IT’S BEEN 25 YEARS since a Simi Valley jury acquitted the cops who beat Rodney King and Los Angeles erupted in flames. The L.A. Riots, or Rebellion — more on that later — constituted the most destructive, expensive civil disturbance in US history, and became a definitive event in our city’s history.
I was a clueless child in the suburbs in ’92, but the events of that spring are integral to my understanding of Los Angeles. Every older Angeleno has stories about that time; I remember talking to my auto body guy while waiting for a ride a while back, and it turned out he was close friends with Eddie Lee, the 18-year-old Korean-American kid killed by other Korean Americans who thought he was a looter.
I talked to Gary Phillips, Nina Revoyr, and Jervey Tervalon about their memories of ’92 and the history of Los Angeles. These are three L.A. writers I admire deeply, whose work and lives are bound to our city. Phillips’s written numerous novels, comic books, and short stories — most recently the collection Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers; his Ivan Monk series has tracked Los Angeles since his ’94 debut Violent Spring. Revoyr’s entire oeuvre circles around Los Angeles, and her novel Southland is a seminal work centered on the Watts Rebellion of 1965. Tervalon is a poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, teacher, and gatherer of stories; in 2002, he edited Geography of Rage, a collection of personal writing by a diverse group of writers, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the unrest.
STEPH CHA: You all have deep ties to Los Angeles. How has this city shaped you as writers?
GARY PHILLIPS: It’s where I was born and raised and came of age as a community organizer. It’s in my blood, my DNA. A city I know by its dive bars and mom-and-pop donut shops, but a city I have to constantly relearn as it continues to reinvent itself. Where I grew up in South Central is now a majority Latino working-class area, as opposed to the majority black working-class area I knew in the ’60s and ’70s. On my block of Flower Street alone, eight or nine people were in one union or another. That is no more.
These days, in Boyle Heights, groups like the Zapatista-styled Serve the People militantly struggle against who they perceive as gentrifiers, and along Fairfax Avenue near Canter’s Deli, in what is the historic Jewish section of town, young people of various hues and persuasions line up for the latest limited edition tennis shoes or hang out in shops selling DJ turntables and what not.
So, of course, it’s my job as a writer who sets a good number of his stories here to have as current a grasp of this city as I can. Not to info dump on the pages, but all the better to soak up the stuff that gives a sense of the fault lines, as well as where there are those intersections and interplay of its people.
NINA REVOYR: Los Angeles shaped me both as a writer and a person. I did not grow up in privilege. I was an immigrant from Japan, the child of a single dad, and we lived in a neighborhood where gang members hung out on the playground, where hearing gunshots was not uncommon. It’s probably fair to say our neighborhood in Culver City was lower middle class, but I also traveled to much more impacted areas — Compton, South Los Angeles, parts of Inglewood — to play basketball. Many of the kids I grew up with fell into drugs, the criminal justice system, early pregnancy, and that shook me; these kids had all kinds of smarts and potential, but lacked support and access. My jobs with nonprofits and now in philanthropy grew directly out of that knowledge and those experiences.
My high school in Culver City — which was a totally different place then — was incredibly diverse. There were something like 47 languages spoken in my school, and there were black kids, Latinos, Jewish kids, Vietnamese, Japanese, and various mixes like me. This completely shaped my view of what the world was like. When I went to the East Coast for college, to a much whiter environment, it was a shock to the system. Los Angeles — and particularly my high school experience — gave me my multiracial view of the world. People often remark on the diversity in my novels. But my characters aren’t diverse because I’m trying to make a political point. They’re diverse because they reflect the world as I know it.
JERVEY TERVALON: As a teenager in South Los Angeles, I worked for Anti-Self Destruction, a government-funded neighborhood advocacy nonprofit. There I met Ollie, a handsome, slender supervisor who rocked lime green jumpsuits and sported a neat beard. One day I needed to talk to Ollie — he had been a Black Panther — about being more serious, more down for black folks, and being committed to the cause. He looked at me with perfect seriousness and said, “Just keep being your weird-ass self.” I took his words to heart, and have never let them go.
