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Ladybug, Ladybug…

Dateline: 1992

First off, Los Angeles in general is not a smoldering pile of rubble. Vast areas of this city, many of them poor, inner-city, barrios, are pretty much untouched. Others suffered the indignity of some sporadic looting and breakage along commercial thoroughfares on Thursday, and nothing thereafter. It would be fairly safe to say that the majority of Los Angeles neighborhoods suffered nothing more than bad air and a good fright.

Mine is not one of these. There are well over a dozen burnt-out shops within about a half-mile radius of my apartment. Sited between Koreatown and Hollywood, we were one of the more “active” areas.

Now, owning no television, buying no newspapers, and not keeping the car radio set to a news station, I bussed in to work on Thursday morning without a clue that anything was amiss. The buses were running in pairs and leap-frogging each other at the stops, which is unusual quite so early in the morning, but pretty commonplace an hour later, so I thought nothing of it. On the way to the office from my stop, I came upon a shoulder-high pile of bundled newspapers, apparently abandoned under the Harbor Freeway bridge. That was rather odd too, but appeared to be more of a non-sequitur than anything else. I was tempted to help myself to one, but didn’t (they were gone by 10:00). The gate to the office complex was still locked, but the security had been very sluggish about unlocking the gates all that week, so I thought nothing of that, either. Glancing at a newsstand on my way around to the driveway (which is always open) I saw the headlines on the Rodney King verdict, and felt thoroughly put out. There was a column heading about there being rioting over it, but the penny still didn’t drop. I was not surprised that there was rioting, and, frankly, my sympathies, as far as they went, were with the rioters. One of the planners who had walked over from City Hall, (the DASH wasn’t running) met me on the sidewalk, and told me about the damage by City Hall and down Broadway. That sounded bad.

Everybody in the section was late. Our “fearless leader”, Himself called saying that someone had thrown something onto the freeway and hit his windshield. I passed that on to the Unit heads when they eventually showed up. Himself could be such a bald-faced liar that everyone assumed that it was just an excuse to skip out of work. He did show up a bit later, though, so I guess it could be true. He snuck back out again without telling anybody at about 10:00, however, and never came back all day.

When Michael got in, he filled me in on the television coverage of the beating of the truck driver, Reginald Denny, and said that he had nearly gotten sick over it. This sounded even worse. As soon as our Unit head and the Clerk Typist came in, their radios went on. Not a whole lot of work got done on Thursday. Most of us were glued to the radios, hearing about how the looting and rioting were spreading. And in which directions. People in the office became more and more distracted as the day wore on and the coverage reported things getting more and more out-of-hand. Most of us were amazed that this degree of looting and burning was being carried out in broad daylight.

The National Guard had been called in by then, but not yet deployed because no one had thought to pack their ammunition. The police, by then, were mainly occupied in protecting the firemen. (Actually, while I doubt anyone will come out and say so publicly, I suspect the police were still operating under the premise that this was still all about the King verdict, and that any aggressive action on their part would result in their being slaughtered wholesale. Back in ’65, in the Watts Riots far fewer civilians had been armed.) Word came from City Hall, that we could go home if we filled out vacation slips, and people on all three floors of our satellite offices started bailing out.

About noon, the radio reported the first arson fire in my area. A construction site at 3rd & New Hampshire. The fire had spread to adjacent apartment buildings and the residents were evacuated without injuries. Through the afternoon, further disturbance was reported in this general area. The overnight curfew which had originally been proposed only for the south side, was extended to cover the whole city. I started to worry that the buses were going to stop running (they did) and fretting about how I was getting home. When Alex and a couple of other planners who were leaving at 3:00 offered me a ride, I left with them and it’s just as well I did. The RTD stopped running just about the time I would have otherwise got off work.

The Hollywood Freeway was a mess, so we took Temple St. which runs alongside it. We could see several plumes of smoke going up in the distance, but on Temple, all was normal. When we reached where Temple joins up with the end of Silverlake and Beverly Blvds. we saw two large plumes of smoke dead ahead. And close. At New Hampshire (one block west of Vermont) we ran into a solid wall of smoke from a burning strip mall. Traffic was being detoured onto New Hampshire. We turned west on Oakwood, one block up, and went two further blocks west to Heliotrope, where the boys let me off on the corner, and made their way north into Hollywood, to see what was awaiting them in their neighborhoods.

