It's been 25 years since the L.A. Riots, and KPCC is taking a look at what led up to the civil unrest and its aftermath. "All Things Considered" host Nick Roman spoke with Fernando Pullum, a high school teacher who founded the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center in Leimert Park.
In 1992, you were a music teacher at Washington Prep High in South L.A. Where were you the night the riots erupted? Take me back to that day.
It was disbelief for me, because I was driving down to San Diego to play a gig with Fishbone. The police cars were lining the freeway. I could see the beginnings of some of the fires taking place. I thought that with the police presence, this was something that would be quelled very quickly. But when I returned home that evening it was a madhouse. I thought I was going to have to run over someone for my own safety because other people were standing in front of my car. But it was really, really a scary situation.
During the five days of rioting, classes were cancelled. When school resumed, what did you take into the classroom?
First, I was trying to keep my kids out of harm's way, which is the major task when you work in an inner city. You're not just dealing with your subject matter, you're thinking about the concerns of what happens to your kids when they leave your classroom. And being a band director, oftentimes we were there till 8, 9, 10, 11 and even 12 o'clock at night, so you're responsible for getting those kids home safely. The biggest thing for me was trying to keep kids away from what was happening.
How did you do that?
It was quite easy, because the kids are pretty smart. We just keep playing. Even when incidents broke out on campus, we start playing. We just get together and we start playing music. You try to occupy them as much as possible.
What were those kids talking about during those days?
I think it was a lot of low self-esteem involved in it, like how do you tear up your own community? For me personally, I think you're tearing up your own things, the things you're going to have to use for survival. I don't really support violence and destruction in any manner, but their low self-esteem led to them tearing up their own things and would not lead them to places like Beverly Hills and Westwood, places they thought there would be actual policing to stop them from doing what they're doing.
You continued to run Washington Prep's music program for many years after that. How did the program impact the lives of students in the community?
I think a lot of people fall victim to self-destruction and self-hate and low self-esteem-type activities when they think they have no hope. And I think my students, at that time, represented a chance out. I recently discovered we have had six Grammy winners that came out of the program. You're not anticipating that happening. I watched some of those kids that were in that program — one young lady, she's played with Beyonce, [and I'm] seeing someone play with Lady Gaga.
Now you run the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center in Leimert Park, which offers free performance arts lessons to students ages 5 to 20. What's it like to teach a new generation of students? To them the riots are now part of history books. They didn't live through this, but the impact of the civil uprising is still a part of their culture.
What I want to do at this center is, first of all, I want to teach the kids to be responsible for their own community. Each month we feed the homeless and we also play at convalescent homes. I don't want the kids to have this mentality of waiting on the government to save the community or other people from outside of the community to come back to help us. They need to start helping themselves. There's so many elderly people who fought very hard for kids to have the right to an education. I want them to be able to see the fruits of their efforts being realized. Kids really want to be a part of something. If that happens to be a gang because it's really easy to be in or if it happens to be a performing arts school ...
The performing arts, it saved me personally. Both my parents were drug addicts. Unfortunately, my mom was a prostitute across the street from my junior high school. I saw people murdered when I was growing up. I think the strongest drug that you can have is hearing someone cheer for you and say your name. I try to give these kids that opportunity, because it was given to me. And I think it works. I think they're going to be great citizens, and we hope to change this neighborhood one household at a time.