What’s your riot?
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of mine.
I was a senior at USC. Just a couple weeks from graduation. It was a Wednesday. Maybe 6 in the evening.
I was holding a Carl’s Jr. Santa Fe BBQ Chicken Sandwich to my mouth. And I didn’t know it but we were about to be among the Happy Star’s last customers for the night.
Police cars began zipping by one by one at top speed south down Figueroa Street near Downtown L.A.
Sirens high and loud. And then immediately gone.
The manager appeared and made a nervous announcement, “You all need to leave. We’re closing.”
“Closing? Now? Why? What’s going on?”
It was at once confusing but no explanation was necessary. Those words — that name – was not just heard but felt and somehow understood immediately.
We had watched snippets on the news all afternoon. Four white cops were acquitted in a white suburb where white cops lived. We were all sickened. It was so plain on the video. There was no excuse for what they did. And now no justice?
There were protests at police headquarters. People were angry but the scene seemed under control. The Mayor made a speech. But the whole day just felt like it would be bold face morning headline, extended film-at-11 news.
Now something bigger was going on. And we could feel it.
Ten…. Eleven…. Twelve police cars. Zip. Zip. Whoosh. Streaming past us, past the “University of South Central”.
We walked in a half-run home on what in my memory seemed like empty streets.
We gathered around the lone common television in our fraternity house and watched replays of Reginald Denny being savagely beaten at Florence and Normandie.
That was the start of the chaos. That’s what paralyzed the city between the match flick and lit fuse.
It soon got dark. And stayed dark.
We got a call from the school. Stay put. Stay safe. School is closed. Until further notice.
We barricaded the front door with a coffee table. (Our Songfest and Intramural sports trophies would be safe tonight, by god!). We gathered food and beer from the kitchen and – for reasons I still don’t understand — went up to the long flat roof of our big old 1920s rooming house. We brought up some folding chairs. Dragged up a couple mattresses. A radio.
Our flock of mostly white boys (who could recite N.W.A.) were about to feel much whiter.
Eventually someone hoisted up a small TV and strung together a few extension cords. The news showed fires and looting. So more fires and looting happened. And we saw them happen. Just a couple blocks away on Vermont. Nothing on the horizon. Then, a TV report. Then minutes later a semi-distant flare and smoke and smolder. A new one would flare high next door. And smoke. And smolder. On and on down the block.
We watched the city burn like this all night. Fires without fire engines. The sky disappeared. The silence became sirens and helicopters. It was hard to know what was really going on. Or why. Or how dangerous. And nobody was going to leave the roof to find out. We were trapped for the night.
So we sat up there. Watching. On the tube and on the horizon. Disbelieving. Disheartened. Aiming trying-to-be-funny barbs at the TV reporters interviewing looters. Hoping it would soon stop so we could sleep.
I left the next morning. Ashes covered my car. On the way to the freeway, I had to weave around people with armloads of shoeboxes, emptying a broken-up shoe store. I drove to my parent’s house in the Valley, 25 miles but a world away. My Dad told me stories about when he was in the National Guard during the Watts riots in ’65. Now I would have Guardsmen patrolling my college graduation.
I remember being shaken at the turn of events. Feeling trapped. Down. Uncomfortable in my skin. Feeling the unwanted creep of xenophobia. Suddenly being scared of the world around me. Ashamed of my privileged cluelessness and devil-may-carelessness.
It was the moment I realized the world was a lot bigger and more complex than punk and rap songs and movie scenes and my cursory reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and that year I had Mexican roommate.
I went to a fancy school. I had a cool job lined up in Hollywood. What did the rioters ever have?
It was the end of college. Of shelter. Of innocence. It was the moment I realized that I didn’t have more than I thought, others had much less. And that emotionally we’re all the same. That we may share the same hopes and fears and frustrations but not circumstances.
25 years later, we still haven’t learned. There were riots last year about the same exact things. I am less clueless about the world around me – and have been for 25 years. I am more empathetic. And more outraged. More sad. And more resigned to what is. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I love L.A. but that bum over there baby is still down on his knees.
55 people died over four days. They rebuilt all the burned-down businesses. They paved over the riot. There are few if any physical scars. No commemorative plaque.
Our day-to-day lives are much the same. We have emotional riots every day. Some big, some small. We present success on the outside with some paved over pain on the inside. We win and lose. There are no commemorative plaques.
But we are affected moment by moment. We have choices. And it’s not how we react. It’s how we respond and create change within ourselves. And turn it into a drive to help others.
These riot moments demand our mindful attention. And acknowledgment. They demand compassion. They demand understanding. And more than anything they demand giving back.
What’s your riot today?
And how will you rebuild?