The LA Riots

For as long as he doesn’t sue us to take down his photos, Ted Soqui (the lens master who’s Occupy LA photograph graces our homepage) will remain a special member of the HELA family. Of all the photos I’ve seen during this year of commemoration, Ted’s are the one’s that take me straight back to ’92. At that time, there were a handful of images that would remain indelible. The burnt and burning strip malls, Reginald Denny getting dragged from his truck and curb stomped on live TV, and soldiers guarding storefronts. And while I’d grown up with plenty of Korean-Americans, I’ll always remember the LA riots as a sort of coming out party for the K-Town locals.

When I first saw the photo below I thought, “These guys aren’t the cops, they’re not the National Guard, they’re not gangsters… they’re just shopkeepers protecting what’s theirs …and these hombres do NOT fuck around.” It reminded me that there are times in life when you gotta draw a line in the sand and the only person you can ultimately rely upon to hold that line is you, yourself, and maybe a couple of your closest brochachos.

There was also something jarring about seeing this group of people in a new light. It’s rare that we ever imagine immigrants for who they were, that is, for who they used to be. I mean, we take for granted the entirety of a life experience that brought someone across an ocean or a desert and through a Kafkaesque bureaucracy -with or without their family- to set up shop on this side of the border. Of course, not every cab driver was a surgeon in a past life, but this photo told me that the guys who stock the shelves and ring up your groceries had definitely gone through some serious shit before planting themselves in the ciudad, and they weren’t about to see their new life go up in flames.

Photo: Carlos Schiebeck

If I can shift from the journalistic lens to a little duder’s eyewitness account, there was another interesting phenomenon that became evident in the aftermath of the riots. While the ashes still burned, you could see that there were a lot of small and humble ways that people expressed their commitment for a return to normality. Despite the wanton recklessness and gratuitous destruction of property, it wasn’t ENTIRELY as our good man Bradley once stated “about comin’ up and stayin’ on top and screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfuckin’ cop.” A lot of people moved quick to clean things up and do their best to support their less fortunate neighbors. Because once a city’s collective outrage spills over into the streets, the havoc it wreaks becomes indiscriminate and the jackasses lighting everything on fire didn’t pause to think much about who would suffer most from the collateral damage.

In Soqui’s photo essay for the LA Weekly, he juxtaposes “then and now” shots of various ground zero locations and you can see that some of these neighborhoods never totally recovered. Some businesses burnt to the ground and 20 years later the only thing to rise from the ashes is a couple weeds in an empty lot. But in the moment, there were little things that helped the city move forward. And while it may not seem like a big deal, one of those little things was high school sports.

Try to realize that even after things had cooled down a bit, a lot of parents didn’t want their kids being bussed into the ashes. Even if their neighborhood was already torched up, there was still a somewhat legitimate concern that when their kids stepped off the bus at a rival high school, they’d have to dodge bullets. A riot is anarchy and nobody was really sure what the unwritten rules would be moving forward. Times were tense and kind of weird. There was a lot of fear and lot of anxiety and yet somehow people intuitively figured it out. It was a moment when fear briefly surrendered to …I don’t know… faith? As freaked out and traumatized as the city was, there remained an undercurrent of confidence that the same assholes sniping at firefighters the week before would know better than to pull the trigger on kids playing baseball and running track.

Photo: Don Emmert

That meant me and my fellow brochachitos -kids who had watched history unfold from the relative safety of the South Bay- spent the month of May in a yellow school bus trucking through all the neighboring barrios that got lit up during the LA Spring. One thing I’ll never forget, something that was simultaneously eerie yet reaffirming, was that we played ball in places where everything in the neighborhood had been burnt, wrecked, or broken …except for the school — especially the parochial schools. Little islands in an ocean of chaos. Everybody so pissed and so destructive and yet even during a moment of complete disregard for boundaries, there was an awareness that some things remained sacred. The church and the classroom. Two sanctuaries in a time of crisis.

A look 20 years back at HELA’s barrio today. Christine Burrill’s photo collage from the Free Venice Beachhead


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