At the far end of the block, enough people were hanging around to make it look like a street fair. There was a fire at this end of the strip mall too. A policeman was directing traffic. There was another plume of smoke to the west, just over the rise. (Graf’s Camera. Had been here longer than I have. It, and whatever was next to it, burned to the ground.) About an hour later a second plume, close to that one went up (that was the Payless Shoe Source, and the rest of the petit-mall it had been in). The crowd lingering on our block seemed peaceful enough, if very much underfoot. That’s the part that few of the reporters bothered to mention. Fully half of the hordes out there took no part of the looting or the vandalism, they just tagged along after the looters and watched. (And took photographs! This riot was nothing if not well-documented.)

Most of my building’s tenants had flocked home by 3:30, although a couple of them had immediately flocked back out to spend the duration with relatives. I managed to call Ida, to ask if I could stay with her if necessary, but she was down with some bug or other, so I told her I’d make other plans. Most of us stayed on the premises. The manager’s common-law got up on the roof and hosed us down a couple of times, and we tenants soaked the courtyard and back of the building. Actually, we are at the far end of the block from Beverly. Too far removed to be in any serious danger from flying sparks. We were just making sure. What we most feared was that the water supply might be cut off to divert everything to the fire fighting, so some of us filled bathtubs, just in case. In fact, we lost neither water nor electricity, although the phone service went on and off all evening. I can’t really say that I ever felt particularly concerned for my personal safety. There had been nothing in the reports to indicate that there were attacks on obviously residential property this far north, or upon individuals in their own homes. A few homes, adjacent to the commercial property which was torched had caught fire from flying sparks, however. Rumors were also flying, appropriately thick and heavy. As is usual, most were quite unfounded. It turns out that there was some residential looting (which I hadn’t known at the time) south of 3rd St. but in my sector of the disturbance, residential looting was not really a factor. Shortly before curfew, another festoon of smoke plumes sprouted up in the direction of Vermont Ave. Evidently the more enterprising elements in the mob had doubled back with their cars to hit the petit-malls between 3rd and Beverly a second time.

Things started settling down in my area once curfew went into effect, although the streets were far from clear for quite some time afterward. I gather that the National Guard finally got their ammo and went into action. Eventually things quieted down, intermittently creating eerie pockets of silence between the more typical traffic noise, the rattling din of helicopters, bursts of gunfire and the sirens’ song. I spent most of the evening improving the shining hour by finally shifting my first computer off the kitchen table and fighting with the combined insufficiency of the electrical outlets in the living room and the recalcitrance of the answering machine. When I went to bed around 10:00, a couple of my more nervous neighbors were still sitting up, intending to keep vigil in the courtyard through the night. I left them playing backgammon by candlelight at the foot of the central staircase. I understand that around 3:00 they finally admitted that nothing was likely to happen and called it quits.

The radio (and I guess the TV) stations were pretty much taken up with uninterrupted coverage of the riot. One of my neighbors was hosting recently arrived relatives from Holland (I think). The visitors were bemused over the fact that there seemed to be nothing on television except riot coverage. I commented that we do tend to become rather parochial during states of emergency. By 8:30 Thursday evening the conspiracy theories were up and running. One (sounded like) slightly elderly woman from South Central called in, claiming that the whole thing had been orchestrated by the police in order to have an excuse to clamp down on the residents of the south side. About an hour later the announcers themselves were batting around the possibility that the looting, which seemed to be far too effective, must have been organized and planned in advance. (?! — Actually, this is not quite as silly as it sounds, insofar as certain of the homeboys, having learned from experience what to expect from the establishment, probably had made some informal contingency plans while the King jury was still out, as a worst-case scenario.) It was obvious that at least some of the looters clearly knew exactly what they were doing.

The professional thieves were certainly out there too, mingling with the mob, making a major haul under cover of the general looting. As were the insurance frauds. An equally improbable claim that the Crips and the Bloods had joined with the Latino and Asian gangs around the city (and mapped out the whole thing in an attempt to make war on the police, and gain control of the drug market, or some such other nonsense), surfaced later over the weekend. Unlikely as that may be, from some of the statements broadcast over the radio, it was fairly evident that by Friday some of the more opportunistic gang leaders were making a valiant attempt to gain control of the proceedings for their own ends. But I still suspect that this basic theory has more to do with wistful or paranoiac fantasy than with fact. By the weekend, the Feds were getting ready to join in the fun.

