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10 Years After the Riots | In Their Own Words

L.A. Remembers

'There is no one answer, and there is no one story'

April 28, 2002

The only experience I had specifically around the riots was I drove on the freeway, when there was sort of that lock-down period in which nobody was out. It was absolutely incredible, because there was nobody on the freeway and you could see the smoke looking south into that part of L.A. The rest of the time I was watching TV, taking Polaroids off the screen, hour after hour. It was absolutely mesmerizing. There was no fear even. Maybe because we were seeing it on TV. It had a beauty to it, that you could only sense because there was no feeling, there was no smell. All I responded to were these absolutely incredible images that were so beautiful because of the fire.

I distinctly remember within the period of a week I did all the paintings. I just went bam bam bam bam bam. A lot of it was because of the emotion of what had happened. I was still thinking of beauty. I wasn't doing it to record like Picasso's "Guernica." My work was never was about the horror. It made me sad.

The riots made it very clear something was wrong. It was unequivocal. It was part of the city becoming a city. Part of the growing up. L.A. had to face that it's not all paradise.

'A lot of people went to Malibu'

In 1992, Jannis Swerman, 48, was the maitre d' at Wolfgang Puck's Granita Restaurant in Malibu in 1992 and lived in West Hollywood. Today she is director of communications at Wolfgang Puck Worldwide.

When there was a crisis, we would try to keep the restaurant open, to provide a service to the community. It ended up being a good thing that we opened, because a lot of people had fled the city. A lot of people who had second homes went to Malibu because that's where they thought they'd be safe. The people there were aware of what was going on, but not in the same way as people in the city were. A lot of local people wanted to come for dinner, because they couldn't get out to go into town. We were actually very busy.

Our biggest challenge was to get our staff to the restaurant. We had about 70 people working there then, and most of them came to work on public transportation. A lot of the employees were coming from places downtown where terrifying thing were happening. We just did the best we could with a skeleton crew.

Many of the people who came in didn't have a concept of how difficult it was to keep the restaurant running. That's part of the theater of a restaurant, to create an environment that makes people feel they're safe and things are normal. I got calls at Granita from people who said, "I've been calling Spago and nobody answers. I don't understand. I need to make reservations." Hello? They didn't seem to know that the city was shut down. One woman was very upset because we didn't have creme brulee available. I felt like saying, "Do you know what it took to even open the doors? There's a bigger picture out there."

'They felt guilty'

Larry Fondation, 44, is vice president of Teachscape, a company that trains teachers using the Web. In April 1992, he was a community organizer in Los Angeles. He lives in Silver Lake.

On the second or third day, I was talking to a priest at one of the churches where I used to organize. He showed me all of these boxes that people brought to the church--VCRs, TVs, stereos--with the addresses of the stores that they had come from. They weren't signed. But he could recognize some of the handwriting. They felt guilty, he said, about what they had done.

'The rage had been fomenting'

Bryan Seiling, 34, is assistant box office treasurer for the Center Theatre Group at the Music Center. He also teaches history at Cypress Community College in Orange County. At the time of the riots he lived in Koreatown and was a teaching assistant at USC, working on a doctorate in American history. His students, studying the American experience, had been discussing the stagnation of the civil rights movement and whether another event might again propel civil rights to the front of the nation's social consciousness.

I had this sense that we were experiencing something that was going to be talked about in history classes years and years down the line. [In my class], which was predominantly Caucasian, there was a sense of, why are these people destroying their own neighborhood? There was a lack of understanding that the rage had just been fomenting, fomenting, fomenting. I remember an African American student saying, "You don't understand. You don't know what it is to walk across the street and suddenly hear a car door lock click."

About 10 years later, I was teaching at Cypress, at 9:30 a.m. Sept. 12. I was supposed to talk about colonial foundations in New England. I said we can talk about colonial foundations or we can talk about what happened yesterday because that was truly historic. One young lady said, "I don't have any idea what the hell I'm supposed to think about what happened yesterday." And I was thinking, that's a pretty good paraphrase of what people were saying 10 years ago.

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