Judging from the initial response of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates found out about the riots the same way I did—by turning on the TV at 8 p.m., expecting to see The Wonder Years. The LAPD's hesitation during the early hours following the verdict in the Rodney King beating case set the tone for the next few days. After an angry mob formed on Normandie Avenue in South-Central L.A., the police withdrew from the scene and did not return for hours.
The mob looted a liquor store, set a car on fire, and, as TV viewers watched in horror through the camera of a news helicopter, pulled motorists from their cars and beat them bloody. Truck driver Reginald Denny, pummeled and kicked nearly to death, was rescued not by the police but by four neighborhood residents, some of whom had witnessed the mob's attack on television.
Whatever the reasons for the LAPD's inaction (the question is the focus of a Police Commission investigation), it's plausible to conclude that the riots would have followed a different course had the department intervened earlier. The sight of the Normandie Avenue mob acting with impunity told anyone inclined to theft or violence that the police would not be a hindrance. It told everyone else that the police could not be expected to protect them.
For some of us, that message took a while to sink in. On Wednesday night, even as every local TV station broadcast pictures of buildings burning to the ground unattended because firefighters were afraid of ambush, it was possible to believe that the riots were a ghetto phenomenon—troubling but not directly threatening.
At work the next day, I learned that the mayor had declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the entire city, and the municipalities surrounded by Los Angeles had followed suit. I wanted to believe that the county-wide curfew was an overreaction, but reports of widespread daylight looting, coupled with a memo from the building's management offering instructions "in the event that rioting starts in the area," made this difficult.
It occurred to me that the most formidable weapon I owned was probably the fake Swiss Army knife that REASON offers as an enticement for subscription renewals. The realization gave emotional resonance to one of the arguments against waiting periods for firearm purchases: Sometimes law-abiding citizens need a gun in a hurry. In California, you have to wait at least 15 days to take possession of a firearm. Yet I wasn't expecting urban riots on the afternoon of the Rodney King verdict, let alone two weeks before.
I left work early. Traffic north and west was very heavy. I headed south to Venice Boulevard and then east, driving toward the smoke that filled the horizon. I stopped at a Ralph's supermarket on the way, parking on a side street because I expected the lot to be crowded. The store was full of anxious shoppers, many of them stockpiling food and supplies as if in anticipation of a siege. I briefly contemplated following their example (what did they know that I didn't?) but decided just to pick up a few things for the weekend. The carts and baskets had run out, anyway, so I could take only what I could carry in two hands.
The shelves were already noticeably depleted, and the lines for the cash registers extended down the aisles to the back of the store. A middle-aged man carrying several packages approached me as I waited. "Is this the express line?" he asked with a straight face.
At home, I turned on the TV to find that the national media were still focusing on the King verdict. CNN had a panel discussion featuring defense attorneys from the trial. It all seemed strangely irrelevant. Although the verdict had sparked the initial violence, most of what followed—drive-by shootings, the blitzkrieg in Koreatown, attacks on the homes of yuppies in Venice, the looting of department stores and supermarkets—had little or nothing to do with the trial.
Meanwhile, local TV reports were quickly converging with what was going on in my own neighborhood, the eastern end of the Westside, known in the classifieds as Beverly Hills "adj." If I pressed the mute button on the remote control, I could still hear the sirens and helicopters. If I turned off the TV, I could still see the columns of black smoke. One of them looked especially close; I went outside.
In front of the building a group of tenants had gathered, mostly young men. One told me he had called the police after seeing two guys in a Mercedes looting the car-stereo shop a few doors down. "They told me there's nothing they can do," he said. It was already a familiar refrain.
Although it was still about a half hour before curfew and the pedestrians looked no more threatening than usual, I was suddenly afraid to walk down my own street. I sprinted two blocks and saw firefighters hosing down a row of stores. They seemed to have the fire under control: No flames were visible, and the smoke was turning white.
It was getting dark, so I went inside, back to the television and its images of city-wide destruction. I flipped from channel to channel, alert to any news of nearby trouble. It was rapidly becoming clear that the authorities could do little more than wait for the riots to pass, like some natural disaster. The police could not stop the looting, the arson, or the violence. The firefighters were overwhelmed. Even when they managed to get to a fire, they could only pour water on it to "knock it down," in hopes of keeping it from spreading, before they had to move on.