I have never let South L.A. go either. I grew up in the middle of the Crenshaw–Baldwin Hills–Jefferson Park area, otherwise known as Black Los Angeles, a place that punched way above its weight as a center of black life in the United States at the time. Often when whites write (sometimes to great critical success) about Black Los Angeles, they describe it as the sum total of its self-inflicted pathologies, rarely seeing the beauty of the particularity of life there, or the complex intersection of class and intraracial conflict.
I remember going shopping with my mom at the Boys Market on Crenshaw when Crenshaw was still Japanese. And I remember hanging out in the magazine and book section and being terrified by Alfred Hitchcock short stories. Later I discovered that Japanese magazines had naked women in them, but no one seemed to notice my 10-year-old self panting with excitement.
The nearby Holiday Bowl bowling alley was probably the only place in the world where you could get sashimi, hot links, grits, and donburi under the same roof. I was lucky to live on the edge of everything — near the shining affluence of Baldwin Hills, and close enough to the heat of working-class neighborhoods. In 1964, we moved to a neighborhood of New Orleans expatriates, and I attended Holy Name of Jesus Christ Catholic Church on Jefferson. I attended their elementary school for just one year, because a nun there decided that I was mildly retarded. My mother threatened to rip the veil off of the nun and I was sent to a public school to study with the heathens.
Sure, I got my ass kicked, and occasionally guns we’re pointed in my direction, but that could happen anywhere in the city of angels. The Black Los Angeles I grew up in is a moveable feast of memory. How could I not become a writer?
SC: Where were you during the unrest of ’92? What do you remember about that week? That year?
GP: Leading up to the riots — or civil unrest, to some — I was the outreach director for the Liberty Hill Foundation. Then as now, Liberty Hill funded grassroots community organizing efforts in underserved areas of the Southland. That could be anything from issues around police abuse, to tenants’ rights, to the then-volatile black-Korean relations in South Central. My gig took me from meeting with groups in the projects in Watts, churches in Boyle Heights, to meetings with other foundation types in high-rises downtown. Also, a few of my friends and comrades and I had been reading and discussing Mike Davis’s seminal work City of Quartz. After the conflagration, a number among the punditry class said he had predicted the riots.
Be that as it may, I don’t recall any particular rumblings before shit jumped off, but pessimism was high in the black community. The Soon Ja Du verdict was fresh in folks’ minds, and there was the feeling that, despite George Holliday’s surreptitious video evidence of the cops beating the living daylights out of Rodney King, would there be justice this time? The trial of the four officers was, of course, talked about in the media, in barber shops, and on talk radio. I do, though, vividly recall that day when the verdicts came in. The countdown was on and the jury’s decision was said to come down that afternoon — special bulletins bleeped from TVs and radios that April 29. When we heard the news in the Liberty Hill offices, we looked at each other and knew it was not a good thing.
Even as my boss told us we should all get home — Liberty Hill was headquartered in Santa Monica in those days — there came that surreal moment that invariably happens during stressful events. The phone rang and it wasn’t the media, but a colleague from out of town had just landed at LAX and he needed a ride. I mean, he was clueless as to what was going down in Los Angeles.
I’ve written about this elsewhere (Geography of Rage, edited by Mr. Tervalon), but once the fuse was lit, I hunkered down with a bottle of Jack for liquid courage, and my pistol, too — like any other terrified member of the petty bourgeoisie, looking to protect his property — in our crib in Mid-City as my wife took our then young children to the relative safety of a friend’s place in the Valley.
NR: I was living in a small village in the mountains of Japan. It was the year after I graduated from college. Because of the time difference, and the fact that my only source of news was Japanese television, my experience of learning about the unrest in Los Angeles was disjointed and strange.
A friend sent me hours of videotapes of L.A. news coverage — this was in the time of VHS tapes — and I sat transfixed, watching it for hours. It was beyond bizarre and heartbreaking to see neighborhoods I knew become the scenes of such violence and disarray. At some point, there were National Guardsmen surrounding the shopping center near the apartment where I grew up. It was like watching something terrible befall my family, and I was so far away I couldn’t do anything about it.
That summer, I came home for a couple of weeks and drove around South Los Angeles. So much had been destroyed — the scars on the landscape were still vivid and fresh. When I finally returned to Los Angeles a year after that, I went to work for a Head Start agency in one of the hardest-hit areas. Even then, two years later, there were shells of burned out buildings and empty lots. There still are.
