"April 26th(sic) 1992, there was a riot on the streets now tell me where were you?"
-Sublime "April 29th, 1992" from its eponymous 1996 album.
In fact, I was sitting on the roof of my fraternity house with a beer in my hand and a 9-iron laying on my lap, while good sized pieces of the city of Los Angeles burned. More than 50 people died in LA that week, including a handful shot dead by police. I was attending UCLA at the time, and while our village of Westwood was mostly spared, the L.A. riots made for a crazy long weekend that was more than my 21 year-old brain could process. Like a lot of middle aged men, what's harder to process now is that this all happened 20 years ago.
"You were sitting home watching your T.V., while I was par-tic-i-pa-ting in some anarchy"
Actually, this part isn't exactly true, for reasons I'll get into in a moment. On April 29th, a Simi Valley, CA jury handed down not guilty verdicts to four LAPD officers accused of beating African-American motorist Rodney King. Police beating up a black man in a major metropolitan area wasn't exactly a shock to anyone who'd been paying attention. But this beating was captured by an ordinary citizen on video. This was before the days of smart phones and $99 flip cameras and the video itself was novel. As footage leaked to the media and began looping over and over on the news, the African-American community was shocked but relieved that the LAPD had finally been caught red-handed doing things the citizens had complained for some time.
Tension had been mounting in the area recently, with rap acts like Ice-T and N.W.A shedding light on the problem in graphic, violent detail. The King beating was brutal, long and involved a number of officers. The video showed little evidence of resistance, and what happened to King was clearly excessive even if he had, at some point prior, resisted. Police claimed that King was on PCP, and thus very difficult to subdue, a claim that toxicology reports later contradicted. Audio of one of the officers referring to African-Americans as "gorillas in the mist" earlier that night eventually leaked. The trial of the four officers was moved to Simi Valley, outside of Los Angeles County, due to pre-trial publicity. The jury featured only one black person, something which would have been nearly impossible statistically had the trial remained in L.A.
I don't remember giving the trial itself much thought. I assumed the police would be convicted, though I admit my knowledge of the case never extended much beyond the video. But had I wanted to glue myself to the TV that morning to see what happened, I'd have been shit out of luck.
UCLA fraternities were wisely sequestered into a couple of blocks of the otherwise pristine Westwood community. Most houses were either "front row" (closer to campus) or "back row" (a block west). For as long as I was at school, every front row house spliced its cable feed off the same line. In the unlikely event someone was paying for it, it wasn't me. Every once in a while the cable provider, the identity of which is lost to my memory, would get wise. The line would get cut or something (shit, I don't know) and about 500 guys would lose their cable all at once.
The Greek system at UCLA wasn't exactly a tight-knit place. In an alpha male world run amok, there were never friendly relationships between houses. In fact, there was an undercurrent of contempt in just about every interaction. The cable thing was about the only time I saw any cooperation. At some point one technically savvy guy from every front row house wandered out to a centrally located, one square foot plot of land where cable magic happened. I wish I could say that we were all interested in the sociological case study that was about to unfold in our community.
The truth is, the Lakers were playing the Phoenix Suns that night in the first round of the playoffs. This created an urgency and sense of camaraderie rarely seen on fraternity row. At some point, order was restored through collaborative effort. Stealing cable was the great unifier. I take no pride in this, but I'll admit I wanted to see the game.
"When we returned to the pad to unload everything, it dawned on me that I need new home furnishings. So once again we filled the van until it was full. Since that day my living rooms been much more comfortable."
As news spilled out about the verdict, we were finally able to flip on TVs with a decent picture (if you were working with rabbit ears in LA at the time, you might as well have been trying to get ABC in Venezuela). I can't remember if I was disappointed or indifferent, but my first thought was, "This isn't going to be good". In fact, it was way worse than I imagined.
Within an hour after the verdict was handed down, I decided to go for a jog around UCLA's "perimeter". Students were already out in groups, not protesting so much as looking pissed. As I passed one group of African-American students on the sidewalk, one guy cocked his arm back as if he was going to punch me. Since I was already running, and in no mood to fight, I did a little pirouette and kept running. I seriously doubt this guy planned to hit me, but it gave me an idea of how mad people were.
After I finished my jog, the riots in South Central LA were in full swing. At about 5:30 that evening, a white trucker named Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten senseless by four men. By the time he was rescued (by an African-American man, it should be noted) his skull was broken in 91 places. Like the attack by the officers on King, Denny's beating was caught on camera. Unlike the King tape, it played out on the LA news live and in real time. One of the assailants, Damian Williams, later busted another man's head open with a car stereo. The second victim, Fidel Lopez, had his ear partially cut off, in a scene reminiscent of the film Reservoir Dogs. Like Denny, Lopez was rescued by a black Good Samaritan.