In the face of this chaos, I found it reassuring that some people had the courage and the wherewithal to defend their homes and businesses. One memorable bit of video, shot during the day, showed looters on the rampage in a Koreatown mini-mall. Every store in the area had been hit except one—the one whose owners stood on the roof with rifles. In another neighborhood later that day, residents armed with shotguns and baseball bats gathered in the street to ward off intruders.
The TV news people who covered these incidents clearly disapproved; they called the armed Koreans "disturbing" and noted that the neighborhood guards were "doing just what the police have said not to do." The reporters and anchors seemed to assume that, even when the police have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting the public, only the police should carry guns; anyone else who dared to arm himself was either a criminal or a "vigilante." By contrast, a TV reporter appeared to welcome the sight of police arresting Korean businesspeople for weapon violations and confiscating their guns.
Along with dogmatic support for gun control, most members of the mainstream news media seem to share a visceral antipathy toward armed self-defense. In a column about the images of Asians associated with the riots, Los Angeles Times Assistant Metropolitan Editor Elaine Woo mentioned "the Korean shooters" and a Vietnamese man who was beaten in South L.A. "I suspect that the more troubling image for many of us is of the vigilantes," she wrote.
After the fire down the street started up again, I decided that I'd be up all night if I stayed home. My cat and I escaped to my girlfriend's house, which is safely distant from commercial buildings, the main targets of the rioters. A police car followed me into Beverly Hills, apparently to make sure I wasn't tossing any Molotov cocktails.
The next day I returned home. It was still there, but the Westside Market, the Baskin-Robbins, the Radio Shack, the pet shop, and several other stores down the street were gone. The 7-Eleven up the street, on the other hand, was unscathed, and soon two National Guardsmen were there to make sure it stayed that way.
Elsewhere, things were much worse. On Sunday I went to the First AME Church in South L.A. to help with the post-riot cleanup. On Adams Boulevard, a commercial street near the church, the buildings with broken windows and wrenched security gates were the bright spots; charred shells were all that remained of many. As I walked down the street along with several other earnest white people holding brooms and shovels, I heard a passer-by mutter, "Don't let nightfall catch you."
The church sent my friends and me out to Compton, where we stopped at a shopping center guarded by Marines. About 50 volunteers, a multiracial group that included neighborhood residents and people from as far away as Riverside, were sweeping up glass, shoveling rubble, and moving debris. Every store had been looted, from the Blockbuster Video on one end to the ABC Market on the other. One building had been burned to the ground. Through what was left of the windows at a five-and-dime, you could see merchandise scattered all over the floor. A piece of notebook paper was taped to the door. It read: "We Are Close To-Day." A clothing store had been picked clean. At a music store, a big sign in the window announced, "BLACK-OWNED BUSINESS—IF IT MATTERS!" It didn't.
I had never been in Compton before. Only in the wake of a riot, with hundreds of soldiers in the area, would I feel safe there. This irony was not lost on the people who live in L.A.'s rougher neighborhoods. One resident of South L.A., a stock clerk who worked at a market that was burned down on Friday night, told the Los Angeles Times he welcomed the military presence. "Man, I've never felt this comfortable before," he said. "I've lived here for 30 years and I have never stood on this corner because of the violence. I hope they never leave. It's like we're free for as long as they're here."
The fear that I felt for one night, because of an extraordinary breakdown in law and order, many people in the city feel all the time, because of a routine lack of law and order. In places like Watts and Compton, the government simply does not serve its central function of protecting citizens from theft and assault. The drug laws are part of the problem: The black markets they create exacerbate the violence, strengthen gangs, and add to the sense of menace. But the fact that Marines and National Guardsmen were able to restore to some neighborhoods a kind of order they had not known even before the riots implies a fundamental failure in law enforcement.
In the wake of the riots, every pundit and political activist had a plan for how government could address the "underlying causes" by giving people hope, jobs, and a stake in the community. But it will be hard to attract investment to places as scary as South-Central L.A. More to the point, if government cannot even give residents a modicum of physical security, how can it achieve the loftier goal of "revitalizing the inner cities"?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Disorder of the Day".