An April uprising 20 years ago changed everything forever. And then it didn’t.
Sometimes life sends you down to the crossroads. Twenty years ago this month, I steered a white Pontiac into the intersection of Florence and Normandie. A photographer sat beside me. A car fire blocked the street; a mob milled as if a parade were coming. Four Los Angeles police officers had just been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King.
I was a young mother; I was also a newspaper reporter. I was alternately worrying about children and deadlines when a teenager stepped into my peripheral vision and hurled a hunk of loose pavement at my company car.
The air smelled of smoke. The crowd turned toward us. I remember thinking, with annoyance, that I didn’t have time for my life to be altered. I remember imagining my 7-month-old beating the tray of her highchair, and my 9-year-old stepdaughter toiling over homework. I remember clutching the wheel with one hand as I held up my press pass, realizing as I made eye contact that things had gone way past the point of credentials. I remember voices rising and the photographer’s camera clicking as he leaned out the window, and objects starting to hit the Pontiac, hard.
Where were you on April 29, 1992? What do you remember? There was a time when it seemed Southern Californians would never stop asking questions like that. The L.A. riots may have occurred up the freeway, but oh, how the trauma rippled. Everyone had a story about how the place had changed, overnight and forever: Koreatown merchants who had fled to Fullerton after having been shot at; white San Bernardino homeowners who suddenly felt self-conscious around their black neighbors, and vice versa; O.C. civic boosters who finally had proof that L.A. was over. For years, a Newport Coast friend mentioned Florence and Normandie every time I saw him, as a preface to counting the ways he loved his gated community, and his gun collection. Everyone agreed: There would be no going back.
And then the trauma faded. Some lives were altered, but most were not. Rodney King continued to amble into and out of trouble. The cops who beat him up continued to be pariahs. The underclass remained under; the rich remained gated. The world continued to pour into Southern California.
By 2010, Orange and L.A. counties were “majority minority,” as the demographers termed it, and the riots were just another big, grainy thing from the ’90s, piled in the attic next to the O.C. bankruptcy and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Thinking that a single trauma could change everything was as quaint as imagining that everyone would get along just because a new century had started.
Florence and Normandie looked less like a turning point than an obligatory emotional reflex, a kind of script that would inform the reaction to all sorts of institutional outrage, from civil rights violations to UC tuition increases to the humiliation of the 99 percent.
Now, when I think of what erupted on that day in 1992, I think: Change really isn’t change when it happens overnight. When the photographer and I fled that day, I vowed to go home to my family—to just quit reporting, to just be a parent, to just stop dithering at the intersection of motherhood and ambition. But I remained who I was; I couldn’t help it. I continued to work, and to worry, and my children grew up, and the world turned as worlds do, incrementally and slowly.
Twenty years ago I had a near miss, and I wish I had something more life-altering to say from my Orange County haven. But sometimes life sends you to the crossroads, and sometimes it just puts you in a Pontiac and sends you to a riot.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.