April 29, 1991. I was at work in Berkeley. There was no World Wide Web in those days. I checked. The Mosaic browser wouldn’t come out until the following January, over a half-year later. No, I got the news on the telephone when a friend and former roommate from LA called me while I was still in the office. It was around 4 or 4:30. The verdict was not guilty. There was a pause on the phone, then I asked, “Is anything happening?”
After a while I couldn’t watch the video of Rodney King’s beating anymore. Though I grew up in South Central LA, in my 26 years I had not witnessed such naked aggression against a black person by a group of white people before. Such images had hitherto been confined to footage from the Civil Rights era in grainy black and white. My dad, who lived through the Depression and the Civil Rights era, as well as served in the Second World War, studied the King beating video with Holmesian precision. He once counted the number of baton swings as we watched it together. I think my mother was more like me, not able to study the images in such detail.
Not long after Rodney King was beaten senseless by a group of out-of-control police officers, Latasha Harlins, an unarmed African American woman, was shot and killed by Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du after an altercation at her convenience store near Westchester High School. The story went that Ms. Du thought Latasha was trying to leave the store without paying for some orange juice. A scuffle ensued. When Latasha tried to leave again, having dropped the orange juice on the floor, Ms. Du pulled out a gun and shot her in the back of the head.
Even by itself, this event would have raised community ire. But in the shadow of the King beating, which took place less then two weeks before, it merely added more kindling to an already stuffed tinderbox. Ms. Du’s trial, in November 1991, resulted in a verdict of involuntary manslaughter and she was initially sentence to 16 years in prison. However, Joyce Karlin, the presiding judge of the case, added gasoline to the kindling when she reduced the sentence to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine.
The Latasha Harlins shooting death and trial exposed a schism between LA’s African American and Korean American communities. I felt quite sad about that. At UCLA, I used to wear a t-shirt that read Gwangju in Korean script printed over a simulated blood stain. It was a reminder of the popular uprising against a corrupt government that occurred in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Korean students who saw me wearing the t-shirt gave me a thumbs up. Similarly, many Asian students took part in the anti-apartheid protests on campus. We all supported each others’ struggles and causes at that time. That’s how I liked to roll.
After my friend called with the verdict news, I called home to check on everyone. Mom and I talked, as we did so often in those days. She sounded as tense as I felt. We were all waiting. “Your father is still outside painting the house,” she said. “He’s perched on a tall ladder, painting the high gable.” She hated when he went on the tall ladder. By the second day of the King Uprising, though, he finally stopped going on the ladder and postponed the house painting for several months.
Latasha remained in the back of my head while the acquitted, baton-swinging cops obsessed my thoughts as I rode my motorcycle home from work. When I got to the little one-bedroom apartment in Oakland where I lived alone, I snapped on the TV. One of the first things I saw was a replay of the verdict announcement. In the audience sat the Reverend Cecil “Chip” Murray, legendary leader of the powerful First AME Church near Western and Adams. A symbol of stoicism and struggle, a closeup betrayed a single tear creeping down the side of his face. I think I turned off the TV soon after seeing that and went off to make dinner or play tabla or do something. I had to do something while we waited.
I come from a family of nerds and geeks. My credentials are well established. My brothers loved walkie-talkies. They tweaked and tinkered their handhelds to get as much range out of them as possible. So one day, as they were in the neighborhood testing the range of their tinkered units, some LAPD officers spotted them. The officers didn’t see harmless, nerdy geeks playing with walkie-talkies. They saw two young African American males doing something weird and in their minds suspicious. They detained them and forced them to sit on the curb somewhere not too far from the house. One threatened to shove his flashlight down one of their throats, for some unspoken transgression. Ultimately, though, they were not arrested. Just terrorized. Such actions, taken against blacks all over LA, established the lining for the tinderbox. Other bad encounters would happen later on with other family members, including my sister, including my aged, widowed father who had served in World War II.
