When the verdict on the Rodney King trial was announced on April 29, 1992, I was 6 years old. My family lived in a neighborhood that bordered a lot of different areas that went up in flames. Koreatown, Hollywood Boulevard and Mid-Wilshire. Neighbors helped a fireman water down the local camera store, Samy’s Camera, just a block away from my house.
Samy’s Camera up in flames – taken from SgtWyatt on YouTube.
It’s difficult to write about how the unrest affected me as a child, I was too young to understand what was going on. My sister, 8 years old at the time, remembers us watching the news and getting scared to see places not far from us getting looted. I still recall the sirens, the smoke in the sky, the countless burnt-down buildings and hearing only the unfamiliar word ‘riots’ to explain them.
My father remembers the time well. The snipers on the roofs of Hollywood Blvd, the arrival of the National Guard, the realization that “LA was burning down” while driving home past curfew and seeing the city from the top of a hill. The sadness he felt for Rodney King, for the African-American community and for those in the streets “attacking shops in their own neighborhoods because they couldn’t do anything else. All that anger and nowhere to put it. It brought tears to my eyes.”
It was a surreal time he remembers, made even more so by his own experience in the film industry. At the time, my father was working as a sound engineer on a film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme called “U
“We were on [the sound] stage with Van Damme in the Valley. It was the day after the verdict. As this day goes on, the phone does not stop ringing. People are calling us to tell us what’s happening out there cause we’re in this room with no radio or television. The phone gets red hot after a while, so we ask him if we can break early, to go be with our families and understand what’s really happening. And the curfew had just been announced.”
Van Damme wouldn’t budge. Idolizing his own image on the screen, he told the crew “No. I bring in all my guns, we stay here and finish.”
This absurd episode revealed “the complete schism between the entertainment business and reality” to my father. ‘The show must go on’ as the old adage goes. It also gives an insight into Hollywood’s own distorted idea of what reality actually is: itself. Unfortunately, too many commentators tend to confuse the two as well.
In 1992, a week after the LA unrest, a journalist interrogates 2Pac on Hollywood’s role in the ‘riots’ by the way it portrays African-Americans, displaying an extraordinary lack of understanding of why people took to the streets in the first place and what this unrest means in a deeper sense:
My father likens this divide between Hollywood and the rest of the world, to other rich enclaves allowed to exist in their own bubbles. “Beverly Hills at the time was so tightly guarded by the police, it was under complete lockdown. People could walk around and go about their day as usual. Nobody in there knew the reality of what was outside.”
Twenty years on, 2Pac’s words still ring true “The only thing America respects is power and power concedes nothing. After the LA Riots, they tried to calm us down and nothing changed since.”