Whole sections of the city were in ruins. The crumbled remains of buildings stood like stark skeletons. It was difficult to find stores stocked with food, and the state bureaucracy was clumsy and slow in making repairs.
Then suddenly, ordinary people--weary of ineffectual government--rose to fill the void, taking control of their city and challenging established patterns of political power.
On Tuesday, Carlos Monsivais, a leading essayist on Mexican culture, recalled this scene--not of post-riot Los Angeles, but of Mexico City in the wake of the great earthquake of 1985. The quake was a pivotal event, he said, which saw the rise of citizens movements that challenged his nation's established political power structure.
At a USC-sponsored forum at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, "The Modern Urban Crisis: Los Angeles and Mexico City," comparisons between Mexico City's 1985 temblor and Los Angeles' 1992 riots were the order of the day. Mike Davis, an urban theorist who writes often about Los Angeles, went so far as to call the unrest that followed the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case a "human earthquake."
But when the two crises--one natural, one man made--are judged from a historical perspective, will they prove to have had similar impacts on the political structures of their respective cities?
Davis, author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles," said possibly yes. And, perhaps, no.
The major political consequence of the recent riots, he said, will be that those who have been least represented will be drawn into city politics.
"Communities as diverse as gang youth, who now must be recognized as some kind of political constituency. Or the Korean community. Or the Central-American community," Davis said. "The rebellion will realign and transform L.A. politics and produce higher levels of political activity."
And yet, Davis said he is not convinced that such voices will be heard by those charged with rebuilding the city.
"City Hall has subcontracted out democratic government to a series of new committees headed by very worthy but very upper-class white men," he said, referring to Rebuild L.A. Chairman Peter V. Ueberroth and others. "The constitution of these committees by their very nature precludes certain kinds of debate. It would be a great tragedy if the voices of other communities weren't given some real public hearing."
Monsivais' premise, which he describes in his book, "Free Admission: Chronicles of a Society Organizing Itself," is that--especially in the four days immediately after the 1985 quake--the lack of efficient government response forced citizens to rely on themselves and each other.
Until then, there was no tradition of people organizing themselves in Mexico, which has been governed for more than half a century by a single political party--the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, Monsivais said. So the quake was a particularly empowering event.
Since the earthquake, he said, citizens "have learned to make firm demands. The government is forced to listen and to act."
Davis said that so far, the one comparable social movement that has emerged in the wake of the Los Angeles riots is the gang truce between Crips and Bloods, which law enforcement officials say has reduced the number of gang-related killings among blacks.
Davis compared the truce to the "many little miracles that Carlos narrates in his book. . . . However you feel about the gangs or law and order, . . . none of the experts could have imagined that this truce could be adopted--that a generation seemingly hellbent on its own suicide would pull back from the brink."