Michael Dare threw a party over the weekend to celebrate the anniversary of the riots five years ago.
Its specific intent was not to look back in pleasure to that time of fire and rage, but to acknowledge one small, bright element of the human storm.
Those who gathered at Dare's Hollywood home were there to commemorate the reunion of a father and son who, in a sense, owe that reunion to the violence that tore through the city. It brought Michael Jr. home.
I don't believe in clinging to a bad dream and wasn't going to write about the riots. But this is different. Anything good that emerges from chaos requires acknowledgment.
The story begins in 1987, when Dare, a respected freelance film critic, was asked by the Sony Corp. to try out its new camcorder.
He accepted the job by photographing his year-old son Michael Jr., better known as Buster, who, as a single father, he was raising alone.
I saw the three-minute video of the beautiful little boy, just beginning to walk, baby-talking his way around the house. At one point Buster took off his clothes but daddy kept shooting. It was a classic family video of a naked toddler happily exploring home and garden.
The result of the video, which Dare offered willingly to Sony and wrote about in Movieline magazine, was subsequently devastating. It got to the L.A. County Department of Children's Services and two years later Dare was accused of having made a sexually explicit film. Buster was taken from him.
The power of Children's Services to remove a child from a home is awesome. A year ago I wrote about another man accused by a neighbor of molesting his son. Father and son were separated and, though the accusation was almost instantly disproved, the separation lasted for 145 days.
Buster was 3 when a social worker and two policemen took him away screaming for his daddy. Dare remembers an officer saying, "There's nothing you can do about it, so don't try."
Dare immediately began efforts to get his son back. A member of the Film Critics Assn., he showed the video to its membership. The association's president, Charles Champlin, once arts editor of the L.A. Times, wrote an open letter regarding the video.
In it, he said the tape "is totally devoid of any prurient, pornographic or otherwise indecent intent. It is on the contrary a father's charming and manifestly loving portrait of his son."
Dare tried to have the Dependency Court judge hearing the case view the video, but the effort bogged down in legal delays.
"It was a case of being guilty until I could prove myself innocent," Dare said as we sat in his dining room, waiting for Buster to come home from school. "I was never actually charged with a crime. Had I been, due process would have required them to prove me guilty."
A therapist at the group home wrote the social worker handling the case: "I have no proof, knowledge of, or reason to believe that his father, Michael Dare, has ever sexually abused Buster nor that he is likely to, nor that Buster is at risk in his care."
But still they kept the boy. Then L.A. exploded.
Buster was in a group home in South-Central L.A. The date was April 29, 1992. Dare visited his son regularly during the nine months they were separated and on this day was allowed to take him home overnight.
He remembers: "On the way to the house, we stopped for ice cream at Thrifty's on Pico then came home and turned on television. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The same Thrifty's was burning to the ground."
The riots had begun. Dare was supposed to have returned Buster by the next morning, but the group home was a dangerous place to be. The social worker threatened to send the police to get the boy if he wasn't returned.
"The cops never came," Dare says with a wry smile. "I guess they were busy at the time."
Dare kept his son and wrote Superior Court Judge Shari Silver explaining the situation. A day after receiving the letter, Silver, who had viewed the video and found it innocuous, ruled that Buster could stay with his father, and the following month granted him full custody.
Children's Services subsequently cleared Dare completely. A spokesperson for the agency said there were no other charges against him and explained that they are obligated to investigate every allegation of child abuse, even though it may eventually prove false. The nature of the process, she added, sometimes requires months to complete.
As I finished the interview with Dare, Buster came home from school. At 9, he remains a handsome boy with the kind of happy, open face so attractive in the young. The relationship between father and son is obviously a loving one.
Dare tries to put the memory of their trauma behind him. But the abundance of verbiage on the anniversary of the riots brought it all back, so he decided to cast civic chaos in a different light. It was the day that Buster came home, and they had a party.
Al Martinez can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org