Daily 49er

CSULB staff reflect on the 1992 LA riots

Throughout Los Angeles County, the verdict of Rodney King’s beating impacted the lives of many.

Images of the Los Angeles riots from the Daily-49er anthology, Vol. 43 1992.

Images of the Los Angeles riots from the Daily-49er anthology, Vol. 43 1992.

Jose De Castro

Jose De Castro

Images of the Los Angeles riots from the Daily-49er anthology, Vol. 43 1992.

Carlos Villicana, Staff Writer

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25 years ago, the verdict clearing four police officers of the beating of Rodney King led to rioting in the streets of Los Angeles County, from South Central Los Angeles to Long Beach.

This was the reality for faculty and staff of Cal State Long Beach from April 29 to May 4, 1992. Some were in school, while others were working; but all felt an effect of the riots.

Videos of the inciting incident showed Los Angeles Police Department officers beating King with batons. Outrage had long been boiling because of previous incidents like this that community members reported in interactions with the LAPD, mirroring the backlash that police shootings have continued to produce to this day.

CSULB film professor Rafael Nieto worked for Spanish-language television network Telemundo when he took an assignment to shoot footage for a news story on the riots in Los Angeles.

Equipped with a camera, a tripod and microphones, Nieto tried to get as close as he could to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, where a man named Reginald Denny was removed from his vehicle and beaten by rioters – even being hit with a brick to the back of his head by one man.

“We could hear the cops [via police radio] saying, ‘This can’t be good … awaiting orders, what are your orders?’ and they said from the very top, Chief [Daryl] Gates told them to stand down and just let them do whatever they were going to do,” Nieto recalled. “And we couldn’t believe that.”

Because law enforcement stopped permitting news crews from entering the zone where the incident took place, Nieto had to film from two blocks north on Normandie Avenue and Lubec Street. From there, he got footage of the neighborhood homes and the choppers above them.

“So I did get some beauty shots. And I was starting to pack my gear and walk toward my van,” Nieto said. “All of a sudden these guys came over.”

Three men who were among those attacking Denny earlier approached Nieto and demanded that he surrender his camera and equipment to them. Nieto stood up to the three men, singling out one who he assumed was the leader because the other two stood by as he confronted Nieto.

“I’m going to get to you,” Nieto said as he clutched his tripod like a weapon. “Then, if you guys want to take me out, you’re welcome to. But you are definitely not getting my gear,” Nieto replied.

The men backed off and Nieto resumed his job: recording interviews with people from the neighborhood who watched the confrontation between Nieto and the men. They wanted to communicate that they are all law-abiding citizens and that the behavior was not representative of them.

“I’m not going out looking for fights, but at the same time, I have work to do,” Nieto said. “I got paid and I made it out of there.”

Life was also impacted by those not as close to the riots as Nieto.

Educational Opportunity Program Access and Retention Advisor Art Medina was a student at Millikan High School in Long Beach when the rioting began.

“I smelt fire, I saw smoke, but I didn’t mess around. I went straight home,” Medina said.

Medina said that at school, teachers did acknowledge what was going on, and the riots provided people an opportunity to understand each other’s struggles more than they would have before.

“It gave the opportunity for a lot of brown kids to talk about their experiences,” he said.

Medina described the mood at school pertaining to the riots as “don’t cause more trouble than there is and let’s talk about our feelings.”

However, Medina remembers some white students talking about going into Los Angeles during the riots to take advantage of the chaos and loot stores.

“They enjoyed the Hollywood-ness of [it]. They were taking advantage of the disadvantaged,” Medina said. “Whether they were talking seriously or not, I took it as kind of offensive.”

Though he took offense to those comments, he did express sympathy for his white classmates who were receiving hatred because of the verdict, but were not responsible for what happened.

“I felt sorry for the white people because [the situation] wasn’t their fault, but [the violence] was against them,” Medina said.

Medina himself didn’t experience the riots in Long Beach, but he does remember seeing some of the aftermath.

“I remember the DMV on Willow Street,” Medina said. “They burned that down.”

The building, previously on Pacific Avenue and Willow Street, was among many that were set on fire during the riots. City officials reported that more than 80 fires occurred, according to a Los Angeles Times article.

Even those who were younger students at the time remember the riots.

“I remember my mom being scared, that’s what I remember the most,” Lavelle Roberts reflected. “My mom is a strong woman, she’s been through a lot in her life, not too many things could scare her.”

Now an Academic Skills Coach for CSULB’s Student Services Support Program, Roberts was living in South Central and in elementary school during the riots.

At his home, his family used extra locks on the doors and had someone on watch throughout the weekend. He went from hanging out at the park near his home after school, to being picked up by a neighbor and driven straight home.

“It was like the aftermath of a war zone,” Roberts said. “It’s easy to pick those things out and say ‘Look, this is what these people are about.’”

He saw people break into stores for TVs, store owners taking extreme measures to defend their properties and buildings left marked by flames if not burnt entirely.

“I think for a long time my view of others was definitely hindered, cause I remember seeing people on top of their roofs and pretty much defending their businesses with guns and sawed-off rifles and machine guns, if you will. And they were pointed at people that look like me. And [the gunmen] were not people that looked like me,” Roberts said.

As a child, seeing these images left an impression on Roberts and made him fearful for his own safety.

“I think my understanding [was] kind of like: Alright, I need to stay close to my community, I need to only talk to my community, I need to only be a part of this and exclude any and every one else. I think that was something I battled with,” Roberts said.

Conversations that Roberts had with his family and community about the riots led him to instead think about how to mobilize people to have their voices heard and better the community.

“To get to the root of all of these things is going to be very time-consuming, very tedious, we’re going to have to be very tactful, [and we’re] going to have to let various voices in the room for the words not to fall on deaf ears,” he said.

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