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The L.A. Riots—20 Years Later

What lessons have we learned as Angelenos from the worst rioting in recent memory?

April 29 marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 L.A. Riots. The widely televised upheaval, also referred to as the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, was sparked by the acquittal of four LAPD officers—three white and one Latino—who were accused of brutally beating an African American man, Rodney King, in 1991.

Over the next several days, Los Angeles exploded into a frenzy of violence, looting, arson and murder that began in what was then predominantly black South-Central L.A (now named South L.A., a predominantly Latino area). According to one of the most reliable estimates, the rioting claimed 53 lives, left thousands injured and reportedly damaged property worth $1 billion. The office of Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who represented South-Central L.A., burned down during the riots. Waters defended the loss of her office building as “one of the victims of the rebellion,” which, in turn, she described in a May 10, 1992 Los Angeles Times article as "a spontaneous reaction to a lot of injustice and a lot of alienation and frustration."

The L.A. Riots are considered the nation’s first “multiethnic” riots, partly because stores owned by Korean Americans and other Asian immigrants were widely targeted. As such, the riots are a pivotal moment in L.A.’s racial, immigrant and urban history, aptly summed up in the words of then-Mayor Tom Bradley, himself a former police officer: “Today the system failed us.”

Round-numbered anniversaries are always a good time for reflection. Twenty years after the L.A. Riots—and with the recent killings of two black youths in Florida and Pasadena fresh in our minds—what lessons have we learned as Angelenos and as Americans? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the L.A. Riots will undoubtedly recall the day the rioting began and Mayor Bradley declared a state of emergency. Where were you that day? What did you see in and around Eagle Rock? What was going through your mind? Share your memories in the Comments box below.

To kick-start what we hope will be diverse and fruitful discussion, we feature below an account of the rioting by longtime Eagle Rock resident and photojournalist Henk Friezer. His photographs of the second day of rioting in South-Central L.A. offer a glimpse of the carnage that swept the area. Some 3,600 fires destroyed 1,100 buildings, according to one report, including the John Muir Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, whose gutted remains Friezer immortalized in an award-winning photograph that drove the famous choreographer and entertainer Debbie Allen to tears.

In 1992, I was photographer of the now-defunct Northeast Newspapers, which published the Eagle Rock Sentinel, Highland Park News-Herald, South Pasadena Journal, and Northeast Star Review. After the Rodney King verdict was announced, we knew there would be trouble. We saw signs of it locally—there were police everywhere.

Despite the pleas of my wife, I decided to drive around to document any incidents in the Northeast area that was my beat. Everywhere I went, I heard sirens from police cars and fire trucks. My first encounter with rioting was on Eagle Rock Boulevard, where firefighters were putting out a small trash fire. A few blocks away, some police cruisers were stationed, while others had pulled over some drivers.

A curfew had gone into effect. My press pass allowed me access to local streets. There were few minor incidents that night—nothing compared to the explosion that hit the southern section of the city. The next day, I decided to drive down to the devastated area of the city that had been hit the hardest.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw. Whole blocks were leveled by fire and destroyed by vandals. As I drove around, some people cursed at me and others threw rocks, although I had nothing to do with the cause of their anger. I continued to shoot the ruins and remnants of businesses that only a few days ago flourished. Dazed residents wandered the streets to survey the damage. I carefully kept my distance and kept the engine of my car running as I photographed the scenes.

A few days later, I went back to the area at the request of one of my clients, the Los Angeles Public Library. They wanted me to photograph the John Muir Branch Library on Vermont Avenue, which was completely destroyed. The City librarian at the time, Elizabeth Martinez, and choreographer Debbie Allen walked around the debris, overcome by the disaster. Ms. Allen was truly overwhelmed as she shed tears looking at the charred books. She later became a major benefactor in helping rebuild and restock the new library.

Back in my own area of Northeast L.A., there were some minor signs of what had transpired. But nothing compared with the damage I witnessed in South-Central L.A.

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