my own university without being treated like an enemy noncombatant by an occupying army.
But I had a competing and contradictory thought: they seemed so familiar too. My dad was still in the army at the time and they looked like any of the young soldiers in his command. It’s not out of the question one or two of them had met him at some point. Either way, I’d grown up around soldiers just like these, and despite my hostility towards U.S. imperialism I had, and still have, a lot of warm feelings for the common solider. It was jarring to be on the other side of the barricade from them.
The following week, I saw the ruins of my corner store in Time magazine. It was an aerial shot that made what used to be a comfortingly familiar mom-and-pop convenience store look like bombed-out rubble in a war. And then the news hit our circle of friends that Rich was in LIFE magazine (see the photo below).
We were all so psyched for him; it’s an insanely cool photo of him at the Parker Center protest on the first night, confronting a line of cops by himself (though other protesters, including Jason, were just behind him out of frame). I mean come on, this photo is a painting, down to the white stripe on the road dividing the tableau into two opposite halves — two violently opposed worlds. And Rich was undeniably psyched too; though in his typical fashion he had a detailed critique of how he’d been reduced to a stereotype of an angry Black man by the glare of the media lens. For example, what the photo doesn’t show is that these same cops had beaten him moments before the photo was taken.
It was so surreal. The uprising that I’d witnessed — including places I’d been and people I knew — was being chewed up and regurgitated as riot porn by the national media. This was, of course, part of the inevitable process of the establishment shifting blame for the rioting and failing to account for its real causes — a process which continues to this day.
The L.A. uprising was so massive and contained so many stories and so many implications for our society you could fill up books about it, and people have. I’ve focused on my own story, however minor in the scheme of things, just to commit it to the page while I still remember details, and because it helps me contextualize everything.
When it comes to the big picture, one writer I turn to again and again is Mike Davis. The legendary leftist historian of L.A., author of the classic City of Quartz (which changed my life when I read it just a couple of months after the riots), the crotchety and unreformed radical conscience of the city even in his old age, Davis always gets it right — about Watts, about L.A.’s gangs, California wildfires, everything. In his writing and interviews about 1992, Davis has always insisted it was not just about Rodney King, not even just about police violence in general, but was much more about the economic despair of working class Black and Latin people, especially during the recession of the early 90s. Davis points to records showing the rioting was far more multicultural than the media’s reductive story of vengeful Black people, and was not just concentrated in the Black neighborhoods of South Central, Watts and Compton, but happened in many other places too, including Hollywood. Black rioters targeted Korean stores in some areas, which is well-known (and especially highlighted in LA 92), but they also looted shops belonging to wealthy Black folk in other neighborhoods; while elsewhere Mexicans looted Cuban businesses. Some white people took part too — contradicting my feeling at the time that I didn’t belong. Davis also characterizes the cops’ withdrawal from engaging with rioters during the first few days as a “strike” — not a retreat, but a deliberate refusal, basically abandoning some neighborhoods to their fate.
In April of 2020, at the start of the pandemic and six weeks before George Floyd was murdered, Davis told the New Yorker:
The socioeconomic conditions that produced the 92 riots are still with us. The Rodney King beating and police detonated it, but the riots came in the midst of a recession, and revealed a city in which hundreds of thousands of people were living day by day, with no reserves. When they lost their jobs, people became desperate. If this depression continues, this enlarges the number of people living in dangerous and precarious circumstances. There is no reason we couldn’t see another uprising or similar event. You just ask yourself, How are people going to live a month without a paycheck?
I’ve always felt the George Floyd rebellion was fuelled by the economic malaise of the pandemic. For the disproportionately Black and brown working and poor people whose communities had been ravaged disproportionately by COVID deaths and mass unemployment, or who were forced to risk their lives on the job to keep the economy going, what happened to Floyd was the final straw.
In her modern classic From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes about the material causes of the Black urban riots that rocked the U.S. in the 1960s. When Black Americans were polled in 1967 about what they thought were the causes of the the rioting, a large majority attributed the violence to substandard housing — specifically mentioning rat infestations as a major source of resentment. In other words, the misery of bad material conditions fuelled their rage, as much as humiliation at the hands of the police did.
Both Davis and Taylor argue that the era of Black urban rebellions in the 60s, far from being merely destructive as often portrayed in the mainstream, actually had a net positive effect on reforms for justice and improved material conditions for Black people. They even allowed for the flowering of Black culture and the arts — I’m thinking about how the period of rebellion was followed by a golden age of Black music including funk and disco. When you struggle in the streets, you win gains for yourself; that’s been proven by history over and over.
There are many contrasts between 1992 and today’s militant movement for racial justice. It’s an unmistakably Black movement, as it should be, but more and more lately features beautiful solidarity. The summer of rebellion in 2020 — the biggest protest movement in American history — was strikingly multicultural. Far more white Americans put themselves on the front lines for Black lives than ever before — take the Wall of Moms in Portland as an example. I think this has to do with deteriorating conditions and growing frustration for much broader layers of the working class — especially young people, who’ve grown up in a world in which they’ll never be able to afford a house, jobs are miserable and precarious, war is endless, and climate apocalypse is already happening. More young workers of every description are starting to realize, as I did as a student in the early 90s, that their liberation is bound up with the liberation of Black people — and they’re willing to face police batons and tear gas to show it.
One of the most telling things about the George Floyd rebellion is how it met with widespread public support, and how it helped push the conversation about racial justice to the left. The defunding of or the outright abolition of the police were seriously discussed in the mainstream that summer. Astoundingly, a majority of polled Americans said they felt the burning down of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis was justified. This is such a wonderful evolution from the riot-shaming that dominated the mainstream narrative during and after the events of 1992.
Though the uprisings of 2020 have largely died down, in part due to the efforts of the Democrats to corral and co-opt the movement, the potential for rebellion remains — especially since things keep getting worse, from inflation to the recent assault on abortion rights. Ice Cube’s lyrics have proven prophetic — but, 30 years later, they also promise more to come: April 29th was power to the people — and you just might see a sequel.