Memoir

239. They’ll Slam Ya Down to the Street Top

ATOMIC Hot Links, Flickr Creative Commons

ATOMIC Hot Links, Flickr Creative Commons

I would be exaggerating if I told you that everyone in Los Angeles had an LAPD story back in ’92, but it sure seemed like it.

Top cop Daryl Gates was known throughout L.A. as a heavy-handed bully, and many of his officers followed his lead. Los Angeles is a huge city both in terms of square mileage and population, so obviously that great expanse was patrolled by more good policemen than bad, but for many of us the thugs set the tone for the department. If you didn’t have a firsthand story of LAPD intimidation by the end of the eighties, you at least had a second or third-hand one.

If you didn’t, you did after March 3, 1991. That’s the date that the whole world got a glimpse of Gates’s department in action. Personal video cameras were not yet ubiquitous, so the grainy footage of Rodney King being brutalized by a bunch of droogs from A Clockwork Orange shocked people. Without either an internet or Fox News squirting jet fuel on the fire, people formed their own opinions about what footage the story told. The farther one’s distance from L.A., the greater the likelihood that the tape’s story was “the dude probably deserved it.” Not in Los Angeles, though. Black, white, Latino — ethnicity didn’t matter because we all knew somebody who had some sort of run in with the droogs. The Rodney King tape meant that finally something was going to be done about Gates’s thuggery.

Los Angeles residents waited patiently for one year for the Rodney King trial, and why not? This was a slam dunk, after all. I mean, come on — the droogs were caught on tape. Finally, four cops went to trial on charges of assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force.

The verdict came in on April 29, 1992. I was in my cutting room on the Warner Hollywood lot, busily staying out of my editor’s way on The Looters. KCRW announced the acquittal during a news break. I was pissed. My editor was pissed. Everybody was pissed. Up and down the hallway people emerged from their cutting rooms to share their pissery.

By the time I got home that evening the first windows had been broken. We may have been pissed in Hollywood, but they were outraged in South Central. The local news covered the reaction in pornographic detail — the tears, the screaming, the speeches ranging from Civil Rights-era rhetoric to NWA-style “fuck the police.” But what the news cameras liked most was the violence. Shatttering glass makes for good television.

Then a semi stopped at the corner of Florence and Normandie. Rioters pulled the driver from the truck and beat the shit out of him while Live Action Copter 7 circled lazily and captured every pornographic detail. The driver lay in the intersection, bloodied and unconscious. One of the attackers spiked a cinder block on the poor bastard’s head and did a little touchdown dance. The rioters moved onto their next target, but Live Action Copter 7 stayed with the dead trucker, circling him like a buzzard eager to eviscerate its dinner.

But then he moved. The driver crawled toward his truck like Rocky trying to beat the count. Would he make it? Would his attackers return? It was the single most gripping moment in television history.

My stomach knotted. South Central was literally on fire now. I ran up to the roof of the Su Casa Apartments. A black plume emerged on the horizon like a smoke signal. Whether it said “send help” or “this is war” was anybody’s guess. I stayed up there for hours, watching the distant fires’ glow.

My city was on fire, but there was nowhere else to go. This was my home, even if it was just a shitty Hollywood apartment with a cardboard box for a television stand. I thought about people in places like Beirut, how I’d often wondered why they didn’t simply go somewhere else. For the first time I understood.

 

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  1. My city on fire, yes. Many years before I had a saxophone teacher, jazz musician Bill Green, who gave me lessons in exchange for my being a janitor at a small music school down on Crenshaw and 32nd. My time spent in South Central was good, productive. I felt like I was a decent hardworking part of the world for a little while back then, and to see the stores where I had shopped, houses of friends get torched, like someone throwing an old photograph of a happy time into a fire….it’s an emotional wound that will never heal.

    I did not have a television, and lived in my shitty little apartment in relatively unknown, unhip lower Loz Feliz, and one of my best friends lived around the corner. We had hit the Lucky’s market on Vermont earlier that day, standing with strangers watching the smoke plume it’s way up Vermont Avenue, everyone pissed, sad, scared.

    Of our little group of friends, John and Eric were black, Craig was Latino – the vibe inside Lucky’s market as we entered tightened, the question “were John and Eric going to start smashing things” hovered around the cashiers, it dissipated after a bit, but it was there and I had never felt anything like it. That was probably the closest I will ever be to having a moment of what it feels like to not be “white” – you are just picking up a few staples at the market, and this constant low side eye tension – I think I’d go fucking insane after a while.
    Later that night, after the curfew had been imposed, I couldn’t stand being alone anymore, so to hell with the curfew, I trotted around the corner to my girlfriends house, where I would join my friends and watch the news. The street was empty, another phenomenon. Then it was snowing. Snowing white ash covering all the parked cars on the street in a thin layer, I had ash in my hair and eyes when I got to her door.
    I cannot remember how late I stayed, but I knew I walked home slowly, the street even more deserted, the ash falling harder, and the feeling of hopelessness, of being unable to do anything was overwhelming.

    The next day I knew there was something I could do, but that is a story for another day.

    Rodney King stands out for all of us as some kind of marker, and here we are 23 years later, with shootings, police brutality and rioting happening about once a month. What is it that the collective “we” are not learning? How is it possible that we have devolved at such an alarming rate since that horrifying, tragic night 23 years ago?

    Like

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