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Music and Memories of the LA Riots - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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October 31st, 2008

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03:12 am - Music and Memories of the LA Riots
After my wonderful friend shadowmorphic introduced me to the wonderful folk music of Fred Small, I've been listening to more of his work. I recently listened to his song Rodney King's Blessing , which is a speech made by Rodney King during the 1992 LA riots, set to music.

Listening to those words called back 16 year old memories, from when I was living in LA County, just South of Glendale and near Griffith Park, during those riots. Since it was before the internet had anything like it's modern form, and two years before I was on it, I've read few first person accounts of that, and now, much later, I felt like writing one. I was a grad student in cultural anthropology at USC. It was finals week the day of the court decision and I hadn't been listening to any media. This was two years before I got on the internet and I remember listening to CDs and grading the papers of the class I was TAing. The class was a basic introduction to ethnic diversity in the US, and I was grading papers the students wrote where the described their own ethnic background. That alone was fascinating – this was a large class filled with students who mostly sat lump-like and did their best to parrot back the opinions they assumed that the professor and I wished to hear. However, these papers clearly touched a nerve in many students. I read papers about how students were helped across the US Mexican border by their parents, students growing up in East LA, where the did not know that the entire US was not bilingual in English and Spanish until they were in middle school, and many other powerful stories. Definitely an ironic thing to be reading on the eve of riots about race and class.

That evening, my best friend and housemate Aaron (then Sarah) was out at a Lou Reed concert with a friend, and after I finished most of the papers, I walked the five blocks into Glendale to the house of the High Priestess and High Priest (Dee & Ed) of the Wiccan coven I was a member of. They had two other coven members visiting, and I remember being surprised as I walked in and saw everyone clustered around the TV. A building was burning, and I assumed that they were watching a movie. It soon became clear that this was a news report, a minute later I notice that it was a local news report and that part of the LA downtown was burning.

We all talked quietly with the TV on in the background. I don't remember much of the rest of that night, except when I went home, Dee & Ed refused to let me walk. Ed took me in his van, and had his 9 mm (safety on, they were both ex-military and knew how to properly handle weapons) sitting in his cup-holder. That is one of only a handful of times (mostly with them) that I've been close to a firearm of any sort and it made me nervous, despite the ride home being perfectly safe.

Aaron arrived back half an hour later, and we talked and watched the news. The next morning we woke up to the smell of a city on fire and a cloud of grey-black smoke to the south – completely unmistakable for the more typical smog. I never want to smell that again. Disasters are not exciting, they are frightening and exceptionally disturbing. That Thursday, Aaron and I spent most of the day watching TV, which was constant coverage of the riot. We saw images that from everything I've heard were only shown on local TV – not just poor people looting, but obviously well off white yuppies looting electronics stores and similar sorts of nastiness. At the time our good friend, and Aaron's partner-to-be Daire lived in Hollywood. We talked on the phone with Daire, all was well in Hollywood as well as in Los Feliz (our area), but several miles further south, the city burned, and the riot zones were moving north – slowly during the day and very fast at night. The riots never even got within two miles of where I lived, but the smoke was thick and the tension palpable.

It's been 16 years, but some moments remain very vivid indeed:
  • On Thursday, after listening to too many news reports where rioters chased off law enforcement personnel and shot at firefighters, Aaron and I went to the LA zoo. It was less than a mile away and isolated in Griffith Park, so it was one of our typical havens from the everyday madness that is Los Angeles. It was almost empty and very quiet. We looked across the city at the smoke and wondered how far north the riots would reach. Even the animals were quieter than usual.
  • On Friday, when the riots stopped at Hollywood boulevard (two blocks south of were Daire lived – he could see buildings burning several blocks from where he lived. That afternoon, we had invited him to come stay with us, but he stayed with his (total idiot) boyfriend, who was determined to stay. Then, we couldn't get to him because of the curfew. So, we talked on the phone and worried.
  • Earlier that day, Aaron and I went a mile south to Silverlake. I sat in a sidewalk café eating champagne sorbet while across the street yuppies in minivans and similar vehicles had a lengthy episode of angry panic at a gas station across the street as they all tried to get gas and buy bottled water before driving north into Glendale and perceived safety – that right there could have become a mini-riot if anything had gone wrong.
  • The neighborhood homeless people didn't ask for change, they just looked worried and asked if we'd heard anything. Also, despite this never happening otherwise, strangers talked to one another – looking for some mixture of news and comfort.
  • Seeing soldiers wearing full combat gear, carrying large weapons and in military vehicles on the streets of a city that I lived in was also not something I'm eager to repeat. It was clear that the troops are what stopped the riot, but it was also very frightening – it seemed far too much like a scene from the streets of war-torn third world cities that I'd seen on TV.
  • The riots peaked on Friday, and by Sunday it was mostly over. The curfew ended on Monday. On Tuesday, LA businesses were mostly back to normal, including the illegal ones. I remember driving down Los Feliz into Hollywood that day and seeing a sign pointing up into the Hollywood Hills – it had a picture of a nose and underneath is read "Nose", and had an arrow pointing north. Clearly, the riots and curfew had hurt the coke-dealing business as much as any other and they were anxious to inform customers that business was finally back to normal.
  • The middle of next week, when it was all over, I rode the bus down Vermont Avenue on the way down to the USC campus, I passed dozens of burned down and boarded up buildings.
That's the closest I've gotten to any disaster, and the closest I ever hope to get to one. Old and strange musings seem appropriate for this day. Happy Halloween to all.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Current Music: Falling in Love at a Coffeeshop by Landon Pigg

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2008 04:54 am (UTC)
I'm sorry you witnessed that.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
Yow. What an experience.

I grew up on Fred Small, among other things. It's a pity more people haven't heard of him or his music. It's also a pity that the parents who introduced me to his music have now been taken in almost completely by the FOX News propaganda.
[User Picture]
Date:November 1st, 2008 11:15 am (UTC)
That's sad. How does one go from deeply humane Unitarian music to Fox news?

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