On the first night of the L.A. Riots, plumes of smoke billowed around Lloyd Wilkey’s Mid City apartment. The young banker stood on his porch, his newborn daughter in his arms, and made plans with his wife to leave the city. He did — but he came back.
Where most Angelenos would like to forget the 1992 Riots, Wilkey has embraced them. The riots had a profound effect on the 56 year-old conflict mediator and diversity trainer.
"When I think of a riot, it's just like shaking things up," said Wilkey. "It was that shaking things up in 1992 that turned me into the L.A. Riot."
He took on the nickname the "L.A. Riot" in recent years. His work in an amalgam of non-profit jobs places him uniquely at the confluence of issues that buffeted the city 20 years ago, and still remain today.
When violence exploded across the city in 1992, Wilkey worked at a bank near his home and represented his employer in a local merchant's association.
The second morning of the riots, he was at an association meeting where tensions ran high. There were frantic phone calls to police and politicians.
"The prevailing thought was ‘Let's just keep those people from coming up here," Wilkey said. "I happened to be the only black person at the meeting that morning. I felt as though everyone was looking at me."
At 56, with a long curly shock of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, “The L.A. Riot” is not a riotous kind of guy.
Wilkey thinks of it as his hustler alter ego. He has to hustle. His wife just got her third pink slip as a pre-school teacher at L.A. Unified. “L.A. Riot” is also the name of his band.
But most of all, being the “L.A. Riot” is about boxing.
Fifteen years ago, Lloyd Wilkey started a boxing program at Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood. The program has since expanded to Long Beach and Hollywood.
About 15 kids between six and twenty years old show up at each location. They do 10 pushups when they’re late, and then they whale away at punching bags.
Wilkey provides training at the speed bag and also advice on how to navigate violence in schools or deal with police when things go wrong. From his perspective, youth view the world in a different way than they did 20 years ago.
"As I interact with young people, their views about race are very different from my generation and the generations that follow me. They don't manifest the same racial attitudes,"
As a teen at a Jesuit school in Boston, Wilkey says he was molested by a priest. The experience haunted him into high school, and he failed to graduate.
He said he's spent most of his life trying to play catch up and it's one thing that motivates his work with youth. But he has another role working with law enforcement agencies that is also informed by his experience during the riots.
Nearly every law enforcement officer in California passes through the Museum of Tolerance in Beverly Hills where they take in a day-long seminar on diversity, tolerance and dealing with issues at the ethnic margins.
The LAPD was first to sign up for the Museum’s Tools for Tolerance program when it started in 1996. Wilkey joined the museum as one of its first facilitators for the program.
Over the years, he has talked to thousands of police officers. In the years after the riots, the program was tense. Officers who came through the museum's doors weren't always willing to listen, he said.
"Some guy that looks the way I look and is possibly liberal and probably and activist is asking me questions about how I feel," Wilkey said. "They probably felt as though they were always on trial in the beginning."
Twenty years later, the face of the police force has changed, Wilkey said. Recruits view the communities they police in a different way and they are more open to conversations at the museum.
"Now they seem to be coming more from the communities that they are serving, and they have a bit more sensitivity toward life in those communities," Wilkey said.
The past five years have been tough for the communities that bore the brunt of the damage during the riots, Wilkey said. Opportunities for advancement and healthy living haven't gotten much better.
What has changed, he said, is the way those communities view themselves and the way they hope to seek change.
"What were we trying to do when we were rioting? Riot is connected to revolution. And so what I'm talking about really is a non-violent riot," Wilkey said.