Westwood was far from the riots at Florence and Normandie, but people were starting to get nervous. In fact, the village would suffer some vandalism, broken store windows and looting, but there was never any widespread violence. Of course, none of us knew that at the time. We saw the Greek houses, fraternities and sororities, as a symbol of whiteness and a possible target. How they got that way says a lot about everyone involved, from our members, to the other students, to the university itself.
This was 1992 in southern California. Despite or perhaps because of the racial tensions gripping the city, it would be hard to find a more "politically correct" time and place on earth. To this day, hearing that phrase still burns my ass, because it was thrown in my face about everything on earth for the entire four years I was in school. The term was so prevalent in everyday discourse, UCLA students and administrators shortened it to "PC". Before doing anything from wiping yourself to asking for a date, you have to consider whether it was PC. Conversations would end if you expressed a thought and someone responded, "That's not very PC." Despite being one of the best public colleges in the nation, UCLA's efforts at educating its students were secondary to creating a PC atmosphere.
Demographics played a large role. Our student body was supposed to mirror the makeup of California. In truth, this would have proven impossible without turning away droves of ridiculously qualified Asian students. All hell would have broken loose. As a result, the student population was roughly 35% Asian or Pacific Islander, 33% White, 15% Hispanic, 7% African American with the final 10% made up of other backgrounds or foreign students. (I don't have the actual numbers available to me, but this is a guestimate based on my recollection and more recent UCLA data).
College is different things to different people. As with all campuses across the country, many were there to work hard and head to professional or graduate school, many were looking to get a degree while supporting themselves through middling jobs as security guards and hostesses, many were there to drink, do drugs and have sex until the registrar gave them a degree. But at UCLA, a lot of people were there to identify with a group of people, find their voice and fight for their community.
At a place that diverse, there were a lot of communities. In addition to all the ethnic groups, the gays/lesbians and feminists were campus stalwarts. Eventually, these people figured out that it was easier to fight against a common enemy than one another. Since the University was so accommodating, that left white guys. It just so happened that many of us could be found in one city block. It also turned out we weren't very good at fighting. Every campus election involved a Greek candidate and someone who was either a minority, outspoken feminist or openly gay. We were an apathetic bunch, and we usually got our clocks cleaned.
"First spot we hit up was the liquor store, I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford. With red lights flashing, time to retire. And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire."
TV news being what it is, closeup footage of looting and violence eventually gave way to wider shots of fires that appeared to engulf the city. The shift de-humaized the whole ordeal and everyone calmed down a little. Two things became apparent by early evening. Not much else was going to get done at UCLA this week and women really didn't want to sleep in their apartments or especially in sorority houses, which were strictly off limits to men. Again, I'm not proud of this, but this lead to quite a gathering in my house, and I'm sure several others as well. Los Angeles was in shambles and it amounted to an excuse to have a party. As I did every time such an opportunity presented itself at this point in my life, I began drinking with a singularity of purpose usually reserved for leg humping dogs.
As the night wore on, reports about violence on the streets continued and eventually word hit that Westwood had some looting. The police had given up at Florence and Normandie, as they were outnumbered. South Central was going to be destroyed. George Bush was involved. Looters were a half mile from us, and there wasn't much to do about it. By about 11:30, those of us who hadn't paired off or otherwise found greener pastures grabbed whatever beer was left and headed up to the roof, each with one of Jake Henry's golf clubs. Why the roof, I have no idea. I threw a dip into my lip (the only people in Southern California who chewed tobacco in 1992 were baseball players and fraternity guys, and almost every one did, don't judge) and we drank the last of the beer, talked about whatever shitfaced guys talked about in 1992 and never had any use for our golf clubs.
One April 30, word came fairly early that Mayor Tom Bradley was placing the city under martial law. There would be a curfew a sundown, and anyone out after it risked arrest. I cannot remember if I bothered to attend class that day (I was shooting about 50% that quarter even under the best of circumstances) but by early afternoon UCLA announced that its Friday classes were cancelled so I was done in any event.
What happened next would make an above average scene in an otherwise terrible movie. Upon hearing "curfew" and "no classes" I immediately went into hysterics. "I have an epiphany," I bellowed, "We need to buy a shitload of beer and hole up in the house. Can't go anywhere, fuck it!" Like I had discovered a cure to cancer.
Ten minutes later I was standing in a line longer than one for free condoms at a Scissor Sisters show. Westwood's corner mart closest to fraternity row was so overrun (the place was no bigger than 20' by 20') that people had to line up outside to pay. So while looters were breaking windows to steal on one end of town, this proprietor was actually sending people out the door with cases of beer in their hands for the purpose of coming back in to pay. There were 100 guys and girls, about 90% of whom were carrying nothing more than 24 Keystone Lights and maybe a pack of gum. Some epiphany I had. This whole scene probably took an hour.
