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Searching for a Legacy

10 Years After the L.A. Riots, Peter H. King Walks Vermont Avenue and Discovers Scars, Memories and Signs of Healing

April 21, 2002|PETER H. KING

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

--T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

On a bright and beautiful Los Angeles morning, with the skies blown clear and early hints of spring in the air, I started south down Vermont Avenue on a walk across the midsection of the city. Mine would be the dawdling pace of a tourist. I'd put in only a mile or two each day, gradually working my way from the now hip Los Feliz district to the heart of South L.A., doubling back by bus at sundown.

Along the way I would stop often to talk with people, and I'd regularly retrace my steps from the day before to make sure I had not overlooked anything of significance. Just what I was looking for I could not say--scars and memories and signs of healing, I suppose, and also a revelation or two about cities, how they hold themselves together, how they sometimes fall apart.

Los Angeles Times Sunday April 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Latasha Harlins: An article in today's issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine ("A Walk Down Vermont Avenue") incorrectly identifies Latasha Harlins as a shoplifter. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by a Los Angeles merchant following a scuffle that began when she was accused of shoplifting a bottle of orange juice.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 5, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Walk Down Vermont Avenue" (April 21) incorrectly identified Latasha Harlins as a shoplifter. The 15-year-old was shot and killed by a Los Angeles merchant following a scuffle that began when she was accused of shoplifting a bottle of orange juice.

This was a walk that would cover a distance, not only of 10 miles, but also 10 years. For five unnerving days in the spring of 1992, this same stretch of Vermont had been a linear battleground, the main corridor of the chaos that followed the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King. The trouble had extended to all corners of metropolitan Los Angeles, of course, from Long Beach to Pasadena, from Parker Center to Frederick's of Hollywood, but Vermont, by far, got the worst of it.

At least 128 buildings were reported damaged or destroyed along this avenue, nearly twice as many as recorded on any other street. Vermont was where the first of the riot's 54 victims fell--18-year-old Louis Watson, struck by a bullet that at least some witnesses believed ricocheted off a safe being pirated by looters. Vermont was where the large-scale looting first broke out, at a "ten-dollar store" near where the street intersects with Manchester.

"Looting in progress over Manchester and Vermont," an LAPD helicopter crew reported by radio that Wednesday, April 29, 1992, at 6:29 p.m., 15 minutes before a gravel truck driver named Reginald Denny would be dragged from his rig at Florence and Normandie and beaten. ". . . Suspects running in all directions."

A quarter century earlier, the Watts riots had been contained mainly within South Los Angeles--allowing Angelenos who lived beyond the burn zone to regard the damage as a self-inflicted wound, something they had done to themselves. This time it would be different.

Within 24 hours, the rioting had crossed under the Santa Monica Freeway, breaching a symbolic barrier, and spilled into mid-city neighborhoods. There the arsonists and looters seemed to be motivated by something other than outrage over police brutality and racial injustice. There the point appeared to be to take what could be taken--tires, Huggies, cleaning solvent, whatever--before this side door of unexpected opportunity slammed shut. "A postmodern bread riot," social historian Mike Davis called this northern front of the outburst.

Vermont yielded some of the riot's most arresting images: young Korean men crouched with pistols in firing positions as they peered out from embattled shops; looters filing into overrun stores; an entire block of commercial buildings aflame. Vermont also produced strange tales, anecdotes gleaned from the shadows that fall between the idea of Los Angeles--the next great world city, the shining capital of the Pacific Rim--and the crasser reality of what it is capable of becoming, if only for a few frenzied days and nights. Almost everybody I met on my walk had a story to tell. From Ji Y. Suh, the general manager of Vermont Chevrolet Buick, near 4th Street, came this one:

Suh and his workers had defended the auto lot for three nights until police established a staging operation behind its fence. They went without sleep, arming themselves with shotguns and pistols to hold back the throng of several hundred rioters. Deterred, the mob redirected its energy to opportunities across the street. An apartment house was set ablaze. A tire store was picked clean--"down to the last tire and screwdriver," Suh recalled. A hole was kicked in the bottom of the Jack in the Box. It was what happened at the Jack in the Box that remains most vividly with Suh.

He saw whole families, elderly, couples, children, all queued up outside, patiently waiting for a chance to wiggle through the hole and into the fast-food franchise. These were not strangers, Suh said, but people he might see any day meandering up and down the sidewalk, waiting on a bus: "Plain Janes," he said, "normal people."

At first they emerged with restaurant equipment, and after that with food, hamburger patties, buns. With seemingly everything of value carried away, the people still kept pouring through the hole. And in the end, Suh said, "they were coming out with nothing but straws. Can you imagine? That was all there was left to take. They were coming out with handfuls of straws."

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