Things had quieted considerably by Friday morning. But there had still been intermittent outbreaks all through the night. If there had still been mobs thronging the streets, it would all certainly have continued to escalate. But most of the basically law-abiding sorts had honored the curfew, and that helped focus matters. Rather a lot of shop owners were sitting up guarding their property through the night, just to make sure. Which was just as well, since there were still a lot of over-excited local tearaways, not honoring curfew, who were more than ready to do damage just for the hell of it. The general uproar started up again once daylight came round, though. Even though it was all more sporadic than before, things remained far more exciting than anyone liked.

Unlike the Feds, the State, and much of the County, City workers are required to report to work during states of emergency and natural disasters. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they do so, however. Particularly since we had been given permission to put in for vacation. Since I didn’t know if the buses were going to be running (they were), I drove in, once curfew was lifted for the day, and parked in the wasteland where most of Temple-Beaudry Hill was cleared some years ago in preparation for the City West project (which had yet to be finalized and approved. The site was eventually taken over by the ill-fated Belmont Learning Center project) near my usual bus stop. There was almost no traffic, and nobody was parked where there would normally have been no more spaces. Only two of the Graphics people had opted to put in for vacation, but most of the rest were late reaching the office again, since city employees’ parking is near City Hall and the DASH (Downtown shuttle service) still wasn’t running. Only one of the Planners in Code Studies, next to us showed up, and I doubt that there were more than four people up in Citywide. Neighborhood Planning was completely dark, although one of the typists came in, but couldn’t get into the room since she isn’t one of the people with a key. We couldn’t help her, since we hadn’t one either.

Even less got accomplished than on Thursday. Despite the fact that on our side of Bunker Hill absolutely nothing happened, or looked even faintly as though it was going to. The complex’s security never opened the gates that day either, and the off-site Security company turned on the building security system mid-morning, so that if you stepped outside, you needed an access card to get back in. A couple of people got stranded outside at break time since, of course, no one bothered to tell the tenants about their intentions. Between that and the fact that our Division head (Mr. Do-Nothing) over at City Hall also hadn’t come in, and no one seemed to have a clue as to what was supposed to be done under the circumstances, most of us packed it in after noon, filled out vacation slips, and left.

I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything, but didn’t really feel like going home, so I started making up a backup set of the font and shareware libraries to keep at home. I soon realized that the whole project would have taken until curfew, which I’d no intention of sticking around for either, so I took the shareware library disk home for the weekend, since I didn’t plan to be going anywhere else during it. Our own block had gone back to as much of normal as was possible under the circumstances. Except, that is, for the all-pervading smell of burning, the ever-present helicopters and the burnt-out ruins of the strip mall across Beverly Blvd. A mile or so south of us, in Koreatown, things were still pretty hot, also to the north of us, in Hollywood. But even these gradually calmed over the weekend, although there were still interspersed disturbances throughout.

Amy (of Chicken Boy) had a far more up front and personal view of the outbreak. Her office/storeroom fronted Beverly from a little City cultural-historic monument complex called Studio Court. Since much of her income derives from free-lance Graphic Design, she was at home on Thursday morning, working away, with the TV on, covering the uproar. Which, on Thursday morning, was still mainly on the south side, apart from the hit-and-run riot in Civic Center and the looting down Broadway the night before. As reported above, the local balloon went up when someone torched the construction site on New Hampshire Avenue, just south of 3rd St.

As reported, the fire spread to the neighboring apartment buildings and the tenants were evacuated, with no injuries. This, of course, collected the usual mob of rubbernecks who hadn’t anything better to do at 10:00 of a Thursday morning. This gathering of the under-employed consisted in a large part of the local Central American gang-bangers, drug dealers and general tearaways. All of whom have televisions and knew that there was burning and looting going on in “South Central” (which in newspeak applies to anywhere there are black people). “Hell, we can do that,” they decided, and converged on the two supermarkets at 3rd & Vermont, and started looting.

The police were called in, and showed up pretty quickly. But, being still under the impression that if they made any aggressive moves, they would all be slaughtered, they just (for them) gently shooed the mob away from the markets. Since the mob refused to disband, they continued to herd them away from the intersection, keeping them moving. As had happened when the demonstration at Parker Center was dispersed by the police the night before, when the crowd (now angered) finally went, it did so smashing, looting and generally leaving havoc in its wake. The mob evidently split in more than one direction, part may have headed south towards Koreatown, part of it traveled directly west, flowing down 3rd St. and the rest moved up Vermont, with the majority turning west at Beverly.