The partying that night turned out to be substantially more subdued. Several factors intervened. First, the UCLA sorority houses (or some of them, I can't remember) decided to break with tradition and allow men to sleep in the house. It made sense from a safety standpoint. Logistics were a different story. Any guy who thought he'd be sleeping in his girlfriend's bed had a wet blanket thrown on him post haste. This was all going to play out campout style in the sorority lobbies. Just a bunch of people on the floor in sleeping bags.
The notion lost its appeal to all but a few. For some, it was the novelty of sleeping in a sorority house. For others, it was the chance to put on a cheesy-as-fuck, no stakes show of chivalry. By this time it was clear that no one was going to disturb us. The looting was widespread and lawless as hell, but very predictable. By Friday, the LAPD had given up and were waiting on military aid. Very few people stayed behind to protect their businesses. No one was going to disturb a sorority house with 90 sympathetic victims and nothing more than 90 credit cards with $500 limits when they could loot a completely abandoned electronics store.
The smarter students from outside of LA just went home for the weekend. I had beer that took me an hour to buy and no real reason to leave. Another writer might pick his three best drinking stories from college and pretend all of them happened that night, just to liven the thing up. The truth is, I remember nothing else about that evening other than buying the beer, and opting for my own bed rather than a sorority floor.
"Next stop we hit it was the music shop. It only took one brick to make that window drop. Finally we got our own p.a., where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?"
Students were leading protests all over campus, while calling for the violence and looting to stop. I took some time Friday to go around and take it all in. Since classes were cancelled, the signs and microphones were set up in unusual places. UCLA had a "free speech area" where students once protested misogynistic Fraternity songbook lyrics (a story for another time), but that area had been abandoned. Instead, students were set up in sort of a village on the south end of campus that was usually cleared for foot traffic. After wandering around for a few minutes, I got uncomfortable and left. Most people didn't mind me being there, but I got some glares.
In truth, I had no desire to be cast in the role of the bad guy in these situations. But I was used to it, and left UCLA with a far different attitude towards race and class than I entered with.
Growing up, I attended a high school almost as diverse as UCLA itself. The San Diego Unified School district had a pretty simple solution to the mandates of Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny. A minority student who lived in a high school district composed primarily of minorities could attend school anywhere that was predominately white. A lot of people did so. In fact, the phrase "homeboy" did not mean "friend" where I grew up. Instead, a homeboy was a guy who didn't flee his home, primarily minority school.
As a child I was not a good athlete. I was tall and lumpy, but couldn't catch a Nerf football or hit a curveball. In seventh grade, my Mom went to work full time and I became a latchkey kid. There were a number of us who ran back and forth between a local rec center, 7-11 and a public library from 2:30-5:00p.m most days. Some studied, some got into drugs, some were lucky enough to start having sex. I did none of those. I shot baskets in the rec center gym and got into whatever pickup games I could muster. By ninth grade, I still wasn't much of an athlete, but I was tall, could shoot a stationary jump shot and had a feel for the game.
While most guys my age were hanging out at the beach or playing baseball, I was playing around in stinky gyms throughout high school. The urban rhythm of the game appealed to me like nothing else. A boom box in a gym made me feel alive. The squeak of sneakers on a floor still reminds me of those beats, broken English banter ("Who got next?", "Ball don't lie.", "Who you got?") and sweat dripping out of every pore.
In high school, I wasn't part of The Crew (a group comprised primarily of the better football, basketball and track athletes in my high school, nearly all black), but we could talk and hang out and had a mutual respect. You had to be careful in my position because trying to act black got you labelled a wannabe, especially if you didn't have the athletic chops or other cred to pull it off (I didn't). This resulted in an odd dichotomy where I would act black in front of my white friends and white in front of my black friends. I'm not sure most people realized it, so I ended up seeming a little different to everyone.
The best thing about our environment was this. While everyone went their own separate ways at times, my high school congregated together. House parties involved everyone from every avenue. We came from different places but everyone got along. I don't remember a single racial incident. Other than dating, which caused animosity no matter who was involved, race wasn't really discussed much. I'd be naive not to consider that the black students had a very different view. But for whatever reason, I never recall being confronted with it.
"Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here. It's getting harder and harder each and every year."
So when it came to standing up for straight white male america as a fraternity guy, I wanted no part of it. The truth is, almost none of us did. At age 18-22, and living in Southern California, almost everyone was objectively left of center. Few people disagreed with liberal agendas on paper, but looking back on it now I think few of us understood it.
My attitude in college was basically this: We are getting a great education for practically free (I paid an average of about $500 a quarter for tuition the whole time I was in school), it is sunny every day here, I can buy beer out of a vending machine in my back yard. What exactly does everyone have to be so pissed off about? Chill.
