For years, Los Angeles, California has been the home of social mayhem. From gang rivalry and racial injustice to job discrimination and police brutality, L.A. has earned one of the most menacing reputations on the West Coast. As a result of racial injustices, poor education, and high unemployment rates, riots are not strangers of L.A. Two of the most well known riots of L.A. are the Watts Riot and the Rodney King Uprising. Both riots were immediate reactions to police brutality. Now, when I hear the word “riot”, I think of a duration of about two days, three at the most. These two riots, however, lasted five and six days, respectively. Let’s take a trip back in time. First, to 1965, which was the year of the Watts Riot. Then, we’ll travel forward in time to 1992, the year of the Rodney King Uprising. The following events are recounted from a nurse, Ms. Robbie Wroten, who provided medical care to residents during these events.
It was around 7:15 pm on August 11, and Ms. Wroten was preparing dinner for her three children. On the stove was a pot of green beans, a pot of mashed potatoes, and a frying pan with hot grease, ready to fry chicken. There’s a frantic knock at the door. It was Eli, one of Ms. Wroten’s neighbors, coming to tell her that Mark, Marquette Frye, had been arrested. And it wasn’t just Mark. It was also Mark’s brother, Ron, and their mother. The isles that warmed the mashed potatoes and the green beans now provided no heat. The grease that was prepared for the chicken was quickly poured back into its container. In a house coat and worn out bedroom shoes, Ms. Wroten rushed down to the corner of the street, just in time to see a mother and her two sons put in police cars. Surrounding the many police cars were angry residents of Watts, who had no problem expressing their disapproval of the family arrests. “It’s only ‘cuz they black”, Ms. Wroten recalled hearing. “They didn’t do nothing wrong”, another person yelled. And then, it started. A young African-American male picked up the largest rock he could find and hauled it at one of the police cars driving away. As more and more onlookers began to throw objects, Ms. Wroten ran back to her home and locked her doors. Praying for an end to the actions outside, Ms. Wroten continued to cook her dinner.
The next morning, Ms. Wroten woke up to advisories to stay indoors. She kept her children home from school. Later that day, Ms. Wroten had learned, from sources in the community, that what had happened the night before was only the beginning. News reports that night made residents of Watts aware that armed forces had been alerted and would be “called into action immediately”. Ms. Wroten called her younger sister to advise her to stay indoors. As she explained to her children what was going on, she prepared herself for what was about to happen.
By the third day, August 13th, residents were rioting all over Watts. Stores were vandalized, buildings were burned, and citizens were injured. Ms. Wroten was called to provide medical attention to residents. As she immersed herself into the crowded chaos, she found it hard to move from one place to another without witnessing glass bottles with fire-burning paper inside thrown into store windows. She looked to the left of her, and she saw people stealing whatever they could get their hands on. To her right, policemen were struggling to sustain one of the looters caught trying to steal a radio from an appliance store. There were mostly privately owned businesses that were burned. The rioters sought out to aim at white business owners and those who they felt had personally discriminated against them.
All around her, there was smoke from the burning buildings, soot from the fire extinguishers, and injured people lying on the ground. Equipped with a first aid kit from the hospital, Ms. Wroten began to help those that she could. She wrapped gauze around gushing wounds, applied sterile bandages to first degree burns, and applied antibiotics to surface cuts. Running back and forth between the hospital and the streets of Watts, she bought oxygen masks for those who were too weak to breathe and carried children to safe homes. Then, she went around from house to house, making sure that the women and children were doing fine. She recalled having to console one woman who thought that her son might have taken part in the rioting and the vandalism of one of the stores. Going to check on her own children, whom she had taken to her sister’s house, Ms. Wroten witnessed residents fighting police, residents attacking white motorists, and residents who were preventing firefighters from putting out some of the fires.
These, and similar, events continued throughout the day. At one point, Ms. Wroten recalls being unable to recognize herself when she looked in one of the few glass windows that had not been broken. Soot covered her entire body, from her hair to her shoes. She thought to herself, “It’s hard enough just trying to survive out here. How in the world could someone be concerned with stealing things from a store?”
