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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Our Town: A biology of violence Our Town: A biology of violence (May 08, 2002)

by Geoff S. Fein

Ten years ago I was sitting in a "biology of violence" class at Cal State Los Angeles, when the not-guilty verdicts came in on the four LAPD officers accused of beating up Rodney King.

As darkness fell a few hours later all hell broke loose. It seemed all L.A. was angry with the verdicts.

I remember driving -- no, more like racing -- home after class across L.A. on Interstate 10. For 25 miles I weaved through traffic, trying to avoid getting stuck downtown.

Traffic backed up for miles as people fled in every direction. In the distance I could see the first glow of what would be five days of looting, burning and rioting.

I recall scenes of Korean businessmen wildly firing semi-automatic weapons to fend off looters. And Reginald Denny, who drove his big rig into the belly of the beast in South-Central Los Angeles and was nearly beaten to death -- an echo of what four LAPD cops did a year earlier to King.

African-Americans were angry -- not just over the beating of King and the acquittals but over every cop who got away with harassing and beating African-Americans. They were angry at Korean merchants after one shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American girl over a bottle of orange juice. The merchant received probation; the black teen was dead. For African-Americans there seemed to be no justice.

On April 30, the first full day of the riots, I had to go back to school. Traffic was light as people either left the city, stayed home or were out looting.

The scene was reminiscent of the burning oil fields in Kuwait a year earlier in the Gulf War. Tall columns of smoke rose across Los Angeles. The skies were crowded with police and TV news helicopters.

I left school before sundown. With the curfew there was nothing to do but watch events unfold on TV.

Day two was the worst: random shootings, complete anarchy. Firefighters became moving targets for citizens armed with Glocks, Barettas and other weapons. Two firefighters were shot, one was paralyzed.

Madness was everywhere. The question became, "Will it stop?" It appeared it wouldn't until the fires, the looters, the whole mob reached the Pacific. Order was restored by 2,400 National guardsman armed with M-16s, many riding in Humvees with machine guns mounted on the back. Only then was it safe to go see what happened.

L.A. looked as if it had been through a war, with an occupying army patrolling the streets.

As a reporter, I have walked through hillside neighborhoods high above Los Angeles after firestorms raced through and burned everything. The scene on May 2 was strikingly different. The air was thick with the smell of smoldering buildings, streets were trashed and business owners were trying to salvage what remained from the mob attacks.

In some areas whole blocks were destroyed. In other neighborhoods only a few buildings were burned. There was no pattern to the devastation. I came across islands untouched by looters within the remnants of the wild inferno.

Los Angeles was lucky -- only 54 people died.

There was plenty of blame to go around: the cops, Mayor Tom Bradley; African-Americans, Koreans, people with nothing to do, people who turned their backs on South Central L.A. and opted to develop the more lavish Westside.

Now on the anniversary L.A. would love to forget, some has changed but much hasn't.

Sure, Los Angeles has grown: There are more people, more businesses. But South Central still faces terrible unemployment and poverty. Unprofessional police attitudes and conduct are still a problem and top LAPD administrators have yet to figure out how to solve that. The scandal of LAPD's infamous Ramparts Division shed light on rogue cops who fabricated evidence, sold drugs, falsified testimony and flat-out lied. The targets were predominantly African-American males.

In 1965, after the six days of the Watts riots, visiting politicians spoke about rebuilding South Central LA. In 1992, after politicians paraded through the destruction of five days, they too vowed to rebuild LA. For almost 40 years residents of South Central L.A. have been awaiting the promised changes.

I hope in 2022 another generation of politicians won't be stepping over broken glass among charred ruins of stores, grandly proclaiming, "Something must be done."

Geoff S. Fein is a staff writer at the Weekly.


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