1965 Watts Riots: A fireman on a tall ladder aims water at fire on the rooftop of a building complex in Watts. Corner building has a liquor store, chop suey and seafood restaurant, and a jewelry store. Officers with rifles stand guard by the alley.
I’ve watched this city fall apart twice in my lifetime.
On August 11, 1965, just two days before my birthday, an incident with a cop just a few miles from our house grew into the explosion we now know as the Watts riots.
We lived in Compton, a city that had just experienced white flight – entire neighborhoods changing from white to black in a matter of months, inspired by anonymous fliers under the door that read “sell now before your property values drop.”
During the Watts riots, my folks were out of town and my brothers and I were under the care of the family babysitter. We heard the sirens. And smelled the smoke – a smell that might have been a thousand backyard incinerators from back in the days when most L.A. homeowners burned their trash in the backyard. But it wasn’t. It was homes and businesses going up in smoke.
That smell sticks with me today. I smelled it again in 1992. On April 29th, I was in Simi Valley, covering the trial of the four L.A. police officers who beat Rodney King. When the verdicts came down, I felt a pit in my stomach. I covered the post-verdict press conferences and then went outside for reaction from the many spectators who hung out outside the courthouse. Many people were arguing, fights were breaking out in the parking lot. And I thought, “If people are this angry here, what’s it like back in L.A.?”
Driving back to the city, I was glued to my radio for updates. There were helicopters everywhere, and the same smell of smoke.
Mostly, during the '92 riots, I covered press conferences. The station had one cell phone – in those days it was as big as a shoe box and weighed 30 pounds. Frank Stoltze got the phone and covered the front lines. I got the press conferences. I remember one on the top of what was then the Transamerica tower on 9th Street. Some official was talking, and about halfway through, reporters drifted away to the windows, watching the city burn all around – from south L.A. to Hollywood to the Valley.
It was the feeling of “not again.” And questions that haunt me: Why does neighbor turn against neighbor almost overnight? How do we miss the signs? Can we prevent it from happening again?
I think my own answer is that it’s that sense of powerlessness. That the promise of “justice for all” is a crock. That the promise of the American dream isn’t for everybody.
It’s probably the reason I covered war crimes trials – again, neighbor turning against neighbor almost overnight in far flung places like Bosnia and Rwanda. It was easy there to say it was ancient tribal divisions or ethnic rivalries. But it was the same as L.A.: When the scales of “fairness” are tipped too far, you just get angry.