Can we all get along? – The 1992 LA Riots

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Wednesday 29th April 1992 Los Angeles, I didn’t realize I was about to enter several days in war zone.

Four weeks into a three month trip, me and my 2 friends just moved from Santa Monica beach to Long Beach after having been invited by a family we met in a church. It was a typical American family, with 5 cute kiddies between 5 and 10+. We gladly accepted the invitation and the family was glad to get a crazy bunch of German travelers to stay with them for a few weeks. We stood out like a sore thumb in the church we visited and in the community our hosts lived in. They loved our German accents that we were embarrassed about. And we had fun hearing them pronounce our strange names.

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Santa Monica Beach view from the Motel, March 1992

What was unusual, but I didn’t know how unusual it was, not knowing the U.S. at the time, was that this family’s house was behind a closed up gate and tucked in compared to the neighbouring houses. Most houses had the typical green front yard without a fence and a few bushes. But this house had a large gate and was “locked” in. It would later serve as our refuge.

In hindsight, understanding American communities more later, with this neighbourhood more on the rough side, it was good that they had a closed up front yard where the kids could freely play without wandering off in the area or being targeted by gangs etc. No-one from the outside was able to look into the yard or the house. We had BBQs there with the family’s friends and relatives. The fencing later shielded us white girls from what was about to happen.

A brief experience here I thought worth mentioning was our first hotel straight after arriving from Germany at LAX. A shuttle driver suggested this hotel to us and I recently found out that it doesn’t exist anymore. We stayed near Inglewood in the now iconic Cockatoo Inn, that unbeknown to us was a well known hotel. Unfortunately it was shut down in 1994, just 2 years after we stayed there and remained closed for a few years. Director Quentin Tarantino filmed scenes inside in 1995 of “Jackie Brown” while the hotel was shut. It completely brought me back inside the beautiful bar/restaurant area. The Cockatoo has been demolished around 2004 and was replaced with a chain hotel that completely lost its charm.

Scene inside Cockatoo bar and restaurant

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One evening the event in the bar/restaurant was karaoke and one of my friends had a go. One man was sitting near us pretending to be Eddie Murphy. He told us to repeat after him: “I am Eddie Murphy”. I was the only one who did not repeat! He did look very similar to Murphy, and now in hindsight, maybe it was even him because I learnt recently that this iconic hotel had politicians, actors, even members of the Mafia stay. So, it might have even been Eddie Murphy. A website dedicated to to this hotel keeps its memory alive with former staff and guests posts: CockatooInn.com

CockatooInn.com published part of my story on their site with the photos I submitted. Great way to collect former guests’ experiences of the hotel: Visiting the Cockatoo during the 1992 LA Riots. Thank you for the feature.

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Cockatoo Inn, April 1992

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Cockatoo Inn entrance (the boy is the son of one of my friends)

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Visiting another church, West Angeles Church, we assumed it’s a normal Sunday service where a Caucasian blonde preacher held a sermon in the predominantly black congregation. But I didn’t understand why several serious looking guys in black suits stood to the left and right side on and off stage, which I’ve never seen in any church before. The friend who invited us to this church turned to us and said that if he succeeds, we can say that we saw the president. The blonde “preacher” was Bill Clinton who spoke in this church. We only realized later that this was a political rally rather than a normal Sunday service.

West Angeles Church of God in Christ, March 1992

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Soon after we moved to Long Beach, I started to develop horrendous tooth aches that lasted all night. I took several pain killers that didn’t help. I had tooth aches already while still in Germany, but as they didn’t last, I didn’t pay much attention to it. But this time, the pain increased and persisted. I was given advise where to go for examination. On the 28th April 1992 I took the bus for about one and a half hours to a hospital. Like so many things in a different country, this was new to me, because in Germany we go to the dentist, not to a hospital for dental issues. But I was grateful that we took out travel insurance and were covered.

Another unusual experience was that I had to wait 5 hours before I was seen. But since everything was new, TVs everywhere, I had plenty to watch and new impressions to take in. I got a medical ID card and after the X-ray I was told that a wisdom tooth needed to be pulled. The doctors decided that it would be good to pull all the wisdom teeth while they’d be at it. But I needed to take some antibiotics for a few days before they could pull the teeth. So, I left hospital again, not realizing that I needed to pick up the pills in that very hospital! I went back “home” to Long Beach, assuming I just go to a pharmacy with the prescription, and was again explained by our host that I needed to return to the hospital for the pills.

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So, on Wed. 29.04.1992 I went back with the bus on another 1.5 hour journey to collect the pills from hospital. I waited again, around an hour or so this time in the lobby of the hospital.

I was watching the TV in the large lobby where about another dozen people where waiting and scattered throughout the lobby. Again, intrigued that they showed real court cases which was new to me as well, it was obvious that something important was happening as everybody was glued to the TV that live-streamed a court session. I watched on not knowing what this was about. I kept hearing “…. not guilty” … ” not guilty…” … “not guilty” …

The non-guilty verdicts where of 4 white LA police officers who brutally beat a black man they stopped. A person from his house or balcony was filming it with his camcorder. Now, this was 1991 when the beatings happened, it’s not like today where it has become normal to film incidences everywhere, the very recent one of George Floyd who was brutally murdered while the world looked on!