Mom called again. The kindling erupted at Florence and Normandie, a few miles south of my family’s house. How was everything, I asked. Very tense, she said. We hung up. I turned the TV back on. Helicopters showed footage of folks in the streets. I missed the live coverage of Reginald Denny, a white trucker who was near Florence and Normandie, being dragged from his truck and beaten by six black men. Next time I called the house, my dad answered the phone. He said that the Denny beating badly shook Mom up and she needed to collect herself. I closed my eyes and thought of a line from the movie “Gandhi”: An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. My mother cried, too, when Gandhi was assassinated. It think it restored her faith when at least one of the people who rescued Mr. Denny was black.
Darkness better revealed the spreading firestorm. Every channel showed different perspectives from all over town. Even C-SPAN, which showed a fire destroying the indoor swap meet on Vermont Ave. near Martin Luther King Blvd. My oldest brother had bought a boombox from that location a few months before. Now its flames cast Manual Arts High School, which stood across the street, in an eery red and orange glow. I touched my first computer at Manual Arts during a summer class I took there. I watched it in awe on my little 13″ TV, with the phone in my hand.
It rang again. This time it was my sister. She was stuck in Hollywood, where anger had also hit the streets. The media kept reporting that the rioting took place in South Central LA, but as the night wore on, everywhere became South Central. That night, its boundaries extended as north as Hollywood and as west as Beverly Hills. My sister could not call the house — as in all crises, local phone communication became impossible because of jammed lines. And in any case, cell phones were still pretty new and the infrastructure nascent. So I had to do the triangulating phone call thing. I called my former roommate again, who lived in West Hollywood. “Can my sister stay the night there? She can’t get home.” “Of course,” my friend said. I called my sister and she was able to get to West Hollywood safely. Then I called home to tell my folks. Mom answered. She was OK again and relieved to hear that I was able to reach my sister and guide her to safety. “Can you call Grandmother?” she asked. They couldn’t reach her either. Two years later, I would do the same thing after the Northridge earthquake. On both occasions, my dad’s mother was fine, unfazed by the chaos that reigned around her.
Over the phone and the television I heard sirens. It gave me chills. Sirens screamed all over in Oakland after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. They freaked me out, seeing as I was still new to the Bay Area and lived alone. The sirens from LA brought back that anxiety. Though Oakland, my adapted hometown, remained tranquil.
Many miles away in Berlin, a group of folks gathered on what was left of the Berlin Wall with a large, handmade banner that read “Los Angeles, we stand with you.” That image was so precious to me. I needed that confirmation, that the whole world was indeed watching, and just as angry. Just a few years prior, I had celebrated in spirit, if not in person, the fall of the wall. Years later, on our first trip to Berlin, my partner and I found a park named for LA not far from our hotel. As we walked by it, I said quietly, “Danke,” a thank you to the ancient capital who stood with the city of my birth in one of its darkest hours.
I wrote very little about the Rodney King Uprising in my journal, a fact I recently rediscovered as I poured through the back volumes. I suppose I was too busy living it, even from afar. Really, I think I was just too stunned to find the words to express all that I saw and felt. I only realized just how deeply affected I was by the King Uprising quite recently. As journalists reported the verdict of the Oscar Grant shooting case — another bad verdict, another black man dissed by the judicial system — a passing siren wailed in the background. I experienced a short, sharp panic attack. Not Again! my soul screamed. But there was no need for alarm. There was no rerun of 1992. I understand the events of 1992 and the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t mean I want to experience it all over again.
I was four months old when the Watts Riots happened in 1965. A bullet found its way to my grandmother’s house — my mother’s mother — where my family lived at the time. The hole sat in the siding for many years. My parents told me that they couldn’t get baby formula for me because deliveries to local groceries and supermarkets ceased during the disturbance. They had no car at that time. I don’t recall any coverage of the 20th anniversary of that event in 1985. If there had been any, it was quite miniscule.
In contrast, there has been much coverage and reflection of the King Uprising on its 20th. I’d say that was progress. Actively remembering such events, and the reasons behind them, I hope will obviate the need for their repetition. Though I fear new tinderboxes potentially wait in the wings.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.
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