Beneath our feet, the seemingly solid fundament upon which Los Angelenos and all Southern Californians conduct our quotidian lives of family and friends, and build careers, homes, businesses and infrastructure can drop, crack or buckle without warning and unleash the demons of chaos and destruction.
We realize, however, that since the inevitable “big one” can be days or decades from now, it is something we can avoid thinking about until it happens, just a part of the price of chasing dreams while living in a beautiful part of the world where the weather and climate conspire to make one live in denial.
Reflecting back 25 years ago to what Korean Americans call Sa-I-Gu makes me wonder if Los Angeles is just as prone to another riotous insurrection as it is to another earthquake. The major difference between the two is that one is just unavoidable, natural tectonic geology, while the other is man-made — and since we’ve collectively had two major urban riots in the last 50 years, it is possible it could happen again. Some days, I think the conditions for another riot like the one that began on April 29, 1992, lurk beneath our Nikes like the San Andreas Fault.
While not a guarantee, maybe one thing we the people can do to prevent another conflagration is to revisit and study the history that led up to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots and if the same conditions exist, take whatever steps necessary to change the status quo.
One way to study that history is to watch “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992,” which comes in two versions: a 92-minute-long TV version, which airs Friday, April 28, on ABC from 9-11 p.m. PT, or the longer theatrical version, in limited theaters now in Los Angeles and New York City. (That gives it a chance to be eligible for Academy Award consideration.)
This documentary, produced under the auspices of ABC News, is directed by John Ridley, who won an Academy Award in the adapted screenplay category for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave,” of which he was also an executive producer.
I actually first interviewed and wrote about Ridley in the Jan. 29, 2005 and Feb. 12, 2005 issues of The Rafu Shimpo, when he was getting ready to mount the stage production of his play “Ten Thousand Years,” about Japanese kamikaze pilots. When I asked him about Hollywood’s sometimes puzzling decisions regarding casting of acting talent and how it chooses which stories to tell (and sell), he said:
“The people in charge [of Hollywood]tend to be of a type, and they decide what gets made and what gets shown. ‘Last Samurai,’ it was great that they put a lot of Asian or Asian American talent to work … but it’s the exception, not the rule, or it’s accidental or you have to have a huge star. Why is ‘The Joy Luck Club’ once in 10 years?”
I concluded the second column with: “Ridley is living proof that success in Hollywood is achievable by those who in the past would have been considered on the margins. We’ll see more from him without a doubt.”
Good to know at least one of my predictions proved to be true; since 2005, his credits on IMDb.com are, in addition to the aforementioned “12 Years a Slave,” pretty eclectic: in film, writing the screenplays for “Red Tails” and the 2016 remake of “Ben-Hur,” writing and directing Jimi Hendrix biopic “Jimi: All Is by My Side” and for TV, writing for “Barbershop,” “The Wanda Sykes Show,” “Presence,” “Guerilla” and “American Crime.” On the occasion of the broadcast of “Let It Fall,” I had a chance to chat with Ridley briefly via telephone.
One of the realizations I had about the L.A. Riots was that there are now young adults who were either too young to understand what was happening back then — or who weren’t yet born, and therefore have no idea how frightened people were, what it was like to drive between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica and see burning buildings along both sides of the 10 Freeway, or get passed by a military truck carrying armed soldiers.
While no documentary can replicate the smell of smoke or the sensation of ashes like snowflakes on your skin, “Let It Fall” does provide the context, and the visuals and sounds of a city on flame, as well as now-historical footage of principal figures like Mayor Tom Bradley and LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, armed Korean shopkeepers in firefights, shops getting looted, the retaliatory, brutal attack on truck driver Reginald Denny and, of course, Rodney King, the motorist who in 1991 took police on a freeway chase that led to him to getting a horrific beatdown upon his capture.
That beating, shown in “Let It Fall,” was famously recorded by a man with a camcorder. The eventual acquittal of the police charged with use of excessive force was the spark that caused the riots. But, as Ridley pointed out, the riots “did not start with Rodney King.”
