The word “looting” is a hot button. Push it and people reliably react with their prejudices about poverty, property, race, violence, and law. Use it on me, and I get a tape replay from the Los Angeles riots of ’92. Here’s what I saw then, and what I learned.
In 1992 I was living in West Los Angeles and working at home and downtown. I had a small failing DIY medical records business and my best friend Greg had a small failing DIY courier business. I used his courier business to deliver my work to California Hospital, which is in the industrial part of Downtown Los Angeles. I was also working part-time at Good Samaritan Hospital, which is just west of Downtown in the Westlake/Pico-Union district.
On the day of the Rodney King police beating verdict I was at a computer store run by some Iranian friends. When the news came out they shook their heads and said “There will be a riot”. I didn’t believe them and thought they were exaggerating or misinterpreting an adopted country. I went home that night feeling awful about the miscarriage of justice.
The next day was very different.
I got up and finished my work a bit late and waited for Greg to show up. I had no TV and was not in the habit of checking radio news, so I was innocent of events. At about 10 am he called me from his last stop. “You’d better ride with me,” he said, “and I’ll take you back up to the Valley. The city is fucked. I was down in South L.A. on a run this morning and everything was smashed and on fire.” I looked out my south facing window and saw columns of smoke. “Shit, shit, shit, Okay.”
He pulled up shortly afterwards and I got in with my work to be delivered and an overnight bag. We headed east to Downtown, doglegging down Sawtelle and a few other streets until we were on Adams. The streets were mainly empty, but occasionally a convoy of several LAPD cars would blow past us at freeway speeds, each with four helmeted cops in it. Greg told me that he’d been at Crenshaw and Slauson early in the morning and the streets were full of broken stuff and distressed people, and a fair amount of fire. We went to a pickup location of his, which was a few blocks south of San Vicente and Fairfax.
The neighborhood we next entered was mostly black working folks. A couple of people were out front of their houses and looked at us in a careful, measured way. We greeted them and established a temporary truce while Greg did his pickup, and everyone told everyone else to be careful and take care. It was about the last sane moment of the day.
We went downtown to deliver my work. There was a lot more smoke along the way as we drove the 10 freeway, billowing from south to north. Downtown was a mess of cops and chaos. Ambulances and fire trucks went by with CHP escorts. Getting into the hospital to deliver my work was tricky, but ID cards saved the day. We got the hell out. There was one more run to be done, near Wilshire and Vermont in Koreatown.
At this point we were both thoroughly frightened. There was communal violence going on, and the radio news was confused and having trouble keeping up with the pace of it. Good reporters out in the field in their cars kept signing off in mid broadcast because it was getting too dangerous. We found out about Reginald Denny’s beatdown at Florence and Normandie, and heard the mayor’s worse-than-useless announcement, and we cursed Daryl Gates another million times for being a twisted little Nazi jerkoff.
Greg left me in the pickup while he did the last delivery. I sat in the car listening to an increasing volume of gunfire and ineffectually clutching a carpenter’s claw hammer, as if I could somehow defend myself if a swarm of looters or LAPD arrived.
Now it was time to get the fuck out. Our next stop was Toluca Lake, but we were smack in the middle of Midtown. Greg knew a way over the hills that he’d planned out years ago for the day the shit hit the fan. We headed north.
That’s when it all came home. As we drove west on Wilshire, we looked north and saw nothing but smoke. This wasn’t a downtown/South L.A. three hour mess. Everything south of the mountains was fucked. We could see Hollywood burning, and Koreatown, and the Miracle Mile. We yelled “Holy FUCK!” simultaneously.
Just as we turned up Vermont towards Hollywood, a crowd of looters was headed the same way. There were maybe 100 guys running in a pack. They had nothing in common but gender. It was a racially mixed gang of assholes ranging from teenagers to fiftyish guys. Some of them were armed, and they were hooting and yelling in a distressingly apelike way. Greg hit the brakes to avoid driving into the mass of them as they turned from Wilshire on to Vermont. A few of them smashed windows or kicked over trash cans, but they kept moving and swarmed around the corner. They began climbing the walls of a business there and we made our retreat. A few of them flipped us off in an almost cheerful way.
Going up Vermont into Hollywood we entered the Los Angeles version of the fall of Saigon. People were running up and down the street yelling, and most of the windows were broken. Terrified yuppies in expensive cars were driving literally 75 miles an hour on city streets and down alleys. There were people with drawn guns and their role was not certain. We just kept saying “Shit.. Holy fuck.. FUCK!” to each other. Everyone was terrifying: we were sure that some rich guy in a BMW would crush us, or a cop would cap us because whatever, or another gang of drunk assholes would show up and light us on fire for no particular reason. Explosions could be heard, and the gunfire was crackly.
Greg’s secret route over the hill worked great. There were maybe five other cars following the same path as we blew through the Hollywood Hills on little streets at 50 mph. We got to Toluca Lake in 45 minutes.
Nothing has happened in Toluca Lake since 1953. It was like being teleported out of Escape From L.A. into Leave it to Beaver. We decided to get some food and go to Greg & Michelle’s apartment to regroup.
And there our troubles began. The market in Burbank was packed with panicked suburbanites buying for the End. Soccer moms and entertainment lawyers played tug-of-war with five pound bags of rice and gallons of bottled water. There was a lot of yelling. We left. At the pizza parlor, patrons were sitting with pitchers of beer and stunned expressions watching big-screen TVs of CNN. We got our pizza and went home.
At Michelle’s place we ate pizza and watched the city burn. I called my dad and told him I was okay. He said “I wonder, has anything like this happened in a city in the Western world since the second world war?”
Ventura Boulevard that night was empty and quiet; you could hear birds. Nothing was happening in the Valley, but over the hill it was all fire and brutality. Three friends of mine lost their small businesses in South Los Angeles and Long Beach that week. Others lost every business in their neighborhood, and one found the corpse of a neighbor on her sidewalk. A friend who had been providing P.A. and sound mixing to black churches gave up and left town; none of his customers could afford to pay him any more.
We were all relieved when the National Guard showed up. Everyone feared and hated the police department, and feared and hated the civil unrest, but no one was going to fuck with the Guard from either side. As far as I know they only killed one person. It was enough that they were there. People started picking shit up.
The whole thing was a gimme for the law-and-order crowd, of course; the mud people had shown their true colors and obviously they only understood force. The egregious racism and neglect of the city government, and the structural problems that made the riots inevitable, didn’t have to be discussed if you were one of them.
Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and comfortably bourgeois lefties declared the riots to have been an uprising and a rebellion. None of them had their only grocery store or their job or their little business looted and burned. None of them had to run like hell. The “rebellion” just gave the poor and near-poor of Los Angeles another kick in the stomach, and never reached Beverly Hills.
So, that’s what I see when I hear the word “looting”. Sad, fucked-up people making life worse for other people who aren’t much better off. And civil unrest means theft, and score-settling violence, and opportunistic crimes of all kinds. Exaggeration isn’t necessary; excuses cannot excuse.
The questions to be asked, when looting and civil unrest occur, are: How did we get to this point? Who was in charge, and what could they have done better? And what problems, still unsolved, mean that this may happen again? If we can’t focus properly on the immediate and long-term causes of communal violence, we’ll get ample opportunity in the future to appropriate someone else’s misery for our own failed ideologies.