JT: My wife at the time didn’t want me to go, insisting that it was a stupid thing to do when the television shows were being preempted by breaking footage of rioters setting ablaze palm trees in front of Parker Center. I told her not to worry, that as a big brown-skinned man, wearing his Malcolm X beanie with a walking stick and a 75-pound Siberian husky on a leash, I felt fully capable of handling whatever might come my way. Yeah, I was a fool.
The protestors started downtown at Parker Center and seemed much like the Greens and other social activists protesting World Bank and IMF gatherings, but that was only the beginning; the turmoil rolled on, gathering in strength and viciousness, and by that time the fires had spread to dozens of neighborhoods and got huge legs. The rioting involved much of the central city and beyond. I shared that rage. The police were sadistic pigs; the city had earned its bitter harvest — but I didn’t know then how intensely the fires were burning, or how sharp the odor of burned-out homes and looted businesses would be.
I turned onto Prospect Boulevard, that lovely tree-lined street with the occasional mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or the Green Brothers. By the time I reached Arroyo Boulevard, the street that overlooks the Rose Bowl, I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of staccato gunfire coming from around the Bowl. Looking into the darkness, I strained to see what was jumping off down below. Then tires squealed and I saw various cars roaring away from the road that encircled the Bowl — where we jogged and cyclists buzzed by in their crazed peloton. I heard it again, closer — this time the sound of different caliber weapons — and I was genuinely panicked. Looking into the weirdly dark roads below, I saw cars roaring away from the Rose Bowl, flashes from the muzzles of their guns, up toward the sweet, moneyed Prospect neighborhood: the neighborhood I was walking in. They’d see my big white husky and me and think I was a rich bastard that needed shooting.
I trotted back to my working-class neighborhood, but not so quickly as to miss noticing how deserted the streets were. Just about home, I saw a black woman working on her car, adroitly using an engine jack to drop her engine all by herself. I shouted to her that some fools were shooting up the Rose Bowl. She sighed and shook her head. “I told those idiots not to be doing that. Nothing good is gonna come out of shooting up the city. That’s not gonna do nothing for nobody.” I remember that woman’s words more clearly than Rodney King’s “Can we all get along?”
SC: You’ve all written about these events in some form or another. Where do they fit into the history of Los Angeles? How about your imagination of Los Angeles?
NR: The ’92 incident was the second civil disturbance, after Watts in ’65. The fact that there was a second one underscores how little had actually changed since the first. The recommendations of the McCone Commission report — on issues like education, jobs, and housing — weren’t heeded. Huge disparities existed — and still exist — between the incredibly privileged and the more burdened parts of the city. The LAPD, in ’92, was still in suppression mode, particularly in black communities. And because Los Angeles is spread out geographically, it was easy for people to stay in their separate spheres and not feel like part of the same place, the same community.
The uprisings fit into the history of Los Angeles by reminding us — dramatically, and at great cost — that the hopefulness and opportunity for which L.A. is rightly known are not necessarily available to everyone.
As far as my own imagination, the uprisings remind me that history doesn’t always happen in textbooks. Most of the real stories are passed over by recorded history, and by mainstream media, too. Some of the most compelling stories involve people and families, as well as the conflicts — and allegiances — between communities. While there are still a lot of divisions in Los Angeles along lines of race and class, there are also places where people unexpectedly come together — the mix of Latino, Jewish, and Japanese in Boyle Heights; the deep connection between Japanese Americans and African Americans in Crenshaw. That latter connection is at the heart of my novel Southland. I loved going into the Holiday Bowl and seeing black folks and Japanese folks of all ages bowling and eating together. I loved what it said and meant: that people took great pride in who they were, but could also see themselves as part of a larger community, a larger collective whole.
It’s the work and charge of artists to uncover those stories, and to push people to see the complexities. Los Angeles has this image of being light and superficial, of being “La La Land.” It may be easier for most people to see it — and dismiss it — that way. But the real place is much messier, and much more interesting.
