The Riots & After: Home Front

Behind the scenes of Operation Garden Plot


When I became an officer in the California Army National Guard, pledging to "defend against all enemies foreign and domestic," I believed that nothing short of World War III would thrust me into combat. After my unit was almost activated during the Gulf War, I realized that we "weekend warriors" were not immune from battle. But never did I imagine that the first battlefield I saw would be the streets of my own city.

When I got the call to report to duty on Friday, May 1, I drove the half hour to the armory in disbelief, thinking what an inconvenience this would be both to my work and to my weekend. But soon these thoughts were replaced by a sense of bravado: "We'll go in, kick some butt, and be back to work on Monday." As in so many wars, that attitude proved a delusion.

When I arrived at the armory in Van Nuys, my first glimpse was of two soldiers outfitted with flak jackets, M-16 rifles, and helmets, checking each car as it passed through the gates. On each side of the gates—which I had never before seen locked—was a makeshift barricade and a field phone so that the gate guards could call the guard station inside in case of trouble.

Never during my time in the Guard, even during Desert Storm when we were on alert against terrorist attacks, had I seen a scene like this. I found myself asking out loud, "What the hell is going on?" To which a soldier replied, "Welcome to Fort Livingroom, sir."

I checked in and received the set of standing orders: No one could leave the armory building without a weapon, flak jacket, gas mask, and helmet. And no one could leave the premises without a pass. Neither order is typical in normal conditions, only in a "tactical" situation—wartime.

Next I received my assignment—to the armory's Tactical Operations Center, or TOC (pronounced "talk"). Not the most glamorous duty, but if you wanted to know what was happening, this was the place to be. From the TOC, we passed missions to the subordinate units to carry out, coordinated details about each mission with local law enforcement, and generally kept tabs on the situation as a whole.

During our normal weekend exercises, we use a situation map, or "sitmap," to plot our position and that of the "enemy." Usually, this is a map of a military reservation with a lot of hills, streams, and other open country. The "enemy positions" are of fictitious Soviet or Chinese units. (Our favorite enemy units are the "Chinese Bicycle Battalions.")

But the sitmap on the wall as I walked into the TOC was of Los Angeles County. Its sectors were distinguished not by streams and hills but by streets and freeways; a different Guard unit was responsible for missions within each sector. This sitmap's "enemy positions" were areas where known or suspected gangs operated. This sitmap was real.

We were under the control of the local law-enforcement agencies, and our missions were dictated by them in detail: the location, the number of soldiers (which we always increased), and the duration of the mission. This detailed civilian management reminded some of the old sergeants—combat veterans—of Vietnam.

To local law enforcement, the gangs were the enemy and our mission was to protect the civilian population (and their shopping facilities) from them. Here, too, the sergeants saw striking similarities between our situation and the Vietnam War: The enemy was "invisible" and could strike from anywhere at anytime, much like the Viet Cong guerrillas. Additionally, you didn't really know who was friend and who was foe; the enemy didn't wear uniforms, so they couldn't be readily picked out from a crowd. I couldn't help noticing that the Vietnam veterans were the most edgy and alert.

The police briefed us on the gangs' methods of operation, the clothing worn by the various gangs, and the hand signs used by the various factions. One item that stuck in my mind was how some gangs conducted drive-by shootings. The report told us that gangs often used two vehicles in a drive-by: the lead car to drive slowly up to the target with its lights out, conduct the shooting, and speed away; and the second car to follow behind the first and peel off in another direction, splitting up anyone who might chase them.

As they came across a police scanner, we plotted all reports of "bad guys" (usually gang members) or "shots fired" (most of these were heard and not seen) on the sitmap. During the curfew, the sitmap filled up at an alarming rate. After a while we became almost numb to the reports of "shots fired," because they were so numerous, and paid a great deal more attention to the reports of "bad guys."

Reports of domestic disputes, while normally not a funny matter, provided comic relief from the tension. One memorable report was of a woman throwing household objects at a man (presumably her husband) from the second story balcony of an apartment building. A policeman radioed the dispatcher that he was going to speak to the woman and try to get her to calm down and stop throwing things. No more than one minute later, the policeman called again to request an ambulance. Apparently, the woman had finally found her mark and belted this man with a ceramic ashtray. He now needed stitches in his forehead.

The police radio was rarely silent, but our military radio was extremely quiet. Field units used the military channels to establish contact upon arriving at a new location or to report that something was going on. Calls over the military radio took the highest priority. If a unit had something going on, and it was important enough to call us, it meant that trouble could erupt and someone could get hurt or killed. If trouble did arise, we had two choices: We could tell the unit to "hang in there" and wait for help. Or we could tell them to leave the area. Every time I heard that radio, I felt an immediate sense of urgency. I felt that if shooting did start and I didn't make the right decision immediately, the consequences could be tragic. I kept thinking to myself, "Do you advise them to pull out or do you tell them to stay on until the cavalry arrives?" I was thinking purely of combat situations, and these were the streets of the town where I live.

