Lawlessness, Gunfire and An Ill-Fitting Bullet-Proof Vest: Los Angeles Riots Remembered

Reporting on the city's descent into lawlessness was unforgettable

It was the closest I'd ever been to a war zone, or at least, what I imagined a war zone to be like.

Sirens and sporadic gunfire filled the air along Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards. Fires burned on certain blocks.

Follow the riots as they unfold in "real time."

Everywhere, there were guns. Along commercial strips, I could see rifles poking up above the roofline.

Merchants, taking up rooftop duty to try and protect their businesses from looting.

The looters seemed to spring up spontaneously, smashing windows and hauling off goods. In front of one store, I recognized an armed man; an actor who'd had bit parts in some network TV shows.

He had a talent/scouting agency in the building, and was trying to keep lawbreakers at bay. Real-life drama, not the Hollywood kind.

Police presence was spotty at times. But as I stood on Hollywood Boulevard, an LAPD cop took some pity; he stopped and helped me adjust the bullet-proof vest I had borrowed and was wearing improperly.

These are the memories I have of the scene twenty years ago today, as I worked to cover the violence that suddenly erupted in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating trial.

Photographer Curt Rybaczyk and I teamed up with another reporter crew out of Sacramento, sharing a vehicle as we roamed the streets from our base at the ABC network bureau, then located on Prospect in Hollywood.

Safety in numbers, we figured. We sped through lights and stop signs, heading from one trouble spot to the next. Didn't want to be targets of the mob, we figured. But we also drove like that because we could.

For two nights after the Simi Valley verdict, LA was a place of lawlessness on all levels. On the second morning, we drove up to Griffith Park. As the sun came up, it lit an eerie and ominous scene; the city covered with a thick gray pall of smoke.

Yes, it was a war zone. I remember running out of steam by that second morning. Stumbling into the ABC network bureau, I hoped to find a quiet spot to sleep, but the newsroom was chaos.

So I walked upstairs, where the correspondents had offices. Judy Muller, now a USC professor, then a reporter, wasn't in her office, but she had a soft couch that I commandeered for a quick nap. I sometimes wonder what her reaction would've been if she'd walked in and found this unshaven, soot-smudged stranger slumbering away.

By daylight, the destruction was clear. But Gov. Pete Wilson had mobilized the National Guard.

The mayor had imposed a curfew and by the third day, the worst was over. A lot has changed. I wonder how the immediate nature of Twitter and other social media would affect such unrest today. L.A. and its police department have done a lot of rebuilding in the years since.

But I'll never forget what I saw, when civilized society appeared to be splitting at the seams.

Kevin Riggs is an Emmy-award winning former TV journalist in Sacramento. He is currently Senior Vice-President at Randle Communications

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