Los Angeles Fire Department
Los Angeles Riots
April 29, 1992
|THE FIRE LAST TIME||
April 26 - May 2, 2002
by Marc B. Haefele
April 29: 4:30 p.m.
The families of the defendants are elated as the LAPD quartet go free. My boss at the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Lowell Forte, who was once a small-town prosecutor, makes a lawyer joke about the legal strategy of Sergeant Stacey Koon, the senior LAPD officer at the beating scene. Koon tried to distance himself from the men doing the pummeling. Lowell calls it the "reverse Nuremberg defense." As in: "I was only giving orders."
I feel unaccountably uncomfortable -- not really frightened, but nervous -- being downtown after the verdict, and I instinctively file my now-forgotten copy and leave work early. Why does it seem as though it's already getting dark outside City Hall, two hours before sunset? Who are all those loud people gathering in loose clumps around Parker Center and what are they doing there?
My reporter's curiosity falters. I've already put in a big day. So I quicken my pace and get in my car. I drive rapidly home.
April 30: 9 a.m.
My personal hero of the big morning after is tassle-loafered, scholarly looking, gray-haired Lowell Forte, who hands me a broom. The office of our little daily legal newspaper is not quite across Spring Street from the L.A. Times, which looks pretty beat-up this morning.
But what I care about is my diminutive two-story workplace. It has been, proportionately, far more heavily trashed. So the first thing Lowell does, when he sees me standing in the door gawping, is to put a push broom in my hand, which I shove around robotically behind little heaps of busted odds and ends while my brain catches up with reality: desks overturned, open file drawers set on fire, computers and monitors tossed on the floor (most of them still work -- fine '80s Taiwanese craftsmanship, I guess). The windows, of course, are a distant memory, and are rapidly being boarded over.
Then I notice that about two-thirds of the way into the ground floor of the building, the damage stops. Desks are undisturbed, files unpulled. The first of the unmolested desks has, resting on it, someone's glittery image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Maybe just a coincidence.
After the big cleanup, Lowell moves to Monterey and starts a construction business.
April 30: 10 a.m.
Tom Bradley is holding his first press conference, the day after the riot broke out, with Police Chief Daryl Gates, in the mayor's forebodingly dark-paneled press room at City Hall. A grim Bradley mouths calming platitudes and minatory mandates. His credibility has never been lower. He looms over the police chief he hasn't spoken to for, let's see, how many years must that have been? A decade or more? Bradley overshadows Gates, who is standing under a quotation from Cicero that is carved into the wall behind him: "Fidelity is the foundation of justice."
And during the entire scene, Gates, the mayor's total adversary, wears this nasty little shit-eating grin. The grin says more than Bradley's words. It says, "It's your misfortune, Tom Bradley, and none of my own."
And so it seems. Our police chief is a big noise, nationally speaking. Gates, not Bradley, is the guy that Playboy interviews -- Gates gives those great, instant-soundbite quotes like the one about shooting casual drug users. And once again, he's talking like he could run for mayor next year. Would he have used the motto Tough enough to turn L.A. around?
At this press conference, I finally realize something: When the police chief is at war with the boss of the city, why should you expect his cops to fight for Los Angeles?
The night before, when the crowds set fire to Parker Center's gatehouse and Bradley was facing an angry crowd of former supporters at an inner-city church, Gates was out schmoozing at a Westside fund-raiser. He was trying to raise money to battle the mayor's police-reform initiative, the need for which was, at that moment, being written in the flames of burning buildings and on the streets in spilled blood.
Gates' first-night AWOL stunt may not be what eventually dragged him out of office, but it's foremost in many minds as our unflappable chief swings his laggard forces into action and retakes the city streets, one by one. Elsewhere in America, as Gates probably never noticed, his opening-night absenteeism lays an egg, particularly among some conservative thinkers I know.
"I liked the man, but he deserted his post," said a Republican county judge in Montana. My old friend the Hungarian-born Columbia professor was less charitable. "If this had happened in Budapest," she said, "they'd have locked him in a room with his gun and told him not to come out."
But this is not Budapest, it's a Los Angeles in which
Gates is able, despite his "desertion" and the loss of dozens of
lives and a billion dollars in damages over five days, to muster enough
votes on the City Council to keep himself chief for months to come. Which
tells you as much about divisions within the city as the riots themselves.
Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved.