Curfew: An order to stay off the streets. Technically, it requires people to leave public property or vacant private property. Residents must stay inside or face arrest on misdemeanor charges.
State of Emergency: Issued when a local government is overwhelmed by a crisis. In the case of the riot, it gives the mayor authority to make whatever rules he deems necessary to ensure the public safety. It is issued when officials determine that the usual agencies have reached their capacity, and it opens the way for neighboring departments to assist. Such an order was issued by Mayor Tom Bradley at 12:15 a.m. Thursday.
Martial Law: A call for greater military powers. Martial law gives a military commander the authority to make rules or take actions he deems necessary to restore order. Such authority is granted by state or federal governments.
Source: City attorney's office
Los Angeles, April 1992
As instructed, we barred our doors, obeyed the curfew and
peered through our TV screens into the hostile night.
L.A. is burning. Has been since Wednesday, ever since the all-white jury brought down its shock verdict, giving a free pass to the four white LAPD officers caught on video the previous year dragging Rodney King from his car and beating him to a pulp, and while the baton-wielding quartet smashed more than fifty savage blows into the body of the black man seventeen of their fellow officers stood by, approving the violence.
Captured on screen and beamed around the world. And yet at 3.00pm Wednesday the four assailants walk free from the Simi Valley courthouse.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, said the sage.
Try telling that to the men and women standing outside the courthouse since sunrise, sweating on the verdict. For them, the arc of their moral universe just collapsed. Justice isn’t blind, she’s racist.
Black rage ignites the angry mob. Its fury erupts, the shock reverberates across the nation. But it’s Los Angeles where the brunt of the mob’s fury is unleashed. So fierce the South Central riots, so out of control, so far beyond the means of the law and military to quell them that days later buildings are still being torched, shops still being looted, the mob still venting its furious rage with fire bombing and looting. And now it isn’t a Rodney King under the boot. Now it’s a white man being dragged out and savagely beaten by black men wielding tire irons and bricks while their own kind look on, applauding the violence.
According to the archives of the L.A. Fire Department, from the moment of the eruption – 3pm on the Wednesday through to 11pm the following Monday – the official death toll will stand at 54 dead and 2,383 injured, of which 228 injuries will be deemed critical. Over 12,000 arrests will have taken place, and 7,000 fires reduce buildings to cinders. And in terms of property damage, the estimate will be adjusted to almost $1 billion, with 3,100 businesses affected by rioting and looting.
Many Los Angelenos will never recover from the civil violence; their loss of faith in the justice system, the deaths, the personal injuries, the property damage, and the failure of the authorities to protect them and their families from the horror of those few days and nights after an unjust verdict was brought down and their city succumbed to its paroxysm of vengeance. It will be their legacy, the stories they will tell their children and their children’s children, the horrors they will never forget.
Others who suffered far less than the grievously traumatized, but who still found themselves caught up in the events, their personal experiences of the 1992 Los Angeles riots will figure in their stories also, be a part of their histories as well.
Santa Monica, Los Angeles
Friday 1st May 1992
Why was I in the City of Angels on that eventful day in the Spring of 1992, America’s Spring, that is? Back home, it was our Autumn, our Fall. Simple. To reboot my sorry-arse life, that’s why. On the eve of my 40th birthday I was desperate for new beginnings. Make that New Beginnings. It’s worthy of caps. Worthy of a drum roll.
The previous week I’d taken a hard look at myself and made the decision to slam the door on my lucrative, but personally unsatisfying career as a Group Account Director, and in doing so, I turned my back on the chance at a partnership. I had already treated my personal life to a well-overdue clean-out. Tell the truth, I’d been on a dry paddock for months. At least a year. Maybe more. It doesn’t matter; the point is I had made some bad choices in the man department that had left me jaded. Over the years I’ve kissed off lovers ranging from downright toxic to just plain ineffectual. The last of them to be given his hat and shown the door had not been a bad person, just not someone who had much of interest to say after rolling off me.
There was also the early-onset menopause business I needed to deal with away from the routine of daily life back home––a diagnosis that came as a shock in the week before take-off. But put a pin in that for the moment. I was in L.A. on movie business. What else?
A sweet Southern California day. You’d think. But from where I sat in the back seat of the 1967 blue Ford Mustang rental, roof down, cruising along Wiltshire towards the luxurious Miramar Hotel on Ocean Avenue, sirens splitting the air and chopper blades whirring overhead it felt more like a war zone than a California Dreaming kind of day. Surreal.
