In April 1992, I was a highly impressionable 12-year-old Californian. Living in Long Beach, “The International City”, I was used to violence. Old enough to watch the news meant I was old enough to know that people died in LA every night. This was normal. This was a part of the world where all those rap lyrics weren’t some great urban fable.
So that April had been like most others. There was violence, there were robberies. It was life. But, it wasn’t. It was life with a video, a bad quality video, but a damning one. It was a video that very quickly changed everything. By April 1992, we’d seen that video over and over through the past 13 months. It was part of the culture. It was a string of images that were part of life.
And then, one afternoon, it all fell apart.
The politics of the Rodney King police brutality case have been written about over and over in the nearly two decades since that first jury came back and read off a not guilty verdict. Maybe it was that verdict that politicised me, that pushed me to volunteer and work for various candidates and causes. Maybe it didn’t. None of that matters.
At the end of April 1992, it all fell apart.
I have flashes of memories from that time. I remember going home from school, past the buildings that had been burned. I remember the sirens. I remember the way the sky looked at night.
I remember going to my friend’s house, one of the few friends who lived in a neighbourhood as bad as mine, and taking a bit longer than I should have getting to the car as it got dusky around my mom’s 1969 VW Camper Van. I remember going home and hearing the sirens, smelling the smoke.
I remember watching the news that first day. I remember the coverage of Reginald Denny’s beating. This time it wasn’t a hazy video. It was straight from the traffic helicopters that were hovered over South Central LA, each network with a slightly different angle. I remember my mom on the phone to one of her friends while I sat at the coffee table doing my homework. I remember the coverage being like when we had an earthquake — nothing on any of the channels but news.
I remember being in PE, white t-shirt and blue shorts, at the end of the school day. I remember seeing the smoke from the school I’d be going to soon. I remember a school counsellor handing our teacher a stack of paper. I remember being handed a sheet for parents to help their kids understand what was going on, and laughing at the underestimation of what we could understand. I remember being happy we had the next day off.
I remember the National Guard.
I remember the copycat “riots” that popped up across America.
So now, as a riot spreads around London, I remember my riot. The riot that changed things in my home town forever, and that changed me. That sounds wrong, though. It changed me, but no more than any other major event would have at that age. (Though I do remember a time a few years later when the worry about another verdict-based riot got me out of going back to school after a doctor’s appointment thanks to a small bit of fear mongering on my part.)
Last night I commented on the London riots and my boredom with it all. I don’t know why this event has filled me with such ennui, but it has. I watch the news, I read the stories, but I have no feeling for it. Maybe it’s the distance, though the ‘civil unrest’ in Bristol both during this event and earlier in the year when people got a bit testy with a Tesco haven’t moved me in any great way. If anything, the current copycat “riots” have pissed me off because they aren’t real riots, but just a group of 10 kids who are bored after a few weeks of school holidays. And a burned out car in August in Liverpool isn’t exactly a “riot”, is it?
So I don’t know what to say. This isn’t my riot. This is someone else’s riot. I can’t change that, and I just have to come to terms with that. My riot was nearly 20 years ago. My riot destroyed a lot of things, and killed a lot of people. But, like all riots, we finally did all just get along, if only for a while.
(As a postscript, maybe it isn’t a coincidence that my chosen research area uses April 1992 as a moment of great change. Maybe I give the end of The Cosby Show extra meaning because I remember Bill Cosby’s appeal to LA residents to stay home that second night of riots and watch the final episode of his sitcom.)