LEGACY OF THE L.A. RIOTS
by Tora Chung
April 29, 2015
In 1992, I was 20 years old, just a college kid working between classes at
the now defunct The Good Guys in Corte Madera. To my left, large screen TV’s playing music videos on repeat; to my right, audio equipment for hi-fi enthusiasts; and straight ahead, small electronics like video cameras that were all out of my price range. I was young and my days seemed so light that they happily blurred together. Surrounded by the latest in consumer gadgets, life was bright and easy.
Then, on Wednesday, April 29th, 1992, there came a sudden and dramatic disruption. Gone were the carefully produced lilting images of U2 and Janet Jackson—replaced by jarring, violent, and blurry images of Los Angeles on fire. Just hours after the police officers who had beaten an unarmed Rodney King were acquitted, the city had exploded.
The case had become famous because of the damning video footage a bystander had taken from his window. And now it was becoming infamous as we were treated to relentless images of rioters and looters tearing up their own neighborhood on infinite loop.
In my clean and quiet store in wealthy Marin County, I felt my little
bubble caving in from the weight of the outside world. Everywhere I looked were scenes of rage and destruction. I felt strongly the injustice and compassion for their anger, but I could not understand the violence against innocents and the desecration of businesses and homes. It was incomprehensible to me that they raged against their own neighbors, laying ruin to what had taken a lifetime to build. It was madness.
Suddenly, the TV’s and video cameras around me that had only the day before seemed innocent vehicles of amusement were now weapons of mass hysteria and purveyors of doom. Like a nightmare in which a child’s toys spring to life in the dark, my new reality was infringing upon my carefree youth. And all I wanted to do was pull the plug on all the screens surrounding me. Even in the dark and quiet moments before sleep, each night, the images replayed in my restless mind.
Over the course of the six days of rioting, 53 people died and thousands were injured—the most famous being Reginald Denny, a 33-year-old truck driver who was dragged from his rig and hit in the head again and again
with a brick on live TV. When Rodney King uttered that now famous plea
“Why can’t we all just get along?” viewers were moved by its poignancy, but perhaps more so by its futility. I found myself struck by the supreme naivety of King’s words. Something had changed inside me—and I didn’t like it.
Today, 23 years later, I read online that three Good Samaritans had rescued Denny on that fateful day. Like the rest of us, they had seen the violence against the truck driver on TV, but, instead of merely watching in disbelief, they had rushed out to help. Three strangers had worked together—disregarding their own safety—in order to comfort and protect the severely injured man. When faced with injustice, they had found a way to not only “get along,” but to do great good in a sea of so much wrong.
These days, there is constant violence on our TV screens, so much so that most of us have become desensitized as the images blur together, leaving us to lose track of what all the fighting's about. For better or worse, memories of the riots and events like it will forever be part of our shared experience. In response, each of us has the choice to be either dragged down or inspired to act.
In recent years, new technology and platforms like Twitter and Facebook have played a role in not only sharing these stories with the world but, as in the case of the 'Arab Spring,' in making these stories happen in the first place. Those TV screens and video cameras that had intruded on my innocence twenty years ago I now see as part of an arsenal of tools for potentially making the world a better place. Though we may never “all just get along,” at least we can try—one ‘tweet,’ one ‘share,’ one person at a time. In this post-9/11 world, it’s comforting to know that no matter what happens, we can always find a sliver of light in the darkness—even if it's only the light of a smart phone.
In a perhaps-not-so-surprising twist, just weeks after the 20th anniversary of the riots, Rodney King was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. In the past two decades, he had led a life full of contradiction, drama and regret. His death—like his life—was an enigma in which many have struggled to find meaning. While to most he will always be a symbol, to those who knew him, he was a man too complex to be reduced to an event, a cause or a catch phrase.