LA on fire: the first night of the 1992 riots

With police and fire staying out of the area, a man watches the massive fires burn in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues, the flash point of the riots. I shot this just after dark.

I was a little more than two hours into my shift on April 29, 1992, when the verdict came in. About 77 miles (110 miles by car) southwest of Bakersfield, in a predominantly white, affluent suburban city northwest of Los Angeles called Simi Valley, four Los Angeles police officers – three white, one Latino and white – were acquitted of charges stemming from the violent beating a year earlier of Rodney King, a black motorist who had led them on a high-speed car chase. It was one of the most closely-watched trials and eagerly anticipated verdicts in Los Angeles history, due exclusively to a now common happenstance that was a rarity for its time –  a citizen, George Holliday, had captured the beating on videotape from the balcony of his apartment. The video shocked the world, was played thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of times throughout the world in the ensuing year, and reignited long-simmering racial tensions in Los Angeles.

My shift was routine that day, and even after the verdict was announced at 3:15 pm, I continued with my regular assigned duties. I had no idea that in about four-and-one- half hours, I would be driving, alone in a white Toyota Corolla, through a firestorm that was south central Los Angeles. It wasn’t until about 4:30 pm or 5 pm that I got paged to radio the Bakersfield Californian newsroom. Yeah, paged. Yeah, radio. We didn’t have cell phones yet. We communicated with the various desks via two-way radio and pager. The editor told me they wanted me to head to downtown Los Angeles, to Parker Center, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, where it was believed people would be gathering to protest the verdict. Sure, I responded, I’ll head back to the office to pick up the reporter. Well, the editor explained, there will not be a reporter going with me. I’d be going alone. This was essentially a “scouting mission,” I was going down there just in case something happened. Nobody had any idea what was coming. I sure didn’t. I was 33 years old, and 33-year-old photojournalists are invincible. Or is it stupid? Either way, I headed down to Los Angeles, alone in that white Toyota Corolla with the number 60 attached in big stickers on the rear fender. Had I known what would begin almost immediately after I started the two-hour trip down Highway 99 toward downtown Los Angeles, I never would have agreed to go alone. OK, I’ve convinced myself. Let’s make that 33 and stupid.

LA burns_1web
I drove down this street toward the plumes of smoke. The street was mostly empty – few cars, no people – but it led me to an inferno of numerous burning businesses and automobiles.

At around 5:30 pm, reports of disturbances at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in south central Los Angeles began coming in. I had no idea what was going on down there, I was just driving. I did not know that in the course of the next hour-plus, the disturbances at Florence and Normandie would progress to the flash point of the riots that would take the lives of more than 60 people and burn down dozens of businesses. Those that didn’t burn were looted, then burned. I did not know that an ill-prepared Los Angles Police Department was so taken by surprise by the spreading violence at the intersection that they pulled out of the area and that an unimaginable violence-fueled anarchy would take over the area and quickly spread. I did not know that news photographers were being attacked and assaulted, that motorists were being dragged from their cars and beaten. And, of course, I did not know that at 6:46 pm (check out this fantastic timeline from the Los Angeles Times), about 45 minutes before I would drive into the very same intersection, Reginald Denny, a white truck driver making a delivery in the area and unaware of the dangerous and volatile situation, was dragged from his truck and so severely beaten he would have died if several citizens had not intervened and rescued him. The horrifying video, shot from a helicopter, would stun the world, just as Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating had.