As the night came, more and more armed forces appeared on the scene, attempting to control the rioters. Fire brigades were trying to put out fires, while guardsmen attempted to restore order in the streets. By the fourth day of the riots, officials were everywhere. The government had established a curfew to keep people from coming outside. Ms. Wroten recalls government officials standing in front of houses to ensure that no one disobeyed the rules of the curfew. It worked.
By Sunday, August 15, the officials had finally gotten the riots under control. Fires, vandalism, and looting had all ceased. Millions of dollars worth of damage were left as a result. Five years after the Watts Riots, Ms. Wroten recalls that the neighborhood was still scarred from the events of 1965. Burned buildings that were once prosperous before the riots remained bleak. Lots remained empty, and hope of restoration subsided. Many people left Watts, either in search of better living conditions, or afraid of a reoccurrence. Ultimately it was identified that the arrest of the Frye family was not the solitary reason of the Watts Riots. Some underlying reasons were high unemployment, inferior living conditions, and poor schooling. Little efforts were made to change these attributes, and therefore, Watts still has many of these issues today.
In 1992, Ms. Wroten witnessed another riot in South Central, L.A., the Rodney King Uprising. Rodney King, an African-American male, had been violently attacked by four white police officers shortly after he led police on a high speed chase. The beating had been caught on tape. Charged with assault and use of excessive force, a jury, which was predominantly white, acquitted the police officers. The riots began shortly after the verdict was passed. Ms. Wroten remembered being on her way to work when the riots began. She described the scene as a “war zone”. She noted that, contrary to reports and popular belief, African- Americans were not the only participants of the riots. She said that there were many Hispanics causing upheaval as an outcry of the discrimination they were subjected to. As is the case with the Watts Riots, there was not solitary reason for this uprising. The once all African-American community was threatened by the newly inhabitant Hispanic population. Residents were full of anger and it was as if everyone felt discriminated against.
Ms. Wroten also remembered the attack on Reginald Denny, which occurred about three hours after the riots began. In the words of Ms. Wroten, Reginald Denny was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” He was a truck driver who was making a delivery a few blocks away from where he was dragged out of his truck and attacked by a gang of residents. He was hit in the head with concrete and cinder block until he was unconscious. This attack happened as a result of the hatred toward the White population in Los Angeles. Though she did not witness the Fidel Lopez beating, she was told about it. Lopez was attacked minutes after Denny had been rescued. He was also pulled from his truck and attacked. He was robbed of a substantial amount of money. His head had been cracked open by a car stereo, and one of his ears was partially cut off. Then, the whole front side of his body was spray painted black, including his genitals. Ms. Wroten believes this attack was geared towards the Hispanic community.
Similar to the Watts Riots, she witnessed looting, vandalism, and stores being set afire. She recalled the military coming into the community to restore order. They established curfews and prevented residents from travelling at will. For a while, no one could leave or enter South Central, Los Angeles, for fear that another riot would ensue. She comments that unlike the Watts Riots, the community rebounded quickly. Within about a day of military authority, the riots were over and the angered community began to return to a peaceful one. She and most of her family attended the peace rally that was held on that Saturday. She said she was very glad to see how many people were in attendance. She described it is “a whole bunch of people”.
Though the riots were declared over by the sixth day, there were still a few random acts of violence and threatening incidents that occur a couple days after. For this reason, the National Guard remained present in South Central for another two weeks.
Historically, Los Angeles, California has suffered from poor education, high unemployment, racial injustices, and police brutality. Even today, some of those conditions have not changed. Los Angeles is still attempting to recover from the tragedies that happened years ago. They say that history repeats itself, but this is one instance in which I really hope it doesn’t. I hope that twenty years from now, when I assign my students this project, they will be able to report that Los Angeles has made a complete turnaround, and that the things of the past, stay in the past.