The 1992 L.A. riots: A personal retrospective

The author (2nd from right) with high school classmates at the Glendale Adventist Academy during a camping weekend a few weeks before the L.A. riots.

By Wendell Gaa

This month marks the 30th year anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, an incensed reaction to the verdict in the Rodney King case.

In 1991, white police officers who had brutally beaten African American Rodney King in an arrest gone awry, were all acquitted by an all-white jury in suburban LA.  I was then a high school sophomore student living in the San Fernando Valley area of greater metropolitan LA, and the riots marked the very first time in my life I felt fearful and vulnerable to civil unrest.   

The year 1992 was for the most part an enjoyable year of my adolescent youth.  My father, the late Ambassador Willy C. Gaa, was in his second year of his diplomatic posting in Tripoli, Libya, and my mother would shuffle back and forth between staying with him and visiting my brother and I who were living with my Lola in Southern California. 

One afternoon in late April 1992 during a seemingly normal day at our school Glendale Adventist Academy, right before we could even finish our lunch, several of the school’s faculty members began walking around instructing all of us students to gather inside the school’s chapel auditorium.

We were all very much aware what had happened 24 hours prior with the acquittal of King’s police assaulters and how looting had begun in specific areas of LA where rioters were throwing rocks and other materials at cars passing by.  The previous day was our school spring picnic at Glendale’s Verdugo Park, which by contrast to what was going to happen in several parts of LA, was a joyful afternoon filled with softball and volleyball games and even water balloon fights.  As the picnic ended and our teachers drove us back to school, I decided to hang out with my best friend Chris at his house which was within short walking distance from campus, while waiting for my mother to pick up my brother and me.

When my Mom did pick us up, she confirmed that the four police officers accused of beating King were judged not guilty.  Like many folks I was shocked and dismayed by this given how the infamous videorecording of the officers beating King unquestionably showed a heinous act of police brutality in action.  In the evening at home, we began to see the protests and rock-throwing on the streets live on the TV news.

By the next day at school as all of us were sitting down inside the chapel auditorium, I began to look around with a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment as to the reason we were all summoned here.  My schoolmates and I tried to find humor in the moment by joking how we wouldn’t have to worry about stressing ourselves out at our afternoon classes. 

Our vice-principal came on stage and had announced that there was a risk of the rioting to possibly affect the vicinities near Glendale, and that our classes would be canceled for the rest of the day.  I could feel a slight gasp in the air throughout the entire auditorium as these words put some dread in me.  It was then that a myriad of thoughts ran through my head, what would we do if rioters did reach our school? 

We were all told to call our parents to drive us back home at the soonest possible time, and sure enough I called my Mom to come get my brother and I quickly.  But our house was in Van Nuys which was some 20-30 minutes driving distance from Glendale even on the highway, and while waiting I could not help but feel worried and prayed that my mother would arrive at our school safely and not run into any trouble.

The Gaa family at home in Van Nuys in 1992. Author (standing) with parents Linda and the late Ambassador Willy Gaa, and younger brother Warren.

While anxiously waiting in the auditorium, some students decided to try to bring some levity to the moment by playing on the piano and singing on stage “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.  Thankfully after about a half-hour or so, my mother did arrive and all three of us got back to the safety of our homes.  

That weekend after the worst of the rioting seemed to be over, the scare still literally hit closer to home as we were shopping at the nearby Builder’s Emporium store, where we were suddenly forced to leave the premises hours before closing time as we were warned there had been a bomb threat in the area.  As we walked outside, we spotted a policeman standing on guard near a liquor store, a tense sight all by itself. 

All things considered, my family was indeed thankful that we were not terribly affected by the riots, but others were less fortunate.  A schoolmate of mine had testified how his family had to sleep in a car for an entire evening due to the smoke and fires at the local mini market near his home. 

Another friend living in LA whose father had then been assigned with the Philippine Consulate General there, recalled how his school was shut down for weeks and places where he used to hang out in town were all tragically burnt down.  As if the loss of home and property were not enough, I cannot begin to imagine the magnitude of tragedy felt by those who lost loved ones.

After all this just happened within a span of a mere few days in 1992, one must wonder has the world made much progress in social harmony since then?

Sadly, the past couple of years alone have not been a good track record, given the events of the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, another victim of police brutality; the violent 2021 insurrection attack against the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. Clearly 30 years on, there are still yet much hard lessons to be learned from L.A. ’92.

© The FilAm 2022

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