GP: Once the rioting was over and the analysis and condemnation began on the right and left, the idea percolated in me. I’d written a previous mystery novel, but couldn’t get it published. Yet here I was in the thick of the aftermath as I transitioned from Liberty Hill to being one of the directors (a politically correct troika, I might add, of an African American, a 1.5er, and a Chicano) of the MultiCultural Collaborative, an effort begun by the social change players in Los Angeles to address matters of race at the grassroots and policy levels. I knew the terrain from various sides, including meetings with the individuals involved in hammering out the gang truce. The story was right there in front of me. I had to draw on my own experiences and the terrain I’d been traversing and insert my private eye Ivan Monk into what became Violent Spring.
It seems one of the historical lessons of Sa-i-Gu is that imbalances in the socio-political sphere, ignored or merely covered by a Band-Aid, will invariably create a backlash in some form or another. From the streets in Ferguson to Trump’s victory at the ballot box, you can see that play out. I’m old enough to have seen the Watts Riots of ’65 — or Rebellion, if you prefer — as a kid, and what was that result? There was a federal response of job training programs and the like, unlike ’92, where Bush the Elder did his bus tour and essentially said we were on our own. But the white backlash to ’65 was Mayor Sam Yorty demonizing soft-spoken candidate Tom Bradley, and Ronald Reagan being elected governor.
But back to the riots and what they symbolized as expressed in our pop culture. The work they inspired is both an expression of the imaginations of cultural artists and, in turn, fired the imaginations of the consumers of the material. Grand Canyon, made before ’92, but about the racial and class divides of the city, has been cited, like City of Quartz, as presaging events. A month before the riots, Ice-T and Body Count had released the song “Cop Killer,” which sent Charlton Heston into a tizzy; Ice Cube’s The Predator album, reflecting on race and police accountability, among other issues, was released in November of that year. “Riots ain’t nothing but diets for the system,” declared the man who would, years later, go on to make the kid-friendly movie Are We There Yet?
JT: I don’t think that Los Angeles much wants to remember the largest and costliest civil disturbance in the history of the United States. No, it’s almost as though the city has some sort of amnesia, or maybe it’s fear — fear that what happened then could jump up and bite us again.
For some, the riots were almost a random event, linked tenuously to the Rodney King beating: another example of those damn black and brown folk getting out of hand again. At least that’s what the media fed us. I guess their reasoning was that the minorities accepted police abuse before and didn’t try to burn the city down like back in Watts in 1965, so why should 1992 be much different? This kind of reasoning is only viable when the natives are so far off you can’t hear the drums pounding away, venting rage.
What preceded Rodney King was the 1965 riots, but maybe there wasn’t really a gap of decades between these events … maybe it was one continuous through line: incoherent rage becomes coherent rage and shit happens.
I came to Los Angeles in 1964 at about the age of six, and the city burst into flames just to welcome me. As a boy, it was disturbing to see fire in the distance and smoke wafting to the Jefferson Park area where I was growing up. Though seeing the tanks and half-tracks rolling along Exposition Boulevard was cool. I’m inclined to think of disaster, and the riots only confirmed my fears — but nothing, no riots or whatever, could have prepared me for Trump … I feel on the verge of rioting.
SC: We’re all writers here, and we know that language matters, so I want to talk terminology for a minute. It seems like the events of ’92 are commonly referred to as the L.A. Riots, but I gather that this isn’t exactly a neutral designation. How do you refer to them? What distinguishes a riot from an uprising or a disturbance?
GP: The classic definitions are that a “riot” is spontaneous and an “uprising” is planned. But, as you said, language matters. While the conflagration wasn’t planned to jump off at Florence and Normandie — an opening salvo that looked like it was out of the Battle of Algiers textbook — nonetheless, this did represent a violent, inchoate expression of the pent-up anger and frustration the community was feeling. It’s in that political context that I use “unrest” or “uprising.” Even then, as buildings burned, the analysis was also happening — from the right on KFI and the left on KPFK, as examples — and notions of what to do once the embers started to cool were being offered from some quarters.
I mean, what if there had been an organization, a formation, that was poised to contend for state power should a riot break out, and agents had been salted in, as it were — the gardener, the housekeeper, the hotel maid, and so on — who could fan the flames while also carrying out strategic actions? I suppose that’s why the only thing I have in common with Steve Bannon is that I’ve read Lenin, too.
JT: When the police regularly use deadly force or brutal force as a tool of suppression, we don’t have a police force there to protect and serve. Rather, it’s an occupying force. Communities rebel against an occupation, and a disorganized rebellion functions as a riot. It’s logical to assume oppression will lead to organized rebellion: either Guerilla warfare or passive resistance, maybe both.
