Witnessing the L.A. Riots leaves many scars, unanswered questions

A rioter hods a makeshift sign 20 years ago (Photo credit: Los Angeles Times)

By Victor Abalos

As a TV journalist working in Los Angeles back in 1992, I saw plenty of signs that trouble was ahead. But I don’t think anybody can honestly say that they predicted what happened on the afternoon of April 29.

At first, I watched it on TV.  I stood just a couple of feet in front of the screen as Reginald Denny was pulled from his car and beaten. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t move. I was angry, confused and scared.  I kept asking out loud, “what’s happening? Isn’t anybody going to stop this?” – questions that still hang in the air for me.

Two hours later I was in an unmarked news van with a freelance video crew headed down La Brea Blvd. to cover the biggest story of my life for CBS News. I was a field producer working freelance in those days and had received a call from a friend who also freelanced from time to time for the network.

“Nobody from the bureau wants to go down there. Do you?”

I couldn’t say no and I still can’t explain why I went so willingly. Maybe it was the news junkie in me. I spent several months in El Salvador in 1986 covering the war as a freelance reporter.

But this wasn’t war. What I witnessed during the first 36 hours of what has been called The L.A. Riots, The Uprising or The Civic Unrest depending on who’s telling the story, has gnawed at me for 20 years.

I tried to cover it, teach it and during the next couple of years afterwards, I worked on no fewer than three documentaries trying to explain it. But 20 years later, so many of the so-called lessons of those events that are filling the “news space” now continue to elude me.

I remember the face of the boy – he couldn’t have been older than 12 – who pointed a shotgun at my video crew and me, instructing us very calmly and clearly to put our camera down as we tried to videotape the looting of an electronics store on Western Ave.

I remember interviewing a Salvadoran woman who hid several terrified firefighters in her tiny apartment that crazy first night. A group of heavily armed men forced them to abandon their trucks and equipment at a shopping center fire.. The gunmen made it clear that they wanted the entire center to burn to the ground. The next day, the woman’s apartment building was torched, leaving her and her nine-year-old daughter homeless.

I remember the choir of singers from a Central Ave. storefront church. I wish I could remember what song they were singing as we all stood on the sidewalk watching a group of buildings across the street burn out of control.

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