‘The Samuel Goldwyn guy give you anything to take to the bank, Cyn?’ Connie, from the front passenger seat.
I pretended not to hear. A successful screenwriter/producer was what I’d had in mind for myself. A director, too, if they’d let me. I was fired up by a belief in my project, a screenplay about a couple of girls caught up in small-town 1950’s hypocrisy. I loved what I’d written, laughing and crying over the pages as I dreamed up my characters and put them to work.
A starry-eyed wannabe, I’d landed in Tinsel Town yesterday with the screenplay under my arm ready to hit the ground running this morning. Have Hollywood eating out of my hand by lunchtime. Or at least coughing up a pre-sale. David had set me up with Myron Spinak, the big acquisitions honcho at Goldwyn’s and for sure the man would say he was in––Australia was still flavour of the month in Hollywood, hungry for Outback stories––and then Arthur Anderson’s people, David’s colleagues, could confidently go to their investors for funding. Easy-peazy.
What wasn’t there to love about being in L.A. today. L.A., the movie capital of the world?
Here’s what; the L.A. I landed in turned out not to be that kind of L.A. at all. I flew straight in to the belly of the beast. Los Angeles was aflame. A conflagration. Whole neighborhoods were being torched. Citizens were being killed. This was the third day of rioting and the infernos were still raging unabated. Chaos reigned, looters looted, news broadcasters alarmed the population with their accounts of downtown devastation. But as I was about to find out, the shit-storm was no longer confined to South Central. It was spreading out from its molten core, entrapping whole suburbs.
So, no, not much to love about the situation I found myself in when I stepped off the plane and into a world gone mad. And then to have Goldwyn’s acquisitions man blurt at me this morning, give a great big fat raspberry to my screenplay? A sweet day? Go figure.
The station was replaying King’s press conference from earlier in the day.People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?
‘Give me some volume on that thing missus,’ I said to Connie, leaning across and tapping her shoulder. ‘Pump it up a bit.'
We can get along here ... we’ve just got to ... just got to. I mean ... I think it’s just not right ... and ... um ... it’s not gonna change anything ... um ... we’ll get our justice ... um ... they’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war ... we’ll have our day in court, and that’s all we want ... and, ah ... y’know, I love everyone ... I’m not like they give me out to be ... we’ve got to quit ... we gotta quit! After all, I mean––
'Poor bugger. He sounds so depressed, so nervous.’ Connie eyed me in the rear-view mirror. ‘He probably––‘
'Shush.' King had just said a security guard had been killed.
It’s just not right. It’s just not right ... because those people will never go home to their families again––
Connie, turning around to me: ‘How did it go this morning? I mean really go? Okay, or what?’
Useless to try and hear what King was saying.
Let’s try to work it out.... Let’s––
‘Was he forthcoming ... with anything? He like it or not?’
'Hey, Con?' said David, looking sideways at his wife and indicating the mountain of boutique shopping bags on her lap and at her feet. 'Looks like you cut a decent swathe through Rodeo Drive this afternoon.' He turned from the wheel and gave me a wink. 'Have a good time, you girls?'
David would know dammed well how much of a good time I had trailing his wife all afternoon. The torment. The tedium. Consumerism gone mad. On and on and on, until had the woman suggested we attack one more fucking boutique, I would have pulled out my Swiss Army and gone for a major artery.
I was a push-over, though, wasn’t I? Sticking it out all afternoon, a pet poodle trotting along beside her mistress, drooling as mistress plundered Rodeo Drive for outfits, trinkets, handbags, perfumes. Oohing and aahing as Connie came skipping out of fitting rooms all a flutter. Pirouettes for my benefit, checking herself out in mirrors, giddy as any teenager choosing her prom dress. Poor Con, blind to those persistent mother rolls of hers.
And all the while I tried to ignore the condescension oozing out of every pore of the toned-up saleswomen looking down their cosmetically-enhanced noses at a pair of scrubbers from Down Under who were obviously wasting their time. The bitches hadn’t been so ready to look down their reconstructed snouts once Con flashed her platinum. Haughty to unctuous. A pantomime of human behaviour. I should write them into the script.
Before they dropped the bombshell on me last week, I might have laughed at such haughtiness but now I just felt snarky towards attractive women like them, so confident in their femininity. I resented them and wished them to Hell. Only one in a hundred women cop the kind of scenario I copped last week. Why me, why not them?
