Watching the City Burn from the Rooftops—the L.A. Riots 20 Years Later

A personal remembrance of a low point of Los Angeles history.

We had a balcony seat to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. 

My housemate snaked a TV up to the second floor rooftop of the historic Craftsman in West Hollywood 20 years ago today and we watched—live all around us and on TV—our beloved Los Angeles burn.

It was a weird bit of sensurround. Not only were we watching live TV, but helicopters swooped overhead, we heard gunshots in a distance, and we could smell the smoke. Within hours, we watched the plume of smoke get closer and closer, coming up LaBrea Avenue, and eventually skipping past Santa Monica and going north to Hollywood Boulevard. It did erupt into the Valley, but only in certain areas. Studio City was spared.

Today, looking back, it amazes me more not that it happened, but how many people in my circle of people now who weren’t here when it happened. I found a stack of photos I took with my Canon SLR (remember those?) that I had to mail to Seattle Filmworks because all my 24-hour photo places had burned down or were shut down. Recently, I showed some friends the photos that I had stashed away for two decades and many were surprised that the rioting and looting had come so far into Hollywood and their neighborhood.

I went out and took the pictures on the second day, knowing that as a freelancer, I’d be writing a lot of stories about this. Thankfully, a few of the stories are findable on the Internet (and you don’t have to pay to read them CLICK HERE), so I could see what I was thinking at the time. (See my pictures in the photo gallery above.)

It was unnerving to see armed guys with rifles on the chic shops along LaBrea, ready to shoot anyone coming in. It was sad to see my Gower Gulch Denny’s with all the windows smashed, and a sign outside my computer store that said, “Nothing is left!!” Our local arts and craft store was destroyed and our favorite Korean barbecue was burned to the ground.

I remember my mom calling from Florida saying, “Was that the Sears that I went to last time I visited that all those families were taking things out of? I thought I recognized that place. Well, I hope they stock it up before I come visit again.” (That Sears near Western and Santa Monica was never the same after that.)

It was shocking to watch the looters. They just didn’t care, even posed for photos. In the photos that I posted here on Patch, I’ve included a photo of a military vehicle at the Trader Joe’s mini-mall not far from the house. That was just after Mayor Tom Bradley put a night curfew on the city. L.A. had become a war zone.

A cop stopped me as I was heading south of Wilshire on LaBrea the second day and suggested I not go any further even with the “Journalist/Periodista” placard I had on the dashboard.

“You’ve got a red car, kid,” the cop said. “And you’re in a convertible. Seriously, turn around.”

A red car in certain neighborhoods, no matter what color you were, could signify you were with the Bloods, and could be a target by the rival gang, the Crips. (Now I own a blue car, and it’s not a convertible.)

At the time, and even now, really, I considered the real L.A. Riots to be that incident that happened in 1965 that I read about when I was a kid. I was honored that five years before these riots that I got to know and befriended ‘Quette Frye, the Rodney King of that riot. (SEE THAT story here.) That was the real riot, when civil unrest and racial inequality was going on in Los Angeles, not now. That resulted in 34 deaths and $40 million in damages. 

Of course, the more recent riots resulted in much more—54 deaths and $1 billion in damages.

What’s changed in those 20 years? I tell my 10-year-old nephew that there were times not too long ago that he wouldn’t be able to go to school with friends of his who are darker skinned. He finds that hard to believe. Even more, he asks, “Why would they burn down their own neighborhoods?”

In all the coverage I wrote for the various national and international publications, I never mentioned that poignant moment that I found in the photos (and have in the galley above) of a skywriter who wrote the word “THINK” in the skies.

That advice came too late.

What has changed mostly is that it was an anomaly at the time that Rodney King had someone out there videotaping his beating.

Now, we all record incidents like this, and in an instant record it and beam it out to thousands, millions of people with a phone we carry in our pocket. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.

We’re all reporters now. We can all bear witness to the injustices happening around us.

And it’s at places like Patch where we can share those photos, those memories and those reports.

Please feel free to share your thoughts, and even post your photos you may have taken back then (just sign in and click on the UPLOAD PHOTOS OR VIDEO button).

After filing some stories the first few days two decades ago, the electricity was going off and on, so I bunked out with my girlfriend at the time at a highrise in Hollywood closer to Los Feliz. She didn’t want to see anymore coverage of the riots, so we went to a Blockbuster and rented a dozen movies and watched them on the VCR (remember those?) 

We watched the city burn, but in 20 years, we watched it all comeback, too. And, now we’re all equipped with an iPhone so we can share it with the world.

Mary McGrath April 29, 2012 at 01:45 PM
I was up in Seattle on a business trip when the riots hit. They enforced a curfew up there as well, as the city was showing some signs of strain. Still, very surreal to see all the looting, etc. on TV. Very scary.
E.M. Fredric April 29, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Beautifully written and poignantly told. I am honored to be among one of your writers and your friends.
Scott Zwartz April 30, 2012 at 04:06 PM
An important element to this civil uprising is seldom mentioned. The judicial system intentionally moved the police officers' trial up to Simi Valley, which was the notorious bedroom community of cops. The specific purpose of that unwarranted change of venue was to make certain the police officers would be acquitted. The Blacks and Mexicans had suffered for decades (make that "had always suffered") from discrimination, judicial railroading, and injustice from the Los Angeles Superior Courts. Now, finally they naively believed that these criminal cops would be on the receiving end. That was not to be. One also has to look at the pro-cop judge who was assigned to the case -- as further insurance of an acquittal. This powder keg was lit by the racist Gov. Pete Wilson when he took to the airwaves after the verdict and declared that Justice Had Been Done. Let's remember that Wilson was so racist that George Bush, when he was Texas governor, publicly admonished Wilson for his racists policies. Naturally, it is always the mental deranged and violent who break first and they took the lead in the mindless rioting and murders that followed. The real moral blame rests with the corrupt judiciary.
alanramsey May 07, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Scott Zwartz: So true. The simple fact is that after 20 years, many of the law enforcement and judicial systems are more corrupt and biased than they were back then. Just look at the US Supreme Court, which is the most politicized Court in modern History. We have Clarence Thomas presiding over the Romney-based Health Care Affordability Act... ...while Mr. Thomas' wife is a lobbyist for the insurance companies that seek the repeal of it for Insurance Company profits. When the ultra-conservative Roberts' Court came into being, the very first 2 cases they dictated went directly against the 1st and 4th Amendments to the Constitution. First, the "Bong Hits for Jesus" case in Alaska where marijuana is decriminalized and the student had the sign on a public street nowhere near the school during a parade...and the socially conservative christian principle raised a ruckus that caused the case to go to SCOTUS...therefore effectively dictating extreme religious speech constrictions against anything that is counter to conservative evangelical christianity: ...what I call "Evangelical Jihadism." If the sign had read "Bong Hits for Buddha" or "Bong Hits for Allah"...does anyone believe there'd have been a case? Next, the property rights of long-term residents at a beachfront location where the "Corporations are People" ideology began when the SCOTUS ruled that if the corporations could make a higher tax base, the Corps had eminent rights over the citizens.
Candice Lamon May 07, 2012 at 07:50 PM
I was working at Paramount Studios in Hollywood and they let the employees off early. As I was driving home to Beachwood Canyon I could see the smoke and smell the fire burning. I could see the fear in the drivers around me. When I got home I immediately turned the TV on and watched the riots until early morning. I had to remind myself that the riots were real and not a TV episode!


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »