20 years ago I witnessed my city burning. I was 13 years old, in junior high school, and living in South Central Los Angeles with my family. I remember the day of the Rodney King jury verdict so clearly. We actually watched the verdict in one of my classes. I remember the outrage amongst my teachers after hearing the officers tried on police brutality charges were found not guilty and were acquitted. The day seemed normal after that. It was a nice sunny day in L.A. I took the school bus to my old elementary school where I walked home with my little sister and some friends. My first indication that something was wrong was when my mom arrived home shortly after we did. My mother NEVER left work early.
Within a couple of hours, that beautiful sunny day turned into a fire-filled nightmare.
As we watched the news, we saw people looting, fighting, starting fires. I had never seen anything like it. Before long, those acts took over my neighborhood as well. People were stealing from the corner market where we bought candy every day. They were burning down the only supermarket in the neighborhood. The images most people saw on television, I could see from my front porch.
For a week, I fell asleep and woke up to the smell of smoke all around me. We were essentially held hostage in our homes. We were not able to go to work or school. We were not even able to buy food because any store that was still standing was not open for business. The owners were on rooftops with guns ready to shoot anyone who came near it.
My neighbors were among the people looting. They had taken so much they weren’t able to store it all. They asked my mother if she would keep some at our house, but my mother would have no part of it, even though we were running very low on food at the time.
Out of the blue we received a call from a few of the parents whose children attended a very prestigious private school with my 16 year old brother, checking to see if we were ok. They were willing to drive into the middle of the riots to bring us groceries from Newport Beach. We were able to meet them in West LA where they proceeded to load my mother’s car with so many groceries we had to sit on top of them to ride home.
I experienced two very different sides of humanity that week. I saw the ugly face of hatred and destruction and I saw the face of kindness and selflessness.
I could not help but wonder what point people were trying to make destroying their own communities. Did people really think these acts were showing the injustice they felt? Of course not. I believe at the beginning of the riots people genuinely felt justice had not been served. But as the mood shifted, others saw this as an opportunity to be destructive under the guise of civil unrest.
Eventually the fires stopped burning, the smoke lifted, stores were rebuilt, others were built in their place but things were never the same after that. Many lives were lost. Many dreams were shattered. Many hearts were broken.
20 years later, I still feel a bit of anxiety at the thought that this could possibly happen again. With cases in the news like Trayvon Martin or Kelly Thomas, it would be easy to see a repeat of the L.A. Riots. I can only hope that people have learned a lesson from the actions of 20 years ago. There are much more effective ways to pursue justice for the things you feel are unjust.
On the rare occasion I drive through my old neighborhood, it would appear as if it were untouched by that horrendous week of destruction. But because I remember, because I was there, I am FOREVER touched by that week in our history.
Mary Lewis is an Executive Assistant for Consensus Inc. She is very active in her church and is the director of the youth and adult choir as well as the youth bible study.