I used to call it the 1992 Riot/Rebellion, but now I say the 1992 Rebellion. And as definitions have been refined over time by organizations such as Black Lives Matter, I think the concept of rioting as mindless destructive behavior will give way to more thoughtful analysis in mainstream media.
NR: I don’t think either ’92 or ’65 can be simply defined. People acted for a variety of reasons. But the issue with using the word “riot” so easily, as much of the press does, is that it can suggest that there was no causality, no context. The ’65 unrest happened in direct response to a police stop gone bad in Watts — and decades of suppressive actions on the part of police toward African-American residents. The ’92 unrest happened in the wake of the acquittal of the cops who beat Rodney King — the beating that caused disgust and anger not just in Los Angeles, but all over the world. Each of these heartbreaking periods of civil unrest happened in response to precipitating events, which caused years of frustration, anger, belittlement, and despair to spill forth. And that frustration and anger was not just about the police, but more broadly about the lack of opportunity, racism, the systemic exclusion of entire sets of people. A lot of what happened was obviously terrible and destructive, and certainly there were individuals who took advantage of the chaos and acted in ways that had nothing to do with resistance. But I don’t want to dismiss the very real — and justified — pain and anger of entire communities by using language that oversimplifies what happened.
SC: Could this happen again? Are we doing better than we were 25 years ago?
NR: We are doing better than 25 years ago, but not well enough. There is significant progress in South Los Angeles: real investment in infrastructure through projects like the new Metro Line, the soccer stadium, the Lucas museum, the new Martin Luther King Community Hospital, the Frank Gehry project my old organization is building in Watts. There is progressive political leadership, and entities like Community Coalition and L.A. Trade Tech are pushing real change, bridging racial divides, and thinking strategically about education and jobs. All of this can lead to economic opportunity and hope, which is the antidote to the despair that caused the unrest.
And LAPD has made some real strides, too — partly through the prodding of civil rights attorneys like Connie Rice and tools like the federal consent decree, partly through a few key police leaders who have emphasized engagement over suppression. There’s a highly successful community-policing model, first started in Watts at the behest of resident leaders, that has been recognized by President Obama and is now being expanded to other parts of the city. In the areas where it’s operated, it’s led to huge decreases in violent crime and big increases in levels of trust between communities of color and the police.
But these positive changes need to spread and continue. And policing is only part of the puzzle. The underlying issues of economic insecurity, educational quality, and lack of access still exist. There are other parts of L.A. county — the Northeast Valley, the Antelope Valley, and East Los Angeles among them — that are also struggling. And now there is the new layer of fear and insecurity around immigration. Could there be another civil disturbance? Possibly. But I hope that the combined efforts of resident leaders and more enlightened police could minimize the chances.
GP: I remember years ago being on a KPFK radio show commemorating the Watts Rebellion and the host asked us that question. I said yes, a riot could happen again, and the host advised that no, it couldn’t, given the superior firepower of the LAPD and so on. Yet they did. Now Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Chicago, et cetera, have had their tense confrontations. An enraged people often have nothing to lose. Maybe what we’ll see is not about race. I can easily envision long-haul truck drivers who will be displaced by self-driving trucks lighting one of those bad rascals on fire on Main Street, and it’s on.
If rents keep going through the ceiling like they are now in Los Angeles, rent strikes like in the Great Depression will for sure make a comeback. A nightstick slips and cracks an elderly lady’s skull, and who knows what might be the result. Yeah, another riot can happen.
With a jaundiced eye, I would offer we are better off. But I also see in the triumph of Trump my failure as a lefty crime fiction writer. Sure, you can’t reach everyone in those places like Fresno and Modoc who voted for him. I mean, I think people there would dig some of my stuff on an entertainment level, and maybe take away something else, given that people of color, male and female, are featured in my tales. I’ve been wrestling with how to do a Blue State Writers tour of the Red States. But, of course, something like that can only work by incorporating writers from those areas, and not coming there to preach, but to learn.
JT: The riots seem to come every 25 years or so, but now the enemy isn’t the LAPD or City Hall — the enemy is external. The enemy is the Trump World, and I believe we will be rioting against that with more ferocity than our riots in the past.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.