My only source of information was the broadcasts of Los Angeles’ two news radio stations, KNX and KFWB. But I could not access a clear signal until I was over the Grapevine, the passage that cuts through the mountains separating the San Joaquin Valley from the Angeles National Forest, so I was able to only get sporadic bits of information until I got closer to the LA basin. When I was able to get clear radio signals, I learned that there was significant unrest in the area of Florence and Normandie avenues. The newspaper regularly covered the Lakers at the time, and I was somewhat familiar with the area, since it was close to the Forum, where the Lakers played, so I scrubbed the Parker Center trip and headed to Florence and Normandie. Again, I was aware there were disturbances, but was not remotely aware of how volitile things were. I got off the 110 freeway and headed down Florence toward Normandie. As I drew closer, the area seemed relatively calm. People were out on the streets and it seemed more like a party than anything else. There didn’t seem to be any violence at this location. Obviously, it was a lull. I also noticed no police of any kind, and this tricked me into a false sense of security. I had no idea that the police had been so unprepared for any unrest they had been pulled from the area for their safety. It was getting dark, probably around 7:30 I guess. Nobody accosted me, but I still resisted the urge to get out of my car and try to shoot photos.

I drove through the intersection, I guess it was too dark to see the bloody remnants of the Denny incident, and a few blocks past Normandie, made a right hand turn and headed down that street. I don’t remember what it’s named. As I drove that street, I noticed, on the sidewalks, groups of police officers, about 10 or 20 per group. I figured they were in the area in case things got out of hand. Again, I had no idea they had been pulled out of the area, and apparently weren’t staging, they were waiting for instructions. As I drove that street, I saw plumes of smoke about a half-mile, maybe less away. So I drove toward the smoke.

Looters enter a store in south central after busting through the doors. This was one of the few buildings in the area I photographed that had not been set on fire.

And it was there that I was confronted by fire, lots of fire. Few people, no police, no firefighters, just building upon building burning in the darkness. Somebody had lit up the whole area. I stopped my car and decided to get out to take a few pictures. I saw no people, and figured it was safe. Within seconds of getting out of the car, gunshots rang out. They were close. Was somebody shooting at me? Or was somebody just shooting and it coincided with my getting out of the car? Didn’t matter. I jumped back in the car and moved along. At one point, I heard glass smashing and watched looters rushing into a store. This one wasn’t on fire. I was across the street and shot a few frames, then got out of there. As I drove in this area, it was eerie. All these burning buildings, with virtually nobody to be seen. I shot what I could, then realized I had to head back to Bakersfield. Newspapers at the time had these nice agreements with each other where visiting photographers could use their darkrooms and transmitting equipment to send pictures to their home paper. There was no such thing as digital! But I knew that on this night, that would not be possible. Every newspaper in the city undoubtedly had their hands full. My only option to get pictures back was to head home. I probably spent abut an hour photographing. That was it.

Driving through streets of burning buildings, with no people or firefighters around, was eerie.

I got back to the freeway and headed north. I stopped when it was safe, near Burbank, and called the desk to tell them what I had. In the meantime, the story was the biggest in the world. LA was burning! They did not need my scouting report. As I was driving home, teams of Californian reporters and photographers were heading to Los Angeles. It was back in the day when we chased big stories – really chased big stories – and we would have people in Los Angeles for the several days the riots lasted. Almost every staff photographer was dispatched. When I returned to the paper that night, I was met with another surprise. Because I traveled to LA alone, they needed a story. They asked me to write a first-person account of what I witnessed. I agreed, and it was the first story I had written since moving to the photo department from the sports staff 11 years earlier. Only one of my photos ran, the one of the looters. By the time I got back, the story was so huge, and the developments were so rapid, that more timely and incredible pictures were moving from the wire services. By today’s standards, any pictures were likely outdated when they hit the morning papers. But that was journalism in 1992. Today, a story like this would provide nonstop images for 24-7, both from professionals and citizens.



3 thoughts on “LA on fire: the first night of the 1992 riots

  1. Wow John. This is an incredible recollection. It was the first time I ever turned down an assignment. I had an eight month old baby at home. To this day, I can still see the 23newsroom, Walt Brown sitting on the producer’s desk, conducting a news meeting about insignificant matters, and oblivious to the live feed monitor of our affiliate at the time, KCBS showing the Denny beating. Several times I interrupted him to point out what was unfolding, and he dismissed it as ‘no big deal’. And, of course, as your first-hand account and the photographs showed, the rest was infamy.

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