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. Three 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?