As I turned out, I stayed there for several days — helping to cover the L.A. riots, which broke out shortly after my flight landed. It was one of the worst urban riots in U.S. history.
The airport was shut down amid the escalating violence, complicating plans to send reporters to L.A., and I was there anyway (albeit overdressed with a skimpy overnight bag). Some of my colleagues just hopped in their cars and drove down to join me.
It was an ugly and unpredictable story to cover. I had vague memories of the 1965 Watts riots from my L.A. childhood (I was very young), but the 1992 riots are vivid in my memory.
The rioting started on April 29 after a Simi Valley jury trial resulted in the acquittal of four L.A. Police Department officers accused in the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
Riots — you learn on the scene — do not occur everywhere at once, and damage often is concentrated at certain intersections and strips. You have to be careful in your reporting, avoiding hyperbole. Many sections of South Central L.A. and Koreatown were untouched by the riots, for example.
In total, though, thousands of people rioted for six days — 53 people were killed and 2,000 were injured.
KING: “I WAS THE LUCKY ONE”
I reflected on the riots this past weekend, when Rodney King died. King, a Sacramento native, was uncomfortable with his role as a political symbol, noting that those who fought racism in the early 20th century faced even more difficult challenges. “I was the lucky one,” he once said.
Though it was 20 years ago, race relations haven’t improved much — if at all. In recent years, it seems, we’ve been reliving the past when it comes to civil rights, women’s rights and so on — rather troubling, especially when you’re raising an inquisitive 10-year-old. Not much has been resolved.
In our community, I couldn’t even find a headline on Rodney King’s death on Sunday — though I could read all the details about the Soapbox Derby. Some people from L.A. probably moved up here after the 1992 L.A. riots, part of the “white flight” syndrome we talk about. It still permeates our local politics and culture.
But it’s hardly limited to our community. Last month, a new Newsweek/Daily Beast poll found that America faces a deepening level of racial division and polarization.
Majorities of both whites (72 percent) and blacks (89 percent) believe the country is divided by race, the poll found. Twice as many blacks as whites say it is very divided. And a majority of blacks say that racism is a big problem in America.
“Whites and blacks disagree–and disagree fundamentally when it comes to when—blacks will achieve racial equality with whites,” it said.
Not much has changed in my lifetime — despite optimism to the contrary. In fact, I find myself having the same discussions with my son that my father had with me when I asked him about the Watts riots back in 1965. In the end, people just aren’t very tolerant.