Ridley chose to begin with the 10 years that preceded the riots, hence the documentary’s full title, including the golden moments of the 1984 Olympic Games to the use of a chokehold taught to LAPD trainees that led to at least 12 known deaths of arrested black men. Chief Gates is quoted in “Let It Fall” defending the chokehold and blaming the deaths on anatomical differences, saying, “ … in some blacks when it is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”
We also see the rise of L.A. street gangs and street drugs like PCP and crack, growing tensions between black residents of South Los Angeles and immigrant Koreans who operated convenience and liquor stores there (pre-riots, there were several murder-robberies of Korean shopkeepers) and the shooting death of a teenage Latasha Harlins by shopkeeper Soon Ja Du and the outrage from the verdict in that trial.
As part of the L.A.’s pre-riot milieu, Ridley also includes the January 1989 gang-related homicide of Karen Toshima in Westwood near UCLA, and interviews with her brother, Kevin Toshima. She was the victim of gang-related crossfire and it was a shocker to the city.
Although she was Japanese American, Toshima was like a surrogate for white Los Angelenos who were shocked that such violence, long ignored when confined to South, South Central and East Los Angeles, could come to the tony Westside. LAPD responded with a tsunami of actions designed to clamp down on gang activities, but also comfort, via gang and drug busts orchestrated for the news media, residents of more affluent zip codes.
“With the Karen Toshima shooting, there are some aspects of that tragedy that are just about an individual who was obviously visited with something that was horrifically unfortunate, but I don’t think that you can completely remove race and perspectives and feelings from things that happened and how people of color may have felt because of the reaction to what happened,” Ridley said. “I don’t think you could tell this story without looking at the cause and effect, the cascade of time, of events and seeing that there were so many different kinds of people who were caught up in the sweep of events.”
Maybe some people who were around in 1992 and remember it don’t want a reminder. But for younger people, I think it’s important to learn what has improved, what still needs improvement and what has has worsened.
As for how things are today, Ridley said, “I believe that in aggregate, we have seen more sensitivity to a lot of the communities that were marginalized in the 10-year period in which we look at the story, from ’82 to ’92, individuals who were disenfranchised or felt as though they were marginalized or felt they didn’t have certain recourse. There have obviously been a lot of reforms in the LAPD, reforms that did not come quickly or did not come easily.”
While he still has his defenders, watching the late LAPD Chief Daryl Gates is weirdly reminiscent of the guy occupying the White House in his arrogance and imperiousness. “Let It Fall” notes that both he and Mayor Bradley, between whom there was no love lost, left their positions of power in the aftermath of the riots.
Ridley, however, seems to be an optimist, with reservations, looking at Los Angeles now vs. L.A. circa 1992. “I think that we are in a good situation in this city — but if you look back on 1984, it felt like we were in a good situation,” he said. “I wasn’t living here at that time but in L.A. you had the Olympics, you had some economic boom, you had Mayor Bradley.”
“I don’t think that we can ever lull ourselves into thinking that if my experiences are good or your experiences are good that everyone’s experiences are equivalent,” Ridley said. “So, we have to be vigilant, and make sure we are — if I’m in a good space, if things are good for me, what are the areas that are in distress? I don’t believe that the L.A. Riots, the Uprising, came because of one incident, because of one thing, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re not building toward another outside incident as we speak.”
Rildey also gave kudos to ABC News’ owners for the opportunity to tell the stories behind the riots, something he had wanted to do in a non-documentary form. “We’re very thankful that the Disney Co. gave us 2-1/2 hours in the theatrical version and was willing to put it out so that people could get a fuller understanding of these events that happened over time,” he said.
If you feel like looking back on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots and what led up to it, watch or record “Let It Fall” or go to a movie theater to see the longer version. Like so many things we now have to deal with, we can’t forget what happened, we need to learn from our mistakes, and we can’t let history repeat itself.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.