Some days after the 1992 riots had begun to calm down, LA Times editors selected some of the staff's writers to produce first-person stories about what the violence meant to them as Angelenos. They were strong pieces that ran on the front page and I suspect carried extra weight with judges when the newspaper staff as a whole won the public service Pulitzer the following year. A memorable line from George Ramos stands out for me, a lifelong Angeleno — "Los Angeles, you broke my heart...and I'm not sure I'll love you again" — but the observations by all were pained and worth revisiting. On Saturday, the Times ran fresh pieces from Patt Morrison, Elaine Woo, Greg Braxton and, sitting in for Ramos — who died last year — Hector Tobar. They are good — go read them.
Toward the end of the first full day of rioting, I stood with my "Life & Times" colleagues behind the gates of KCET-TV. Across the street, the looters "shopped" Circuit City. A trio came out looking like the Three Bears — father with the big TV, mother with the portable, child with the CD player.
It's hard to loot a paid-up electric bill or to steal a bigger apartment, so looters took what was within reach, from a box of Tide to an aquarium or a dozen guns, all booty from the riots....In the riotous spring of 1992, the old L.A. stereotypes got taken out for another spin. Hell in paradise, death in the sunlit promised land.
Recently, I was jarred to read an essay that ran on the front page of this newspaper two decades ago. "Suddenly, I am scared to be Asian," the author wrote. "More specifically, I am afraid of being mistaken for Korean."
Those words were mine, a fourth-generation Chinese American, written as large swaths of L.A. were smoldering....
As for me, I'm more aggrieved now by my gray hairs and shrinking dollars than the cast of my skin or slant of my eyes. It has been 30 years since any white person, noting my Asian features, has asked if I can speak English. It has been almost that long since anyone has exhorted me to "go back to China," ignorant of the fact that my native claims extend to the 1800s. Great-Grandfather Woo's grit made possible a family history that includes the first Asian American elected to the L.A. City Council, my brother Mike.
But my brother, who left office in 1993, was also the last Asian American to sit on the council...
Some staffers pointed out that several African American reporters from suburban sections — I was among them — were hastily dispatched into trouble spots while the predominantly white Metro staff stayed in the newsroom. Those reporters were "cannon fodder," they charged.
When the danger had largely subsided, most of us were unceremoniously sent back to our offices without thanks. The controversy about diversity — and the lack of it — sparked heated staff meetings, and top editors moved quickly to increase the percentage of journalists of color.
That was then.
All this month, media attention has centered over conditions in post-riot Los Angeles — the progress, or lack of it. Pockets of ruin and decay remain in some communities. I was disheartened to return to the corner near my childhood home where a supermarket once stood before it was torched. I found only an empty lot surrounded by a canvas-covered fence. That store, Sam Newman's Market, had been an anchor of the community, and it never returned.
Still, there are many signs of encouragement.
George was proud of the calm in East L.A. during and after the riots. Because for him, the daily rhythms of the community, and the lives of its working people, stood for the goodness of L.A.
"Of course…East L.A. is safe," he told people in those unsettled days after the riots. "I'm from there."
This month, I went back to East L.A. in George's stead. He died last year, at 63, and his old stamping grounds seemed like the best place to channel his voice.
Next door to the home on Record Street where he grew up, I found a collection of wood-frame buildings still clinging to the grassy hillside where George once played as a boy.
Front page from May 1, 1992, click on it to enlarge. More riot front pages from the Times