It was a break through in 1991 when a man just started to film the beating of Rodney King. People were hopeful that THIS TIME the jury and court will serve justice. But, no. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty …

A commotion started to happen in the hospital lobby waiting area, and one after the other, people started leaving the hospital, looking upset. Some people mumbled something under their breath, others visibly angry, throwing their arms up in the air. What I didn’t pay attention to nor understood the significance at the time, was that all those who were leaving were African Americans while all the Caucasian patients remained seated or standing in the lobby. I was completely green and oblivious on what was happening. Later after I received my pills, I was on the bus back home and was perplexed why a black man kept staring at me. Still not realizing what was going on.

In hindsight I think ignorance was bliss because my demeanor was completely neutral, innocent, looking out the window minding my own business. If I had known then and there what was going on and that there was imminent “tension” coming up, my body language and facial expression would have been one of caution, fear, mistrust, nervousness, alert etc.

I arrived home and my friends with some of our host’s family were sitting in front of the TV. The first pictures I saw was from a helicopter’s view. It became engraved in my mind because it was the first “point of contact” of making sense to a reality, an image of what happened to Rodney King before and the non-guilty verdicts that sparked the riots. Slowly and with explanation of our hosts, we started to understand what was unfolding via TV in the city.

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When I saw this live on TV and slowly started to understand what was going on, I remembered the man in the bus staring at me … The riots haven’t started yet, at least not where I was traveling from the UCLA Medical Center back to Long Beach. It took me a few days to grasp that I was lucky? Or blessed? Certainly completely oblivious on what it was that I saw on TV streamed from the court room … and what it was about … and what was about to happen for the next 5 to 6 days.

I can’t even write down in detail everything, because I pushed it away now for a long time. My friends and I were guests of an African American family who protected us, who literally ordered us to not go out to the shops after curfew without them. They assured us that as long as either or both of them were with us, that we were protected. These hosts and new friends suddenly became our protection, our “body guards”, our angels. I still feel ambivalent about it because here is my race, my pale colour hurting again and again and again and again … anyone of darker skin. And here we were with them protecting us, feeding us, giving us water, a roof!

The huge closed-up fence to the street and surrounding most of the front property was like a fortress, perfect in this time, compared to neighbours who had open yards.

Helicopters by day and all night. Curfew from 6pm to 6am and gun shots, even automatic weapons during the night. Boom, boom, boom, boom ratttatttaatttaaatttaa boom boom ratta ratttatttattattta boom boom boom boom …

The warning was: if you are out during curfew, you WILL get shot, either by police, gangs, shop owners protecting their livelihood and as the days went on, the military. I loved the fence, and strangely I was never afraid one bit. Again, for one, because of our hosts, they were super calm, and also because I was young and came from a protected country? Completely naive about any danger, even while seeing and hearing a war outside.

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Our hosts, our angels, our refuge and friends

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But I also was young and had a naive believe in a god, who I felt protected us. Well, I don’t believe that anymore, because why didn’t he protect Rodney King and all the people who suffer yet again under white police brutality. And the corrupt police getting off again and again. So, it’s ok, have your belief, live and let live, it’s all ok.

The rest of our stay with this lovely family is a blur to me. I left Long Beach with less teeth and a mind full of questions and experiences. Only through some photos and the many long letters that I wrote to my mum and brother, can I roughly reconstruct our journey.

One of us friends returned to Germany soon after. I and the other friend remained. We moved on to Culver City, West Hollywood, met further people, slept in a car, in motels, drew from what we saved up, stayed with people who invited us, then back to Santa Monica … all the while digesting what happened in a city that lives off drama and fairy tales.

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I walked through a street once, days after the riots, where almost every house left and right was burnt to the ground. I never took pictures of the devastation because I had such respect and felt invasive and dishonoring. I don’t know, I’m weird like that! I would not make a good journalist, certainly not a good photo journo. I regret that now. I only took photos of Santa Monica Beach, Venice Beach, Malibu, Hollywood and places like that, and all the beautiful people we’ve met along our criss-crossing LA.

Around June, we returned to Germany, still in daze …

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LAX June 1992, another friend seeing us off back to Germany

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»I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?«

— Rodney King (1965 – 2012)

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1992 Los Angeles Riots, Wikipedia.

Two of the four police men were later convicted in a 2nd lawsuit for violating the civil rights of Rodney King and received short prison sentences.

Sadly, Rodney King passed away far too young in 2012 from accidental drowning in his pool, having struggled with alcohol and drug use. He still suffered nightmares 20 years after the racist police violence. He relived it in this 2011 interview. He forgave the police, which is beyond me. Forgiving such a crime where the insult went further by the cops getting off the hook, and King suffering for the rest of his life … I have huge respect for his courage.

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©2021 poetrasblok.com

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