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.