I was a junior at Los Angeles High School when the story broke with the videos of Rodney King's beating on television. The next day, my English teacher, one of my favorite teachers, who happened to be only a few years into his second career after a career in business and was a middle-aged African American man, brought in a tape of the news segment. Whatever had been planned for that period was forgotten, and our majority-minority class spent the whole hour discussing what we had seen, and writing letters.
Fast-forward to the day of the (first) verdict. I was an 18-year-old senior and leaving campus early to take the bus to UCLA where I was taking a class. I ran across that same teacher in the parking lot, and I will never forget his voice as he told me what had happened: "They found them not guilty, Jason. NOT. GUILTY. Now tell me that there's justice in this world." At UCLA, people were already heading home as reports started coming in about violence across the city. Instead of taking the bus home from Westwood to Mid-Wilshire/Koreatown (I can't remember if the buses had stopped running or not), my parents drove out to get me.
Wilshire Blvd. was eerily empty and quiet in the late afternoon/early evening. That night, we went from watching the righteous anger of folks over the injustice of the verdict get overshadowed by growing looting and violence in neighboring areas on all sides of ours (except to the west), to walking out the front door to see the smoke rising in the south. I remember catching a glimpse of a friend from my Boy Scout troop on the news with a bunch of others from his neighborhood just southwest of mine trying to protect local businesses. There was no school the next day, and the National Guard soon turned LA High's blacktop into a staging area. I got my dad to drive me around school and the neighborhood over the next couple days, taking photos of destroyed businesses in Koreatown, Humvees on my campus, and, soon, people coming together to sweep up and clean up the streets and sidewalks.
Once school was back in session, the other staffers on the school paper, of which I was editor-in-chief, and I were able to turn around a special issue in less than a week, including those pictures and impassioned calls for everyone to come together, clean up, and call out injustice wherever it was seen.
The nonprofit city-wide youth paper I worked for also put together a special issue. We called it "Rebuilding the Dream." I was heavily involved in talking about what that rebuilding meant, and should look like, for youth in our communities, having an op-ed on NPR about being multiracial and building bridges between communities for justice which resulted in me getting letters from educators and mixed kids across the country sent to my school, appearing on a youth town hall episode of KCET's Life and Times, being involved in a youth radio project that produced a one-time show on KJLH about the future of LA's youth, and working with South Central middle schoolers that summer in a jobs and conservation program funded after and because of the riots.
The Rodney King case and its aftermath served to crystallize my lifelong devotion to justice, voice, and community building, and what I saw, experienced and felt those few days continues to reverberate in my life today, in how I choose to live and what I care about.
Jason Sperber, Writer/Dad