Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Los Angeles Riots

Photo of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992

Behind the Scenes: It’s late April 1992 and all hell is breaking loose in South Central Los Angeles. Four LAPD officers—three white and one Hispanic—have just been acquitted of brutally beating black motorist, Rodney King, and the verdict has ignited a firestorm of rage in the black community. After years of police brutality, racial injustice, and economic disparity, hundreds are rioting in the streets.

Jeffrey watches this fiery scene unfold on television, his stomach churning, especially when he sees an innocent white truck driver, Reginald Denny, pulled from his truck and maliciously beaten when he’s stopped at an intersection; then later hears of another man, Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan construction worker, who’s robbed, beaten and maimed—his ear nearly sliced off and his genitals and torso painted black.

Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Jeffrey is disturbed to see this unfolding in his own backyard. The brutality seems more like something he’d witness in a lesser-developed country; one without a democratic or judicial system in place.

When the riots intensify the following day, with thousands now protesting, looting and setting buildings on fire, Jeffrey gets on a plane and heads to Los Angeles. After covering human rights issues and cultural conflicts around the world, he feels compelled to turn his lens on what is happening in his own country.

Landing at LAX, he gets a rental car (with the extra insurance, this time), then drives into the miasma. It’s like a war zone. Four thousand National Guard troops are patrolling the streets, many in Humvees, all with rifles.The smell of smoke and ash assault Jeffrey’s nostrils as he steps out of the car near the intersection where Reginald Denny was beaten.

The muscles in Jeffrey’s neck ache with tension. Even though every kind of law enforcement officer has been brought in from around California to stand guard and try to gain control of the situation, he knows that unlike most other countries where only the military owns guns, anybody is able to own and use a gun in our country. Sniper shootings have been rampant.

In the mix, the Korean American community has been hit hard with looting and has taken up arms trying to defend its livelihood. Gun battles have broken out across Koreatown.

Jeffrey’s intention is to examine the social, cultural, and economic reasons contributing to this explosive situation. When he comes across firefighters putting out the remaining embers of a torched building and an officer guarding them from snipers, he knows he has created a symbolic photograph of this complicated moment in time–especially with the sentiment scrawled in red across the wall.

This photograph was created with a Nikon F4 camera, a Nikor 24mm lens and Fuji Velvia film. It was published in Newsweek, then later as the cover of Architectural Landscape magazine in an issue dedicated to urban renewal.

Where were you when the Los Angeles riots broke out twenty years ago ? Do you remember? And do you remember what your thoughts were at the time?

15 thoughts on “Thursday’s Picture of the Week: Los Angeles Riots

  1. “Jeffrey’s intention is to examine the social, cultural, and economic reasons contributing to this explosive situation.” — and this is why photographers are so important. It’s not just about what you happen to be near when you happen to have a camera with you, as so many people interpret amazing photos of poignant moments in time. But rather, it is the photographer’s intention that truly draws the picture.

  2. I was a six years old kid that time; so I hardly remember anything about this page of history Becky. It was so scary. Jeffrey is really a brave person to cover such a story.

    • You are a spring chicken, my friend! Yes, it was a volatile and sad time in American history. I don’t think Jeffrey felt brave photographing the riots; he just felt like he needed to be there to document what was going on in his own country.

  3. It’s so interesting . . . .there’s something about the color of the wall that I find arresting, maybe in the way it suggests images of uprisings in tropical climes. But it’s the U.S. of A., as you so pointedly remind us. I well remember the riots . . .and what a distressing statement they were about the divided culture we live in.

    • I think much of the power in this photograph is the color and composition, and the fact that in many ways it does not look like our country. You picked up on that as well. It was a horrifying time as it opened up deep wounds and revealed layers of scars created by racial and cultural divisions.

  4. I remember that’s where the famous saying, “Can’t we all just get along?” came from and that I have used that and thought that countless times over the years. I don’t understand such hatred. I was shocked at the events unfolding, but it was across the country, so it didn’t hit home like it would have if I had lived near there. I felt sorrow for the city and the people being damaged by looting, racism, hatred, and fear. I remember feeling that it fortified an underlying thought that I had that black people have every right to hate white people because of things like that. Sad!

    • Yes, Rodney King’s famous words rang to true then, and still do today. I will never understand why we all can’t just get along. It seems so simple. Alas.

    • It was nearly impossible to believe that things had gone so terribly wrong, but there it was unfolding in front of all of us on TV. I think it only felt REALLY “real” (am I really a writer??) when Jeffrey got on a plane heading to LA. What a sad and tumultuous time in our country.

    • I think we were all glued to our TVs. It was so hard to believe it was happening.

      And WOW, thank you for nominating me for the Sunshine Award! That makes me feel all warm and sunny!

  5. I was here in Santa Barbara, but was glued to the television because L.A. had been my home just a few years before that. It truly was a scary time. I remember when we heard the “not guilty verdicts” after the trial, and my husband turned to me and said, “Get ready for trouble….” I was naive enough to believe that everything would be all right–how wrong I turned out to be! Great story, Becky. Do you have more photographs that you could share?

    • That must have been totally surreal for you, having lived in LA. Yes, Jeffrey does have more photographs. I’ll try to load a few more in the next day or so.

    • I know, it bowled me over too when I realized it’s been twenty years since the riots. Life just cranks along. I’m not sure much has changed since then, but hopefully a few things have been learned.

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