We also got information from television, but we took these reports with a grain of salt. One topic really angered us: "Do the Guardsmen have live ammunition?" During the first day or two of our deployment, we heard conflicting reports, with some newscasters saying we did have it and others saying that we didn't. We did. And I believe that had the media put out that information, or said nothing at all, we would have avoided at least one fatal shooting.

In this case, a man ran a roadblock the Guard had established in the Pico-Union neighborhood. He was not fired upon. He must have concluded that we didn't have live ammunition, because he proceeded to run the roadblock a second time and to brandish a weapon. This response brought the Guardsmen's shots that killed him. All the soldiers I spoke to about this incident believed that it was "either him or us."

Often we would receive a report, usually from an anonymous caller, that there was going to be a drive-by shooting at a given location and that they would be targeting the police who were with the Guardsmen. Later these reports changed to include Guardsmen as potential targets. None of these threats materialized. But the Guard was treating this as a wartime situation, so no reports of enemy activity could be discounted.

The media were reporting that the two main gangs in Los Angeles, the Crips and the Bloods, had made peace between one another. Reporters were treating this truce as a wonderful thing—and I wanted that to be the case—but the information we kept getting was telling another story. One report, which I believe originated with the FBI, astonished me. It stated that two African-American men with L.A. addresses and known gang ties had purchased 150 to 200 assault rifles in Louisiana the day before. Meanwhile, soldiers out on patrol were finding leaflets in the "hot" areas that declared that the gangs had united to go after the common enemy, the LAPD. To a soldier in a combat-like frame of mind, this was another form of warfare, psychological warfare aimed at the police.

At times, I felt that it was working, because the civilian agencies wanted very badly for us to stay. On several occasions police officers told us bluntly that they wished we didn't have to go because they feared what the situation might be like if we were to leave soon. The gangs even went so far as to go on the local television news and threaten that when we left they would go after the police. They even came up with an acronym to display their sentiments on walls, flyers, T-shirts, and baseball caps: ACMD, All Cops Must Die.

During the curfew, we had soldiers manning posts for long hours. When they were relieved, they usually wandered back to the TOC to find out what was going on and to relate what they'd seen. All of the returning soldiers had stories of local merchants bringing food or drinks to Guardsmen. Others told of children making drawings to give to the soldiers. We felt that the citizenry of Los Angeles was truly happy to see us.

But not all of the soldiers' stories were so pleasant. One sergeant described a situation where, as he phrased it, "a reconnaissance patrol" of gang members tested the soldiers and came very close to exchanging gunfire. At a heavily looted grocery store in one of the hotter spots in the city, the Guardsmen had set up a perimeter of cones to let people know that no one was permitted in the area.

Six men in a pickup truck drove over the cones very slowly and proceeded toward the store. Directly in their path were two Guardsmen who told them to stop, then shouted this command two more times. Although the pickup's windows were down and passengers were riding in the bed, there was no response. They kept on rolling toward the store and the two soldiers. Thinking that the unit faced a drive-by shooting, the sergeant in charge told the Guardsmen to take up defensive positions. The sentries brought their weapons into a firing position as the rolling truck came within 10 feet of them. The sentry on the driver's side took two steps forward and was within five feet of the rolling truck. He gave the command, "Stop or I will shoot!" Finally, the truck stopped and proceeded out of the area, leaving behind a very tense group of soldiers.

The one theme that ran through all of the soldiers' stories was how devastated certain areas were. The terms "war zone" and "Third World nation" were the most popular descriptions. People who had lived in those areas or passed through them couldn't believe their eyes. "It's like a bad dream" was heard on numerous occasions.

After I had spent so much time in "the rear," curiosity (vs. my better judgment) got the best of me. One morning around two, I grabbed a driver and a vehicle and proceeded down to the hot areas to see for myself and "check on the troops." All of the stories I had heard did not do justice to what I saw Buildings burned to the ground were common. An appliance store was still smoldering, and we could smell the melted plastic and metal. We passed stores looted beyond recognition. From the "flashpoint" at the corner of Vermont and Normandie, every building we could see had some form of damage.

It pained me to look at these areas and to think of the people who were hurt physically, economically, and emotionally. The people who lived there didn't deserve this. This was their community, their home.

All operations that involve significant military action are named. Examples include Operation Urgent Fury (Panama) and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. A couple of days after my ride into the combat zone, we received a memo that confirmed our feeling that this really was a war, though of a different sort. It explained that this operation, which included active Army units, Marines, and Guardsmen, also had a name: Operation Garden Plot.

Despite all the bad things that happened, I experienced many good things. The outpouring of support from the community to the soldiers on duty was overwhelming. Neighbors helping neighbors was not an uncommon sight. These are the people who will rebuild this city and make it even better than before. This is one thing I firmly believe.

Robert McGlashan is circulation director of REASON and a first lieutenant in the California Army National Guard.