Please? We can get along, here ... we all can get along ... we just got to! I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while....King, his pleas to his brothers and sisters, black and white, delivered with grace. The man had grace.
The interview over, the announcer began riffing on the violence spreading across a wider area of Los Angeles. The juggernaut was rolling on. I felt great sympathy for the natives of the city. It must be horrifying to be caught up in this violence.
Thankfully, the three of us had opted for Santa Monica’s Miramar over the famous downtown Biltmore, the lavish thirties-era hotel known for its glamorous celebrity clientele, past and present. At least way out in Santa Monica we’d be quarantined from the riots. A good thing, because David had arranged a dinner tonight at a restaurant somewhere along Third Street Promenade, a dinner for my benefit. As he promised back in Sydney, he was keen to introduce me to his Arthur Anderson stateside colleagues, the serious money men.
Unlike the lunch today, at which I was simply a hanger-on, this would be a working dinner to discuss funding for my project, and despite the blurt Myron Spinak gave it, David believed the project had legs. I didn’t. Not after the bruising I’d copped.
The legendary Nick Cristos would also be at the dinner, as he had been for the Rodeo Drive lunch today. Hopefully, however, Mr. C would be more present in the moment than he had been at the restaurant. Somewhere short of the mains I’d given up on trying to get him to spark up, talk about himself and his work. His head seemed elsewhere. To say I was disappointed, surprised and disappointed, was an understatement. After all these years of hearing about Nick Cristos from Connie and Sapphire I had finally met the guy, Connie’s long-ago American lover and Sapphire’s biological father. And, to boot, a successful Hollywood writer and Indy producer, thank you.
All the above, but the life of the party he was not. Taciturn, is how I would describe the man’s personality. Slow to make small talk, at least with one of little consequence to him as yours truly. Not that I think taciturn is necessarily a fault in a man. Far from it. Taciturn can work. Holding back. It can work. So many men go into overdrive to impress a woman on a first meet, indulge an atavistic imperative; the peacock fanning out his tail feathers and doing the strut to impress the lady.
No tail feathers, no strut today. Not from the oh so serious, sober-sided Mr. Cool Nick Cristos. A woman could have had more fun at a Chinese opera.
A stranger, I may have been, but I wasn’t exactly a complete outsider. He knew who I was; Connie’s friend from childhood, but we didn’t wander down that tangled path. I guess he might have felt uncomfortable traversing that territory. Did he think I blamed him for what happened sixteen years ago, getting my girlfriend knocked up – he, an older married man, an attractive documentary filmmaker, sweeping young Constance Bray off her feet? I hadn’t. Connie hadn’t either, so far as she’d ever let on. It was a three-day coupling that resulted in a pregnancy, Sapphire the blessing that came out of that intercontinental dalliance, one of the more substantive spin-offs from the 1975 International Year of the Woman Conference in Mexico.
I still get goose bumps recalling Connie’s homecoming back then, seeing her step off the plane at Mascot with baby Sapphire strapped to her chest.
Nick Cristos. Even though I struggled at lunch to engage him in any kind of meaningful conversation, feeling somewhat awkward in his presence, it struck me that, were I casting for a men’s cosmetics campaign – promoting a musky he-man deodorant – Cristos would be my guy; confidently mature, owning strong features, a beard worthy of a serious writer, a full mop of steel grey curly hair just sufficiently unkempt to stir a woman’s imagination, and to a degree pretty dammed handsome in that virile Hemmingway-esque mode. It was a fact; the man conveyed a certain male mystique that would move product off the shelf.
Connie had sat us next to each other at lunch, and from time to time, I felt her sneaking a sly glance our way. Connie, the ultimate organizer, looking out for everyone. Rabbiting on to the poor man about me being a top gun advertising executive with a screenplay to shop. As if the man could give a fuck.
Or was it something else? Had Connie been up to a little matchmaking? I wouldn’t put it past the woman. I knew Cristos had come through a second divorce last year, and according to Con, was still feeling bruised. And she knew my emotional life was all over the shop. Good old Con’s sympathetic meddling. Mother Earth. But if that were her game, lover boy certainly wasn’t buying into it. Me neither, for that matter. I had no need of Connie’s ministrations. Despite all that was happening, I could still catch and kill my own.
As I’m certain Mr. Cristos could. And I’m sure Cristos would have felt more comfortable sitting beside any one of the other guests, any of the locals around the table, rather than the stranger from Down Under.
