IT'S 20 YEARS SINCE LOS ANGELES LAST BURNED, far worse than in 1965 (the Watts Riot) and more destructively than in 1943 (the Zoot Suit Riots) or in 1871 (the Chinese Massacre). L.A. may burn again, even if as many believe, the igniting brutality of the LAPD has been dampened. Still, the disparity of prospects for ill-educated youth and the city's working poor is greater today than it was in either 1992 or 1965. L.A.'s permanent social fractures generate enough tinder, and self-immolation becomes us. It's one of our hateful characteristics, along with a sick fascination with apocalypses and self-inflicted amnesia.
Most of us don't care to remember. But in Watts (even after 47 years), you can still see places — like faint smudges — where businesses had been burned out or failed soon after the fires. And in neighborhoods south of downtown, 20 years after the Rodney King verdicts, lot-size gaps still hole the streetscape. They hardly get a second glance. In north Long Beach, where news helicopters rarely hovered in 1992, the city put up low, three-rail white fences around the emptied lots, looking like corrals for ponies. Our places remember better than Anglo L.A. ever will.
For one thing, places don't get bored. In our distracted recollection of the events that followed the acquittal of four police officers who clubbed Rodney King into compliance with the LAPD's formal modes of submission, our L.A. is located unhelpfully between the representations in commission reports and the intensely personal, sudden, and fleeting sensations of those who stood in and around the flames. As spectacle — even as a moral spectacle in the monologues of Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — the events of 20 years ago are nothing but moments. What the words riot, civil disturbance, rebellion, or uprising should have meant to us we have displaced, partly by the lingering trauma and partly by forgetfulness. Memory for L.A. is an empty can to be kicked down the road as we wait again for whatever.
Tomorrow has always been this city's unreachable destination. As one civic booster early in the 20th century put it, Los Angeles has "everything in the future." True enough in 1992 and today as well: everything tomorrow and nothing today, where we actually live, and little of substance from the past, either. For Angelenos, the death of Kendrec McDade, the random shootings of black residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida (reminiscent of the shooting of young Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in 1991) are insufficient as reminders or as sparks. But not for every Angeleno.
In 2002, Jervey Tervalon (in his introduction to Geography of Rage: Remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992) could write that the common bonfire had made survivors in common:
We lived through it, were scared and furious, considered bailing on Los Angeles, and feared that this explosion of rage was just the precursor of more unrest. ... We struggled with the fragmented opinions of hows and whys; the city was too colored, too poor, too vicious, too divided to pull itself back from the abyss of the largest civil disturbance in the history of the Unit...