But the truth was, we didn't do ourselves any favors. When the gay and lesbian alliance would march down fraternity row, some guy would always get on his balcony and yell, "Fucking faggots" or something else clever. One house had a Mexico themed party where people had to crawl under a fence to get in. The animosity towards the fraternities hit its nadir (this actually happened a year after the riots) someone located a fraternity songbook that contained such classics as "Sweet Lupe", about a "hot fucking cocksucking Mexican whore". That landed the fraternity two doors down from us on Nightline. This was all awful, and I excuse none of it.
What no one else knew, and could not know, was that for every guy yelling at GALA, there were 20 guys in his house telling him to shut the fuck up because he was an idiot. For every fraternity writing "Cheap Chicks for Sale" on the side of a Winnebago before a road trip, there were 10 others with decent guys who wouldn't pull something like that and probably half of that house cringing at what others were doing. We were all the same to the other student groups. One big group lumped together. At the time, I thought that horribly unfair, and never saw the irony in my position or theirs.
My biggest failing in all of this was not realizing it was important. I abhorred racism and basically all of the -isms, but wasn't sure what anyone hoped to accomplish and why everyone was so mad. After all, the administration bent over backwards for all these groups, and crawled around our asses whenever they got the chance. I was in school to have fun, get that paper, and hopefully end up in law school on the other end. What I didn't get was that many of the people railing against injustice were first generation college students. They were the first people in their families to have a voice, and they were getting to use it for the first time.
True, they weren't going to get anywhere going on hunger strikes to protest policies when they were adults. But I wasn't going to be able to lay drunk four nights a week and pee outside without repercussion either. It was college, which meant something different for me than it did for them. If the riots showed anything, it is that things were at a breaking point for a lot of people. LA wasn't ready for it, but I should have been. I saw hundreds of people express their breaking points well before that.
The net result of all this "othering" and my sheltered environment within it? While I had a ton of black friends, both close and casual, in high school, I can remember passing friendships with only 2 African American guys the whole time I was at UCLA. (My musical tastes moved from hip-hop to grunge about this time, I've never before pondered if the two were related). The administration spoke of a desire to make UCLA a "salad bowl instead of a melting pot". My high school was a bit of both. UCLA was neither.
"Let it burn, wanna let it burn, wanna let it burn, wanna wanna let it burn."
By Saturday, the riots were getting under control. As draconian as the curfew seemed, it was working. Police were able to control matters some without stepping into situations where they were heavily outnumbered. When people weren't supposed to even be outside, it was much harder to congregate. The initial shock of the verdict had worn off, and widespread genuine anger had been replaced by more isolated opportunism. Military troops, which had been deployed a day earlier from an hour away and took 24 hours to mobilize and arrive, were finally on the ground.
UCLA would resume classes on Monday, and things would get back to normal. Across the 10 Freeway at USC was a different story. Given its close proximity to South Central LA, the illustrious institution of higher learning simply closed down for the semester. Everyone got the grade they already had and went on their merry way for the summer a few weeks early.
I did end up sleeping in a sorority house that weekend after all. Three nights of holing up had been bearable, but by Saturday several of the guys, myself included, were getting restless. We made plans to get the hell out of LA by sundown and embarked on a road trip to Santa Barbara.
UCSB was a place that should have existed only in a movie. Nearly as selective as UCLA, the school nonetheless put out a party vibe like few others. The campus featured "private dorms" with six people to a suite on coed floors with seemingly no rules. Unlike apartments, the "dorms" were self contained and what went on inside wasn't visible to the outside world. In later years, most students lived in Isla Vista, a town where everyone set up a keg in their back yard and people roamed freely carrying cups upside down from house to house, so as to show any wandering John Q. Laws that it had already been drained. One side of the main street in IV, as it was known, was also perched perilously on a 60 foot cliff (if I'm sketchy on the details, sue me) above the ocean. My guess is someone fell off at least once a year.
Despite having a stone cold sober driver, after a night on the town no one was all that excited about a two hour return drive. Like everything else at UCSB, things were more laid back than at UCLA. The sorority houses weren't old mansions, they were basically apartment complexes where the girls all lived. Similar rules about alcohol and male callers existed, but were much harder to enforce. I wish I could tell you this was a story of a random drunk hookup, but really it was just a battle for couch space between five drunk guys and one sober one in a sorority apartment of one of the guys' high school friend's.
This story might have a better moral if I'd spent the evening contemplating race and class in 1992 Los Angeles, but in truth, my thoughts involved trying to outlast the other guys so I could gank a pillow from the guy who passed out first.
Voice of a police radio: "Any units assist 334 Willow. Structure fire, and numerous subjects looting. 10-15 to get rid of this looter."