For all that, I welcomed the attentive way he held my chair back for me when the luncheon party rose to leave the restaurants, and how he courteously rested his hand beneath my elbow to guide me out the door. Leaning in to kiss my cheek at the curb side during the alohas was a pleasant surprise, but then they were a kissy crowd, the lot of them. L.A., what else? If schmoozing were ever made illegal, the jails couldn’t cope.
Asking if I would care to have him look over my screenplay before tonight’s dinner was the kicker, however. That had come out of nowhere. He had actually taken sufficient notice of poor little me to know I’d written a screenplay, that I was here to promote my film project. Still waters, Mother would have said of this man. Still waters runneth deep, my dear.
Truth be told, I was grateful the discussion around the table during lunch hadn’t touched on the subject of Cynthia’s screenplay. Or, more importantly, on the meeting I’d just come from with Samuel Goldwyn’s guy. I’d suffered enough humiliation for one day. With my advertising hat on, I was a hard-arse who could leave her ego at the door, pitch to clients and deal with their qualms and criticisms with equanimity. Not so with my writing. Rejection stings. The man had kissed me out the door. Not with a flat-out rejection, I will admit. But not by waving a pre-sale agreement at me, either. Maybe think about putting another writer on the job, he said to David, ignoring me. Y’know your Outback has appeal ... we’re always looking for good Aussie product ... blah, blah, blah. Just not mine, it seemed.
So, of course, I was going to be more than a little jazzed when Cristos enquired about the script. But Americans are a polite race, aren’t they? If he ever gets around to reading it, he’ll think about as much of it as the studio guy. Never the less, to knock back Nick Cristos’ offer would have been not only discourteous, but downright idiotic. I knew him to be something of a guru to aspiring writers. Just maybe ... just maybe he might find something to love in today’s orphan.
The Mustang was approaching the Miramar when I noticed the army helicopters dipping and disappearing out over the Pacific Ocean. The police sirens had also taken a hike.
Connie stared into the rear-vision mirror, ‘What did you think of him?’
‘Myron Spinak?’ I was playing it dumb.
‘Nick! Cute, no?’
‘For Godsakes, Connie. The man was your––’ I stopped myself from saying the word ‘lover’. David was in the car and while I knew he worshipped young Sapphie, and apparently got on well with her biological father on the rare occasions they met, how he felt about the old romance, who could say? Sophisticated enough, good old David, but so dammed in love with his wife that there was probably some residual rivalry there.
Connie turned off the car radio and spun around full-on to face me. ‘Okay, change the subject. Back to your meeting. Good? Or otherwise?'
I yanked my sunnies off and stared into the glare of Los Angeles, its air fouled by rising plumes of black smoke off in the distance. All afternoon, together, traipsing from one boutique to the next while she obsessed with hoovering up every size twelve on offer, and now, when all I wanted was to forget about the god-awful flop of a meeting, the woman wants to grill me about it. ‘Otherwise, I guess you could say, Con. Yeah, decidedly otherwise.’
'Hey, that’s a bummer, love. He didn’t go for it, then, hey? But don’t worry. Y’know what I’ve been telling you? You needed to spice it up a bit for Hollywood.’
'Spice it up, you reckon? Spice it up, hey?’ Oh, blithe spirit.
'Yeah, babe. Give it a bit more ... y’know ... a bit more oomph.'
'Con, let it go,' said David.
He patted his wife’s knee. 'Don’t you worry. She’s still in the game.'
The Mustang hung a right and we drove in through the Miramar’s big iron gates and up the driveway past the mighty fig, a long-ago gift from Australia.
We pulled in under the porche cochere. A uniformed valet snapped to it, opening David’s door and relieving him of the keys. I jammed my Aviators back on and climbed out, wriggling to adjust the white linen skirt that had ridden up around my thighs. I turned to Connie, put a hand on her shoulder and eyeballed her. ‘You know what, Con? You and that studio prick are on the same page.’ I reached in to the car’s back seat and grabbed my briefcase then straightened up again. ‘Yep. He pretty much said the same thing. A bit more oomph.’
I left the Labelles to sort out the forest of boutique bags and headed inside. Thank God, this day would soon end. Until it did, however, it would take a nip or two of the duty-free Glenfiddich I had sitting in my carry-on bag upstairs to smooth the way to a tolerable evening.