Ten years have passed since Los Angeles erupted in reaction to the verdicts in the Rodney King police brutality trial. Almost anyone old enough to remember those five chaotic days in the spring of 1992 has a tale to tell--of anger, of fear, of awakening, of transformation. Here, 32 people interviewed by Times staffers talk about what they'll never forget.
'It was just very scary'
Rian Williams, 24, is the education services coordinator at A Place Called Home, a South-Central community center that mentors youth through the arts. She grew up in South-Central and was a ninth-grader at John Adams Middle School at the time of the riots.
When the verdict was released, we were across the street from school, in front of the YMCA. There was a group of us outside playing, and one of the girls' mother came by and said, "You all need to go in the house and watch TV." When I got home, the TV was on, and I saw the fires and stuff. It was really scary. It hadn't gotten to our immediate community yet.
Time passed, and we stood on the porch and you could see the thick smoke and the orange and the grayish colors from all the fires. It happened so quickly. It was like a chain reaction.
The scariest thing I remember is walking and seeing the [trucks] coasting down Central Avenue--a lot of them. They had the National Guard with the helmets, the fatigues, the guns and everything. It was the scariest thing to see them marching around stone-faced.
On San Pedro and Adams, there was a shopping center, and there were people breaking into stores and setting fires. It was just very scary. I remember going with my friends and one of my uncles to one of the shopping centers, and [someone] said, "Get down, I'm going to shoot the lock off." They went in the store--it was a flower shop--and took baskets and things. We just stared. We were just tagging along, but I was thinking "My grandma's gonna kill me."
People were taking clothes, radios, everything. But I knew it wasn't going to change the verdicts to grab a TV. It wouldn't justify anything for me. I just remember being very numb and watching everything. There was so much chaos. It's hard not to think about it because I still work here and live here. You still see a lot of the remains, places that have not been rebuilt, empty lots with rubbish piled up. It's a joke. You hear officials talking about community development. Hello! We could use a bookstore, a library, a few schools, a day-care center, a medical facility.
It changed the way that I saw people. Being 14, you're really naive still. To see what anger and frustration and oppression can bring about, that gave me a greater awareness of where I wanted to be in my life. I wanted to make circumstances in my life that were positive, where I wouldn't feel that type of frustration. Back then, I understood why people did the things they did. But now, I don't feel an oppressed, frustrated people should be justified in behaving that way.
'And then the bricks flying'
Tony Wafford, 45, is the community advisory board chair for the HIV Prevention Trials Network in Los Angeles. In 1992, he was a publicist and lived in Whittier.
I went over to the barbershop around noon. It's at Florence and Hobart. It was business as usual. People talking. Socializing. There was talk about the verdict. I didn't really feel too much. I knew, "That's the way it goes." The older people came in there who really believed in truth and justice and the American way and suffered through Jim Crow. The reality hit them.
Then all of a sudden, we were watching all hell breaking loose. We literally saw it. We saw the police cars going east on Florence and then the bricks flying. Then the police cars headed back west. My friend Lawrence and myself went down there, and I'll never forget there was a Hispanic couple in a Volvo and the crowd thought they were white. People started throwing bricks and attacking them. I told Lawrence, who is light-skinned, that he better get a Kufi [African hat] so people will know he's black. We go back to the barbershop and see the Denny thing on TV. So we go back, and there's Reginald on his side. Bleeding like a dog.
'Everything just escalates'
Margie Hernandez, 45, a consultant for nonprofit organizations, lives in Whittier. She was at work at Warner Bros. in Burbank when the verdicts were announced and protests soon began. She and her co-workers were told to go home.
Back then I had a particular interest in the Rodney King trial because a co-worker and her husband, a retired LAPD sergeant, were close friends with Larry Powell, one of the officers on trial. When the verdict was announced my co-worker friend was happy because the police officers were acquitted. She was ecstatic!
I just remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, what's going to happen?' I thought back to the Watts riots of '65 when I was 8 years old, living in Azusa and seeing that on television and praying for that to never happen again.