I was living in Los Angeles when the news broke on the television that the police officers who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted. I remember that it didn’t take very long for violence to erupt.
I watched with total abject horror as Reginald Denny, a white man in the wrong intersection at the wrong time, was violently pulled from his truck and beaten almost to death by rioters. I remember actually covering my mouth and screaming “No, stop it! Leave him alone” to the screen, as if somehow my voice could carry through the airwaves and make those men stop beating that innocent man.
I watched as the news choppers and reporters used their voices to try to get the rioters to move away. But they were ineffective.
The riots had begun.
My entire family sat glued to the television screen. We lived far enough away from the rioting that we didn’t fear for ourselves; most of the rioting was happening in the inner cities. Fires, looting, and violence continued on into the night and then kept going the next day. It was really horrible. So many people were getting hurt.
The second day of the riots dawned. I needed to be at my job at 1pm. My mom told me not to go. She was afraid I would be pulled out of my car and killed, raped, or robbed. Although there had been a few minor reports that looting and rioting had extended to the San Fernando Valley, where we lived, I really thought the odds of me encountering danger were minimal. And I had a plan. If anyone approached me, I’d gun my motor and drive away real fast. My mom was not pleased, but I left for work anyway, hyper-vigilant and on guard.
I made it to work. At the time I was working on the second floor in an office above Radio Shack. I worked for an assessment center and our job was to test people who had been injured on the job or who were on welfare to see what capabilities and job skills they had so they could go back into the work force.
I’ll take a moment to tell you that my office co-workers consisted of two white people, two Asians, and one Hispanic gal. The rest of our office was filled with our clients for the week which were about 25 African Americans, 5 Hispanics, and 2 Caucasians. I point this out because the moment I walked into my office the racial tension was so strong you could practically taste it. What had once been a jovial, collaborative atmosphere was now almost deathly silent.
Everyone was on guard. What would happen? I don’t mind telling you that I was a little nervous.
Before long, we heard a huge commotion downstairs. And glass breaking. A lot of glass. My boss left the office to see what was going on. He was only gone a couple of minutes when he came rushing back into the office, breathless and said, “Huge gang of black guys downstairs, they’re looting the Radio Shack. Broke all the windows. Quick, we need to secure the office.”
For a moment no one moved. I can tell you that I was so scared I could barely breathe. My mom’s fears all hit me at once. After they looted the shop, would they come upstairs and beat and rape us?
We closed and locked all the doors. Our offices were on the inner part of the corridor so we had no windows, just doors. A bunch of the guys moved cabinets in front of the doors so that if they broke in they’d have to push down the heavy cabinets to get to us.
After we were secured in our lockdown situation, we all sat down in the middle of the room. And then we looked around at each other and realized we were a huge mix of ethnicities. What would happen? Would people take sides? Would the African American males attack us as a show of solidarity with their brothers downstairs? Would people start fighting?
The room was deathly quiet. No one was talking, but everyone was thinking the same thing. Would rioting start INSIDE the office?
After long minutes of total silence, one of our Hispanic clients said, “I could sure use a sandwich!”
For a second, there was no reaction, and then everyone started laughing. Everyone. The tension was broken. Black men clapped the guy on the back and shook his hand.
And then my boss said, “Look everyone, obviously this is a highly charged situation, but just because the guys downstairs are acting foolish doesn’t mean any of us have to. I care about everyone in this room and I’m not going to let anything happen to anyone. We’re in this together and we’re going to survive this together too.”
One of the black men stood up and said, “Look, you all need to know that we are not like those guys downstairs. We don’t condone what they’re doing. And if anyone tried to break in here, we would defend your lives like our own.”
I remember feeling love pouring into the room as everyone’s energy merged in solidarity instead of fear. I calmed down. I felt safe.
It took about 30 minutes for the coast to be clear. As soon as the looters had left Radio Shack, we were escorted to our cars in large groups for protection, and sent home for the day. We didn’t come to work the next day, as my boss decided we were closed until the rioting was officially over.
The L.A riots were very upsetting to me. I really dislike physical violence. I remember really feeling the power and energy of his plea when Rodney King said, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Why indeed!
In the aftermath a lot of things happened. Some good, some bad.
Over time there has been healing and understanding, and there’s also been friction and fear. We’re not quite there yet. Hopefully, we’ll find our way before having to endure another crisis like this.
My mom used to say to me, “We should all just make babies with each other. After a few generations you wouldn’t know who was what, and it wouldn’t matter anymore. We’d all be the same.” No labels, no differences, no colors. Just people.
It would be nice.