British Columbia·Point of View

Revisiting the L.A. riots 25 years later

Twenty-five years after the Los Angeles riots, I still wonder what happened to some of the people I encountered amid the chaos of that first night and the anxiety of the days after.

CBC reporter amazed at social media reconnections with people on the streets that night

In this April 29, 1992 file photo, demonstrators protest the verdict in the Rodney King beating case in front of the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters in Los Angeles. (Nick Ut, File/The Associated Press)

Twenty-five years after the Los Angeles riots, I still wonder what happened to some of the people I encountered amid the chaos of that first night and the anxiety of the days after.

There was the young African American woman who told me about the hopelessness of life in the inner city, describing on camera what the American Dream meant to her: "Trying to get enough money to feed my child without having to sell my body or sell drugs."

Or the Korean-American man, watching in despair as looters ransacked his store the first night of the riots.

"Business gone," he told me, "Where are the police?"

Or the university students, some with tears in their eyes, who came to South Central L.A. on the first weekend after the riot, volunteering to help rebuild, a job that still isn't finished a quarter century later.

Rodney King Riots

April 29, 1992 is indelibly etched in the memories of those who were in Los Angeles that day. The riots were spurred by the acquittal of four white police officers who had been charged with assaulting Rodney King, who was black.

That assault was caught on video, and the officers were seen hitting him repeatedly with their batons, striking and kicking him while he was on the ground. To many in South Central, it was clear evidence of a criminal assault.

The jury disagreed.

Rodney King's legacy

10 years ago
Duration 2:35
CBC's Keith Boag looks at the life and legacy of Rodney King

It didn't take long for anger to spill over in the African-American community, from protests, to looting and setting fires, to brutal assaults, including the attack on Reginald Denny, a white man pulled from his truck and badly beaten, broadcast live from a TV news helicopter.

Dozens of people were killed and police were overwhelmed by the flood of emergency calls. It wasn't until the next night that National Guard soldiers were dispatched to the the streets of South Central. It would take almost a week before the city-wide curfew in Los Angeles was lifted.

Finding answers

On the 10th anniversary in 2002, we tried to track down some of the people we talked to in L.A. in those first few days of the riots, but without any luck. We had names but no addresses, the few phone numbers we collected had changed.

Now, 25 years later, we're at another major anniversary and perhaps our last chance to look back. It's been an opportunity for us to replay some excerpts from those old stories, another reminder of those amazing characters and incredible moments.

And one piece of archival material has led to an unexpected post-script, thanks to something none of us could have imagined in 1992: social media.

In this April 30, 1992 file photo, smoke rises from a shopping centre burned by rioters in Los Angeles after four police officers had been acquitted of the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King. (Paul Sakuma, File/The Associated Press)

One Tweet 

Last Friday, I tweeted a link to a piece of raw tape, shot by CBC cameraman Steve Rendall. On the first night, when police were still overwhelmed by rioting in South Central we spent a couple of hours outside what locals call a swap meet — a building the size of a supermarket, filled with vendors' stands.

That was where we saw the anguished Korean-American storekeeper. Looters casually walked out with armloads of goods, his livelihood.

Around 2 a.m., two or three LAPD police cruisers pulled up, the officers huddled briefly and decided to go inside. Steve walked right up to them. Broken glass crunching under our shoes, I expected one of the officers to yell at us to go away. They didn't say a word.

Guns drawn, with no way of knowing who might be inside the vast building, they slowly worked their way through the aisles, strewn with debris. Five LAPD officers and a cameraman and reporter from Vancouver.

It was an extraordinary moment.

Big John McCarthy

That was the video I tweeted on Friday. Soon, I started getting replies. "Big John McCarthy." It didn't register. "Hey, John McCarthyMMA."

Turns out, the tall guy carrying the shotgun had become famous in the world of mixed martial arts, refereeing many of the biggest bouts. I wondered if it was possible those Twitter followers had the right guy.

And then McCarthy himself tweeted, "That was a long time ago. Funny how you instantly remember things from that time."

Someone named Joseph Hamilton thanked me for sharing the video, writing, "25 years ago tomorrow night, John, Mark, Dennis, Alex and I...clearing one of many buildings."

Small moments in time

I know the role of the LAPD is a contentious part of what happened in the city.  And I know many in the African-American community saw that encounter and the verdict as a symbol of a bigger problem with the police force.

On this anniversary, a lot of people are analyzing that relationship, including two guests we had on our show: Dr Darnell Hunt, the head of UCLA's Center for African American studies and Bernard Parks, deputy LAPD chief during the riot. He eventually became chief.

But the broader analysis doesn't change those small moments in time.

This April 30, 1992 file photo shows looters running with stolen merchandise from a Payless Shoestore near the Crenshaw and Jefferson area of Los Angeles. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess, file/The Associated Press)

When you're a reporter in the middle of a big event, all you know is what you can see. And for a few minutes, I saw five police officers who accepted the risks of entering a looted building to try to restore some order amid swaths of lawlessness.

They couldn't have had any idea who we were but they quickly and silently assessed that we weren't a risk to them and let us do our job. They didn't try to block the camera but neither did they play to it. As journalists, you seek to show what's really happening and that raw video was as real as it gets.

Over the past few days, I've been exchanging emails with one of the officers. Turns out we're about the same age, have sons born after 1992 and loved Joseph Wambaugh novels when we were younger. I know how his day began — getting ready to serve search warrants  — but he hasn't yet described the moment he entered that building.

I hope that eventually he will. But for now, I feel fortunate those five officers have become more than anonymous faces, from a chance encounter on a dangerous night.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Hanomansing is the co-host of The National. Since 1986, he has had a wide variety of assignments for CBC as a reporter, anchor and interviewer. He also has a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax.

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