I was a reporter for KLON at the time. I spent every day at the Rodney King beating trial up in Simi Valley. Even won a politically incorrect bet about when the verdicts would come in. I saw fights break out in the parking lot outside the courthouse as soon as verdicts were announced. I knew then that it was going to be a bad scene.
I filed that first night on the results of the trial and then - because Frank Stoltze was the only one with what we called a "cellphone" in those days (as big as a shoe box and as heavy as a barbell) he was sent out into the neighborhood. I covered all the "official" press conferences. I especially remember one with Mayor Bradley and city leaders on the top floor of a highrise (it was then the Transamerica Building) and from that vantage point, you could see fires breaking out all over the city.
I had just gotten married and gave my new husband my grandfather's pocket watch. I took it to the local Fedco store to have the watchmaker inscribe it. If the jeweler hadn't taken it home with him, it would have gone missing, along with everything else in the store. My home in LA is surrounded by businesses that were looted and went up in flames that week.
But I remember best the reconstruction scenes - folks showing up all over the 'hood with brooms to help cleanup and start over again. Everyone wanted to do something to rebuild the city. I helped start a theatre program at HOLA - Heart of Los Angeles youth theatre, teaching playwriting to inner city kids.
I grew up in Compton. The Watts riots broke out on my birthday back in 1965. Those two instances where neighbor turns against neighbor almost overnight have haunted me. When people point at Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia and say it's "just ancient tribal or ethnic rivalries" that happen to people "over there" I tell them they are wrong. It can happen in any neighborhood, any time. I'm still trying to figure out what can be done to make sure it doesn't happen again. Here or anywhere else.