The Riggs Report: Looking back at the Los Angeles riots

May 4th, 2017

25 years ago, urban warfare shook Southern California

A quarter century has passed since chaos gripped the Los Angeles region in the wake of the acquittal by a Simi Valley jury of four police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King; a series of riots killed more than 60 people and caused nearly $1 billion in property damage.

I never covered conventional warfare during my years as a reporter—the kind of shooting war that we associate with Iraq, Syria or even Vietnam. But the four days I spent in Los Angeles, clad in a bullet-proof vest, following the LAPD’s uneven efforts to restore order and stop the looting, assaults and arson, certainly qualified for combat duty on its own.

My photographer and I were based out of the old KABC studios on Prospect Avenue in Hollywood. Leaving the security of that compound brought to mind how the cavalry must have felt when leaving the fort in the days of the Old West.

We stayed out of south central L.A., the flashpoint at Florence and Normandie, where the initial violence broke out, including the televised beating of trucker Reginald Denny. But cruising Hollywood and Santa Monica Boulevards carried its own risks.

I remember clearly how the streets were deserted, except for occasional police units. But as we traveled the boulevard, sharing a car with another news crew from Sacramento, what became apparent were the number of weapons that were on display.

I had never seen so many guns in the hands of non-law enforcement and was glad for that protective vest. Rifle barrels could be seen along rooftops, held by business owners and merchants who were on sentinel duty.

We stopped at a strip mall where looters were emptying a convenience store. They paid no attention to us. But in the same complex, we found the staff of a property management firm that was watching fearfully. The owner, a Hollywood character actor whose name I’ve long forgotten, showed up in the doorway with a large pistol on his hip, vowing with bravado to use it to keep the looters away.

There was a famous televised scene of a Koreatown merchant who emerged, firing his pistol repeatedly in the air, as a warning for lawbreakers to stay away.

We spent the next few days moving from one burning building to the next, from scenes of looting and other lawlessness. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was put into place, and thousands of National Guard troops were deployed around the city.

We were at Griffith Park as the sun rose on the third day, revealing huge plumes of smoke smudging the Los Angeles skyline, giving a more complete sense of the destruction and upheaval.

What I witnessed in Los Angeles 25 years ago was a reminder of what happens when the rules of society are upended. It was dangerous duty, but also a far different time for media, long before the internet and the proliferation of digital images.

We were, by and large, ignored by the crowds of lawbreakers. That wouldn’t be true today.