25 Years, What a riot!

A PBS advert flashes across the screen telling tales of the place I still call home. The place that formed so many. To some that formation came through ardor and pain. A forge in which fire forms the blade you will tackle the happenstance of future events with. The chrysalis from where you must fight out of in order to fly. To others it was simply home, and life is what it is wherever you happen to be living it. Are you a better or more capable human if where you were raised happened to be sprinkled with toughness and turpitude? The harsh realities swallowed down during development, being the best teacher of common sense? Or is it simply a question of how you view the world when it’s teaching you, that lends itself to help make you, you? I’ll leave it to the reader to question whether a person realizes a stove is hot by touching it or by being told it’s hot. I’ll further posit the question; that if you’re quite aware that the stove is hot and you’re in an oven, is it warmer for someone watching you through a window, or the person in the oven? Perhaps the poor cat in the oven doesn’t even realize it’s hot at all. I suppose it depends on the circumstance.

Back to PBS it apparently has been 25 years since the Los Angeles riots which brought a legacy of racism and injustice to a culmination of outright violence in the streets. Two and a half decades like a blink of the eye. The promotion promises untold stories from survivors of the time the angels were aflame. For my part, I can say I was there, not too sure about a survivor. I can say there are many lessons that came from that time, and that many lessons have yet to be learned by many of the players and watchers alike. There is no doubt there will be many shows and documentaries of that trying time. Has pain compelled the learners toward progress, advancement, enlightenment, or none of the above? Moreover will the lessons make sense to the person in the oven, or the one who will be watching through the glass?

I was a junior in high school back in 1992. My mom and her new man, along with my sister were living in San Diego. I was living in Lynwood with my grandparents to finish out high school. We lived off of MLK Jr. Blvd which was that type of area just full of activity given any time of day or night. The border to my hometown South-Gate was just a few blocks away, and given my age I had a steady flow of friends, so life was good.

I recall being on my way back from visiting my mom and sis in San Diego. Me and a friend of mine were riding the greyhound bus back to L.A. when the first signs of something amiss started to spring up along the road into the downtown L.A. bus station. At first glance through frosted pane the flicker of lights or candles in the distance. A subtle and increasing hum, almost inaudible and beyond reach. As we approached the heart of the city the distant lights became camp fires, which then became burning cars and heaps of debris as the weight of reality set in. The hum transcended into shouts and howls or rage as I noticed a group tipping over a car and tossing trash at the bus we were on.

Some circles say that on the 7th day he rested. The oddity of happenstance, that on the 7th day of deliberations for the Rodney King trial, a verdict set unrest in motion. We all had seen the tape, and we all had loosely followed the trial, knowing there would be no justice. Perhaps it was cynicism or at least for me more apropos a conditioned form of apathy. For in my short lifespan such things were of the norm. Dodging the harassment of cops was as commonplace as knowing which color to wear, or what places you should never venture alone through. As a youth laden teen I embraced the feeling of immortality and gleaned from injustice and prejudice that it was merely a fact of life. However as immortal as I may have felt, for the first time I got to see my world fall apart. The world I had known was tearing itself apart and burning itself alive. From my window aboard the bus I could see the pain, but parts of me were too naive to feel it.

The bus pulled into the station where chaos began to take hold. The occupants scattered to the winds and luckily my buddy’s parents were there to grab us and get us home. On our side street tactical movements through the city, one could see every facet of war and disaster zone intertwined. We had everything from gun toting Koreans on rooftops, to people snatching up that last VCR from the rubble of a Radio Shack. I managed to get dropped off in Lynwood, and my buddy back to his abode in South-Gate, just before the South-Gate PD sealed the town off from the dissidents from the other surrounding South L.A. towns.

My family relieved I had made it, and all I wanted to do was explore. From all around, one could hear eruptions of gunfire, and the soft constant hiss and pop of a city cremating. The night sky blazoned with its own aurora of orange and the occasional helicopter spotlight. Countless people roamed the streets regardless of “enforced” curfew. Some to wreak havoc, and few to call for peace only as long as it took until the next shop was cracked open and looting was available again.

For my young mind there was an air of freedom I felt. Indeed the city was self-destructing for something righteous, but the thought that the days of choosing red or blue were now gone. We were in some ways united. Furthermore perhaps this would purge the hate and let us all grow together in a world without labels, or colors. Like I mentioned, I was young.

Across from the apartment complex I was living in was a massive strip mall of stores now only existing in memory. On one end of the mall called the Lynwood Plaza, an Alpha Beta grocery store. Beside it a J.J. Newberry’s whose modern day equivalent would probably be a brick and mortar version of Fingerhut. Those two stores alone accounted for most of my grandmother’s spending sprees. Down at the foot of the gigantic body of shops stood Clark’s Drugstore. A very rare but quite frequented apothecary due to its cheap and delicious ice cream cone shop nestled within. This plaza which had been there since the 50’s would meet it’s end during the riots.

I recall sitting with my grandparents in the living room watching the news between power fluctuations when there was an earth shattering explosion. As I ran outside with grandparents in tow, the panes of glass in the building still shaking we felt a wave of heat. At first glance toward the blast I could make out a mass of shopping carts full of raw meat and groceries pouring out of the Alpha Beta, driven by what appeared to be a speed walking homeless force. As this troop liberated the grocery store of it’s contents, my eyes fell upon the source of the explosion. It was the drugstore engulfed in flames. In that moment I saw every moment that grandpa had taken me in for an ice cream cone utterly and abruptly disintegrate. A seemingly trivial tradition, yet it shook me as if the explosion had propelled me to the ground. To this day it creates a stir despite the passage of time.

We all simply watched it burn. There was nothing that could be done except to watch with an occasional dodging motion whenever another explosion of something inside the building would erupt. The days and nights were restless and with the police and National Guard being ineffective there was no end in sight. No end to the strife. No end to the hate. No end to the racism. Life stops for nothing and the daily routine was only slightly altered. I’d sneak out when I could and check out the area, grab a provision or two, and hang out with friends. The stench of the ongoing adversity hung over the city fog of war. Confusion infused with ignorance felt as if the new life blood of this city of fallen angels. Even when Rodney King asked us all to get along, his words instantly fell into becoming a punchline to the hoards of the marginalized.

To me the riots came to an end on one morning. I was taking a break from a morning stroll in which I took stock of what got looted last night, and what stores I could buy goods from. I sat across the smoldering ashes of what would never again be Lynwood Plaza. Across the parking lot marched a sea of green, accompanied by Humvees. The footfalls of these men seemed to drown out the noise of the city. As if a dying heart being resuscitated. The Marines had been called in and they were going to bring peace, one way or another. It was at that very moment I knew what was in my future.

I still laugh to myself whenever I see a youngin brandishing an anarchy symbol tattoo. It takes me back to this time of calamity, rage, and quite honestly the odd habits of opportunists. The folks stealing electronics whilst smiling at video cameras with reckless abandon. The jubilant rejoicing of those scoring 20 pounds of ground meat with no freezer to store it in. Many have seen anarchy in practice, and it’s a great many things but in my opinion none of it tattoo worthy. Nevertheless I cannot speak for another person’s travails. I can barely speak for my own. At times I feel the person in the oven feeling the heat, at others on the outside looking in. I can only say that I’ll always be a learner and a work in progress. Much like my city was and still is. On the ashes of the plaza now sits a middle school. I still fail to see an end in sight for racism, but I’m hopeful we did make some progress.

…labors and dangers…


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