The 3rd St. damage appears to have been the more violent. The destruction and fire damage start within a couple of blocks of Vermont, and extends west pretty heavily to Normandie Ave., a half-mile away, and beyond. I don’t know whether this was done at the beginning of the disturbance, or whether this was accomplished when the mob doubled back to Vermont, later on Thursday night. The 3rd St. mob also seems to have been quick to start targeting Koreans. (The damage in Koreatown and here in the midtown areas was largely generated by Latinos, primarily Central Americans, not blacks. Although our end of it definitely appears to have been an equal-opportunity anarchy.) A shared hostility towards Koreans appears to have been in effect with both the midtown and the south side rioters. The south side was still smarting over the insulting probationary sentence passed upon an elderly female Korean shopkeeper who had shot and killed an unarmed, but violent 15-year-old black girl in a dispute over a shoplifted bottle of orange juice the year before. The midtown group had no such specific grudge, but that didn’t slow them down much.

Considering the general tone that the Korean presence had taken in much of this city at that point, I can’t say I was overly surprised. Its bad enough that so many of the more affluent Korean immigrants have moved in on low-income areas, littered them with gratuitous episodes of petit-mall, and frequently taken over the retail to the point that the residents, (and the owners of the commercial concerns in poverty areas usually do not live in the area) are left with little choice but to do business with the Koreans or leave their neighborhoods to find some other business. Irritating as this may be in itself, the real sticking point is that the Korean-owned shops are generally staffed with, if not the owner’s family, his poorer compatriots, who, having a virtually captive audience for their goods and services, are altogether too willing to treat their customers with unrelieved arrogance, rudeness and contempt. An ethnic group which keeps itself to itself is one thing. An ethnic group which shows its good side only to its own members, is something else.

My own grudge is that this sort of thing has robbed my area of all hope of future gentrification by its pervading practice of buying up 2–3 shabby, but recoverable, single-family houses on adjoining lots, tearing them down and putting up a cheaply constructed, out of scale, ugly, dingbat “fortress” apartment building, which they then rent at king’s-ransom rates — because it is a brand new, “security” building. Once an area gets beyond a certain ratio of single-family to multiple family dwellings, no one puts any sort of investment into the few remaining single-family homes. And nobody ever gentrifies dingbat apartments. My area has, in the past few years, been pushed past the point of no return. What makes it worse, is that the places these absentee owners (because they never seem to live in them themselves) build are obviously going to be deteriorating tenements within another 30 years. In the meantime, the presence of these abominations artificially jacks up the rental rates of all the surrounding area, and since other landlords can’t say that their place is a brand new, “security” building, they stick in one of those damn phone-operated gates, (which are always going out of order and taking the phone service with it) and rent to whoever shows up with the money in hand, even if this means 5 adults in a 1-bedroom apartment, with chickens on the balcony. (No, I’m not making that up!) Which pushes the area further and faster into becoming an unrelieved poverty district, riddled with slums. I’m not sure that I look forward to living in what the area is likely to have become, in another 30 years, as a senior citizen. This is the down side of rent control. (ETA: It hasn’t deteriorated enough to signify, so far. The next 20 years may not either.)

The Korean buildings, which are an inspiration for all of this, are largely rented to the owner’s poorer compatriots, who, for the most part, neither shop (most of the local retail up here being still Latino or Thai-owned) nor otherwise interact with the neighbors. As all generalities are inherently unfair, these undoubtedly are as well. But a lot of the Koreans do seem to have moved “in on” neighborhoods without making any attempt to adapt to them.

The mob which was herded up Vermont onto Beverly had about a half-mile to build up a good head of steam. There was smashing and looting well before they reached Beverly, and the police (being grossly outnumbered) didn’t stop them. So the participants got a bit over-excited and torched the Liquor/Deli in the strip mall at Beverly & Berendo. They set a second fire at the other end of the mall, and forged their way west looting and burning as they went. The police doggedly trailing after, (along with the rest of the cast of thousands of onlookers) but doing little beyond warning the locals to get away from the area as quickly as possible.

When Amy saw the televised mob begin moving up Vermont, she went “Uh-oh.” and, realizing that if they turned onto Beverly, her shop was in their path, dropped what she was doing and hurried over there. Her neighbors had also gotten the wind up, and were in the process of taking what precautions they could. They pulled everything out of the windows of the two units which had shop frontages (most of Studio Court is residential, but the two units fronting Beverly were always intended as shops), and put up the metal grates, and blocked the view, so that nothing inside the shops could be seen. But although the complex is very private, it isn’t exceptionally secure. And Amy’s neighbors were working up into a panic. Amy, very small and very Asian, had her own panic to work up into.

