Military Might — Or Might Not
[The Second Day of the Riots]
The government couldn't begin to handle the mob violence. And I believe that the police, although ordered to pull back, couldn't have handled it, even if they had been allowed to try. There's no way around the fact that for a whole day, the authorities just let L.A. burn. Recently it felt like they did the same thing in New Orleans, just let the poor bastards get sick, drown, or starve. Local police departments were swamped with calls, but they couldn't respond if they were in areas that were too dangerous. When the National Guard finally arrived from upstate at the command of Governor Wilson, the troops sat for the whole day in their barracks. They didn't get the proper orders, or the right person didn't tell them where to go, they said. And they didn't have enough bullets. I don't know how many bullets they thought they needed, but I guess their regular supply wasn't enough. I believe that showed us how frightened everybody was. As the troops waited to deploy, they spent time in last-minute training exercises and briefings on crowd control.
We heard there were about a hundred or so soldiers in camouflage up at the armory near Brookhurst Road and Valencia Drive in Fullerton. They were cleaning automatic rifles, sheathing bayonets, checking gas masks, face shields, helmets. Behind the armory, the soldiers practiced crowd-control techniques, using three-foot-long wooden clubs attached to leather straps. They'd stand shoulder-to-shoulder, holding the clubs with both hands in front of their chests. It was a little late for practice. But they must have been scared too, I guess. We all were. At some staging points in the county, one of the guards admitted that they were all ill prepared and said that street duty for riots worried them more than being called up for the Gulf War.
Finally, nearly a day after the whole thing started, some of those Guard units finally deployed. As the day wore on, and the looting and violence got worse and worse, we all started asking questions. Why had nobody come to help? Why didn't the troops make it to the streets sooner? I really think that frustration was part of what kept the riots going so long — the feeling that nobody cared anyway. It just made people more angry.
Meanwhile, everybody I knew was getting out their guns and locking their doors, even covering their cars with tarps or blankets to keep the ash off, and to be a little less tempting to somebody angry with a brick in their hand. If they didn't have guns, they went to buy them at local gun shops and pawn shops. They probably all got turned away unarmed, because State law said you couldn't buy a gun in just one day. Besides that, the city put out an emergency order saying nobody could buy ammo or used handguns. L.A. officials said they were trying to keep people from accidentally shooting each other or police during the rioting. But there were plenty of gun stores that ignored the new rule, as well as lots of stores in other nearby cities. They sold out fast. People bought whatever ammunition was available — even if they didn't have a gun. They were hoping that they could use it to barter for guns from neighbors and friends.
Desperation drove these people to want guns. And for most of them, it wasn't to go rob and steal. If the police weren't going to protect their families and children, everybody would have to protect themselves. This was one of the saddest things about violence, that it turned everybody away from his fellow man. Made us all feel alone. And the more afraid we felt, the more we wanted to lash out at anybody who wasn't just like us.
I felt very sorry for all those business owners. They were just innocent people working hard to make money and take care of themselves and their families. They definitely got the worst of it. If you owned a store in Los Angeles, you were certainly going to be nervous. A bunch of the liquor store and grocery store owners all got together in Koreatown, along with some owners of restaurants and dry cleaners, and they mobilized their own army. You could see them on television in open shoot-outs with looters. There, on television, right in front of me, I saw a liquor store I used to go to burning to the ground. I saw a couple of fast-food restaurants and grocery stores I used to drive by all the time, and they were just crushed, like a wrecking ball had been dropped on them. The entire structure had been torn down.
I sat in front of the television and put my head in my hands. All my memories returned of me riding my bike when I was a kid, and running through back alleys and jumping fences, memories of swimming and fishing, and just being a kid in L.A. And I kept thinking, what if there is nothing left for my kids? I thought about how the violence was just spreading, like the seasonal wildfires. Interstate 280 had to be closed, and California 1, and the whole San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. It was like California was breaking off from the USA and sinking.
I'd never really given much thought to being a kid born in Sacramento, California, and living in Los Angeles. But watching it all get crushed, it made me feel for the first time like this was my city, like it was a part of me. And because of that, I needed to do something to save it.
From The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption by Rodney King, written with Lawrence J. Spagnola. Copyright 2012 by Rodney King. Excerpted by permission of HarperOne.