Larry Mantle |

The collective trauma of the Los Angeles riots

This morning on “AirTalk,” we spoke with contributors to our Public Insight Journalism program about the riots 20 years later. We’ve been hearing a lot from academics and civic leaders, each of whom has an institutional reason for why the city exploded and why rioters and looters behaved as they did. However, I wanted to hear from folks who could offer a more personal way to talk about the toll of the rioting.

What has seemed missing to me in the anniversary coverage is the pain, shame, and embarrassment over our city behaving in the way that it did.The civic institutional and academic narrative has been that the riots were an inevitable outgrowth of a militaristic LAPD and a lack of justice from criminal courts. There’s no doubt that public anger erupted over the acquittals in the Rodney King beating trial, and that it epitomized, for many, the perception that police officers didn’t have to be accountable for their actions. However, there’s also an important group dynamic that came into play.

Once we saw the TV images of LAPD retreating from crowd control and arrests, it gave the message that everyone had a free pass to act out as they wanted. Beatings, shootings, arson, looting, were an inevitable result of people feeling free to act out their basest impulses.

We’ve seen this behavior following major sports events here, and in other cities like Vancouver, BC. The mob mentality takes over and folks egg each other on to smash things, set fires, beat passersby, and steal stuff. There’s no political agenda behind it, but a big adrenaline charge for those going wild.

Sadly, this was what I saw during the riots of 20 years ago. What began as embarrassment and anger over the beating of King and all that it symbolized turned to anger and embarrassment over the terrible behavior of many Angelenos that followed.

Beyond the vicious beating of Reginald Denny, and the shootings and beatings of many other innocent people, most of us remember the images of parents with kids in tow running into family-run stores and carrying out whatever they could. Even young kids were hauling out stuff nearly as big as they were. I found it sickening to watch on the streets, or even from the remove of TV.

I vividly remember working on-air hour after hour, day after day, into the late night. The first night of the curfew, I recall driving home to Hollywood after following the car of my producer Linda Othenin-Girard to make sure she got home safely. Hardly anyone was driving, but people were still out in the smoke-filled night air. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it.

As a fourth-generation Angeleno, who spent his early years in the southwest area of the city that was heavily damaged by rioting, it was tough to take. Though my pain in seeing violence and destruction was nothing compared to those directly hit, I think many of us were strongly affected by what we saw and have been reluctant to talk about it. We’ve felt that it was unseemly to talk about how we were affected by the riots if we didn’t suffer tangible loss. I think after 20 years, it’s okay to talk about the riots’ emotional collateral damage.

I appreciated our guests this morning who so openly talked about their strong feelings that have lasted for two decades. The traumatic impact of the riots was still evident in their voices all this time later. I think it’s important to hear that pain.

Thankfully, we also have memories of heroic actions by many Angelenos who, at great risk, helped rescue others in peril and protected businesses that were threatened by the crowds.

However, once we’ve seen large numbers of local people behaving so destructively, it’s also an eye-opener about human nature and how it could happen again. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s one of my painful lessons learned from the riots. When people don’t have to answer for their actions, and have nothing to lose, the worst in human behavior is free to express itself.

On a much lighter note, our “Film Week” critics Claudia Puig and Henry Sheehan had me laughing during one of our news breaks this morning. Somehow we got on the topic of foreign directors coming to Hollywood and having their artistry destroyed. Henry recounted how, after the Swedish movie “My Life as a Dog” came out, he was interviewing its director Lasse Hallstrom and warned him that he wouldn’t be able to do his thing if he made movies in America. Hallstrom obviously ignored Henry’s advice.

However, it was the mention of Ang Lee and his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that ignited off-air sparring between Claudia and Henry. As Henry was in the middle of bashing Lee’s work after he started making American movies, including his non-American “ Tiger,” Claudia leapt in and defended the film, which was a favorite of both audiences and critics. From there we went to images of Claudia using her swordsmanship and acrobatic skills to recreate one of “Tiger’s” fight scenes, with Henry the good-natured victim for his criticism of a beloved movie. I could just picture Claudia jousting with Henry as she vaulted over a wall. We do have a good time.