Times writers discuss Los Angeles riots and what has changed
Los Angeles Times reporters, remembering the ’92 riots, look back on the days of unrest in four essays that question whether Los Angeles and its civic institutions are better off now than they were 20 years ago.
Columnists Patt Morrison and Hector Tobar and reporters Greg Braxton and Elaine Woo recognize that the city has changed, but signs of trouble are still evident.
During a recent visit to East L.A. -- a portion of Los Angeles that escaped the brunt of the rioting -- Tobar spoke with residents who remembers during those days of unrest how armed merchants took to the rooftops. Nowadays, shop owners talk about how they are struggling to keep their businesses open.
“It’s as if a mob of economists and bankers rioted in the neighborhood,” writes Tobar. “Foreclosures and unemployment brought the kind of destruction looters never did.”
Twenty years ago, Woo wrote an essay for The Times in which she confessed, “Suddenly, I am scared to be Asian.” Reading those words today jarred Woo with the memory of how the riots left her -- like so many others in L.A.’s “ethnic stew” -- with an identity crises.
Time has eased that feeling, and a city that once inspired fear became a city wracked by “mismanaged schools, irrational real estate prices” and a baseball team left hanging on the edge.
While there are hopeful developments -- a Latino mayor, Korean Americans commanding “ever-larger spans of cultural space” -- Woo reflects on the fact that her brother, Mike Woo, was the first and so far only Asian American elected to the L.A. City Council. He left office in 1993, and, while several Asian Americans plan to enter the race next year, “until one wins,” she writes, “I remain on guard.”
Braxton was working on the Times' city desk when he received his orders: Neighborhoods were going up in smoke and he had to get the story. Out on the streets, a man pointed a shotgun at his car and fired four times, but missed.
The memory took Braxton back to a troubling reality at the time: how African American reporters were being dispatched into the trouble spots while the predominantly white staff stayed behind.
Diversity and parity at The Times remain a concern for Braxton. Twenty years later, the newspaper has more Asian American and Latino reporters than in 1992, but as he writes, “the roster of black reporters and editors could barely fill a baseball lineup.” Editors pledge to change that, and “it cannot come soon enough.”
Morrison recalls her own sense of alienation in the aftermath of the riots, a feeling compounded by the juxtapositions she saw throughout the neighborhoods she visited: how the jacarandas were blooming and the charred streets were “framed by lilac cascades of flowers.”
During those days, she writes, the stereotypes of Los Angeles got turned on their heads. “Hell in paradise, death in the sunlit promised land.”
“In 1992, we shamed ourselves into discovering ourselves, or rather, what we hadn’t known about ourselves,” she concludes.
Twenty years later, the city is different, but Morrison also sees evidence that Los Angeles has fallen back into its old habits.
“Of course L.A. has changed,” she writes. “That’s what we do. We build and tear down and rebuild and glory in the forgetting.”
-- Thomas Curwen
Photo: National Guardsmen patrol near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Vermont Avenue as the ruins of stores smolder. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times