The mob eventually swaggered down Beverly, smashing and looting as they came. By the time they reached Studio Court, they had been traveling about a mile and a half and the default "leaders" had emerged, a bunch of the local Latino gang-bangers who were pretty well liquored up by this time, and probably as drunk on adrenaline as they were on whatever they’d looted. They were having a high old time. The Court was in very real danger. Even though residential property in the area wasn’t specifically being trashed, and the Court is residential, the shop frontages make it look commercial. It also is bracketed by two of the sort of businesses which the mob found irresistible, a pawnshop and an auto electronics outlet.

Amy and her neighbor got their shop windows smashed, but they themselves got out safely enough. The local hero was the owner of a plate-glass company across the street who staked out his place with a shotgun overnight. During the night, some fellows in a truck rammed the roll-down barricade of the pawnshop and ransacked it a second time, and, either they, or some other group (Amy didn’t sound altogether clear on the details), tossed a fire bomb into the electronics store. The plate-glass seller ran across with his fire extinguisher, and got it out before it could take hold and spread to the rest of the building.

Having been at work at the time, I missed the Koreatown (Protest? Solidarity?) march on Friday, which evidently progressed outside of Koreatown, up to, and along, Beverly Blvd. By the second Thursday, it was plain to anyone that the uproar was no longer about the King verdict. It was about the economy if it was about anything. Newspeakers were all very busy, mindlessly calling it a “race riot”. It wasn’t. This one was a class riot. Maybe even a genuine Peasant’s Revolt. And it has been brewing a long time. Welcome to Saturnalia. For 48 hours all the slaves are free.

Or maybe Bastille Day would be a better parallel. (“Later, that night, 1992…”)

My own contention is that if the King verdict had fallen otherwise, there would have been no trigger to set it off (At that time. It would still have been hanging over us, waiting for the next likely opportunity.) If the economy had been booming, and the majority of locals were not just barely getting by, but feeling pretty secure, it would not have spread. The demonstrators, dispersed from Parker Center, might have not gone away looting and burning. (There may still have been some broken windows, however. As the demonstration at Parker Center went on, through the afternoon and evening, a good deal of the city’s less civilized element had joined in and feelings were running high.) The violent outbreak at Normandie & Florence on Wednesday evening would probably still have happened, and may still have escalated into the looting and burning at that location, that night, in any case. But I don’t think that there would have been the area-wide disorder and conflagration that there was. And I certainly wouldn’t have counted on the Central Americans getting in on the action, either. There isn’t any love lost between the Central Americans and the blacks. But it isn’t only the blacks who were getting clubbed into submission during routine arrests. All that it took is that the suspect be male, apprehended in, and/or appear to be from, one of the non-affluent sectors of the city, and panicked enough to put up a struggle.

But there has gotten to be too much poverty, and it is too wide-spread. Too many of the city’s residents answer to that description, and police beatings have, accordingly, become all too commonplace. The entertainment media continues to make the trappings of affluence appear to be the environment of all “normal” people, a taunting distortion of reality which cannot help but foster the impression of being shut out, kept down and ill-used in all those who see it behind glass in their own living rooms every evening, and feel themselves falling ever further behind. The gap between the rich and everyone else has grown too broad for people to be able to envision themselves ever leaping it (by any honest means?) with any real conviction, and everybody has been being made far too anxious for far too long. Typically, the two-income household can barely make ends meet. (Query: Why does the phrase “two-income household” always manage to conjure up the image of a matched pair of yuppies in suits and BMWs? Isn’t it far more likely to be on the order of the woman who works at the dry cleaners, and her husband, who’s a short-order cook, neither job site unionized, and not permitted to? And if they happen to be legally married, the income tax laws do them no favors. The working poor have always been two-income households.)

So now I’m hearing a lot of sentimental pap being spouted about “healing” and “working together to rebuild a new community of cooperation.” And I think it’s about as likely as a three-legged mule winning the Kentucky Derby. Nobody is going to learn anything. Nothing is going to change. It will all be to do over in another 20–30 years. If not before.

“I just can’t understand,” one (anglo) lady newspeaker kept moaning, tacitly wringing (washing?) her hands, throughout the uprising, “how they can be doing this to their own communities!

What’s so hard for you to understand. Lady? What communities do these people feel the most dissatisfied with? Where do they feel the most cheated and frustrated and helpless? Just whose communities are they made to feel the most trapped in, Lady?