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On March 3, 1991, 20 years ago today, a black male Los Angeles resident named Rodney King was stopped by the LAPD for speeding. Four officers brutally beat him, and, in one of the first modern instances of citizen journalism, the whole thing was caught on tape. What follow are the first-person narratives of eight everyday Angelenos, who were children, teenagers, college students, and educators at the time. The beating, the unthinkable acquittal of the officers, and the riots that followed forever changed how they think about society and justice.
I was in college at the time and I had a break between classes. I walked into the cafeteria to grab a snack and chitchat with the cashier. Her name was Melinda and she was a white woman in her mid 50’s. When she saw me, she didn’t greet me with the usual smile. Instead, she warned me to be careful on my way home that night. When she saw my confused expression, she clarified: "The jury’s verdict is that the cops are 'Not guilty'. Black folks have taken to the street and are rioting. Be careful.” I don’t know why I found myself as surprised as I did back then. It never occurred to me that those cops would be able to walk away for what they had done.
I guess I didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation either until I got home and turned on the news. I saw everything there…perhaps the most striking in my memory was seeing Reginald Denny being pulled out of his truck and beaten repeatedly with a brick by kids who were dancing around his semi-motionless body. Initially, I remember there was an absence of police presence, perhaps due to the fear that their appearance would erupt more violence, rather than bring order. In the absence of both law and justice, looting and arson showed their faces. In the days that followed, self preservation became obvious. Signs were placed on storefront windows that simply said “Black Owned”. I remember seeing Koreans standing on the rooftops of their convenience stores with rifles in hand; ready to defend what they had worked for.
Those first few nights were chaotic. I lived in North Hollywood and although the riots never made it to the Valley, there was both fear and tension in our neighborhood. We set up neighborhood watches on our block and had prayer gatherings. Not just for everyone’s safety, but for justice. After all, it was the absence of Her presence that led to such civil unrest.
-Bobby Aazami, photograher/filmmaker
I was a young boy in East Los Angeles. We were dismissed early from school and even had it canceled due to air pollution and risk of the riots expanding. I watched a little of it on TV, but mostly used the time off to play video games. What I most remember is all the smoke and the sense of panic. I was in middle school and really didn't understand much that was going on, so I don't remember much else. I had already grown accustomed to violence by that age.
-Adrian Acosta, President and CEO, InnovatED, Inc.
I was working in the library system at UCLA on the first day of the uprising. I'm not sure whether they closed the campus, or just started advising people to go home. There were ashes in the air as I crossed the quad. I took side roads through the hills to get to my apartment in Sherman Oaks. We were backed up for almost two hours waiting for drivers at an intersection to make a turn. An elderly man from one of the houses came out and talked a bit and said he could probably get $10 for a can of beer right then. After an hour and a half, a woman from the car in front of me sat on her front bumper and urinated from under her skirt.Finally, a citizen from the front of the line took matters into his own hands and started directing traffic on Mulholland Drive, getting people to let us make turns.
That weekend my husband, Dana, and I went down to a church near the center of the uprising to volunteer. From the moment we exited the freeway, the streets were eerily still. We passed burned out buildings, and military personnel sitting on big vehicles with guns in their hands. There was no power in the area, and the traffic signals were out. My husband and I were disgusted and outraged that the National Guard members were just sitting there while, once again, citizens took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm's way to stand in the few busy intersections and direct traffic.
-Sally Charette, TV/film script researcher
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
I remember sitting in a friend's living room—there we were: three mixed (father black, mother white) kids, two Persian kids, two black kids, and some of our parents. We watched the news, watched the rioting, insanity of the worst and humanity of the best. We watched communities fall apart and come together—all the while thinking, this is the beginning of the end.
It wasn't about Rodney King specifically, but about the shared frustration, the shared pain and shared heart break. I had no full understanding what my darker skinned friends go through—not until 9/11. In those moments all we could wonder, us young teenagers, was how far we had come, but not far enough, how many struggles those before us went through, but that the process is not over. We made plans of action to focus on unity and building community; too much had been destroyed. We decided within our own lives to share, enlighten and be open. We were young, but we understood this much: change will only happen when we become active in the process.
-Mona Mossayeb, City Planner/Actor
When the Rodney King beating was first aired on TV, it was horrible. I was a student at an all girls Catholic high school in Hollywood. My friends and I already felt that African American youth were targeted. If you went to the movies in Westwood, the police would show up. The beating emphasized for me that there was no safe place to go.
When the riots happened, I was at school. We knew stuff was going on, but we didn’t really know what. We could see smoke from fires and there was a rumor that it was because of the Rodney King. The school made the parents pick the kids up. What stood out was a sense of fear that people had, the sense of panic.
My family was very good friends with this white Southern lady from Texas. She told me that as she was driving to our house that people were angry and yelling at her car. She didn't understand what was going on or why they were angry at her because she had no animosity toward anybody. She felt so lost. For me at that moment, I really understood that you can’t judge people by their color.
This woman really had an open heart to people from all colors. But, my stepdad, who is also white, understood why people were angry. The difference between their two reactions also emphasized for me the importance of interacting with people so you can understand where they’re coming from.
I remember also thinking that this scenario of people rioting against injustice and being mad is one that's been replayed over and over again in America—but nothing was really going to change. And now it’s sad, but our reaction to violence it’s kinda blasé. People see people getting beaten all the time. It’s not as horrific. It’s not the same.
-Maisha Daniels, law student
The Rodney King riots occurred during my first year of teaching in Compton. I was attending night class at CSU Dominguez Hills when someone came in and told us the campus was closing due to the riots and that we needed to go home immediately. But this is not what I think of most; what I think of most is how it had been a routine school day except for the fact that one of my most challenged students, Portia, smiled all day long because it was her birthday and she was having a party after school. Portia had never had a birthday party before, and as a foster child who had experienced unspeakable neglect and abuse, she deserved every bit of the simple joy of blowing out candles on a cake and opening a present. I was as thrilled and excited for her as she was for herself!
But there was to be no party, with the riots approaching dangerously close to Portia's neighborhood and creating panic for my students and their families. So when I think of the riots, I don't think of the chaos, the looting, the fires, the images on tv, or the curfews: I think of a small child in a small house on Rosecrans Avenue who for the 8th year of her life was denied yet again the chance to blow out candles on a birthday cake.
(Her name was not really Portia. My school was vandalized, the computers were all stolen and many rooms were completely trashed. We missed several days of school and when we did return, we had to drive past National Guards...it was surreal.
-Caroline Murray, Educator