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L.A.'s darkest days

Ten years ago today, the worst race riot in US history erupted in Los Angeles. Here, the story is told in three diverse lives.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 2002


Late in the afternoon of April 29, 1992, a ruddy haze of smog was softly lit from above by cool, fading sunlight. As Mira Jang switched channels on her living-room TV, she realized that the city's signature layer of stagnant gauze would soon be harshly lit from below – by flame.

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Fires were erupting in neighborhoods throughout the city, and local news was in full panic mode. Roving, van-top "action cams" showed arsonists and demonstrators advancing block by block like urban guerrillas.

A Korean immigrant just 14 at the time, Ms. Jang was in her home on the affordable fringe of Beverly Hills, far from the action. But violence was rampant in the stucco sprawl of the South-Central district, near Koreatown where her parents worked. And Jang's ethnic group seemed to be a particular target. As she watched, the news featured vivid images of Korean shopkeepers defending their stores with shotguns and pistols.

"I thought, 'Where are the police? Why are these store owners having to protect their own property with guns?' " she recalls.

Randy Jurado Ertll, a 19-year-old Salvadoran, could see the plumes of smoke rising too – and not on TV. He was in his dorm room at Occidental College north of downtown, but his first thoughts were of his mother and two sisters, who ran a beauty salon in South-Central.

He and a friend jumped in a nicked-up brown Toyota and drove, tremulous, to find them. Along the way, they encountered bloodied looters. They saw ranting brick throwers. They witnessed gang members hurling Molotov cocktails.

"My whole family was totally panicked, locked inside my aunt's apartment," he recalls. "People in the streets were throwing rocks, shooting guns, pulling people from vehicles and beating them. My mom and sisters didn't want to become victims."

Todd Eskew – a member of the black "Crips" gang – was more intent on creating victims than worrying about becoming one. He can't recall how many windows he broke, or how many fires he and his friends started. They'd light anything in a store that would burn and spread flames quickly – and then run. Their rage was born of poverty and humiliation, and years of perceived abuse by police and neighborhood Korean stores.

"I was so angry I wanted to continue. But I stopped after two days out of sheer, physical exhaustion," says Mr. Eskew, who goes by the name of Najee Ali today.

The experiences and divergent viewpoints of Mira Jang, Randy Jurado Ertll, and Najee Ali help tell a tale of what lay behind the worst riots in US history and of how far, in the decade since, the city has come.

And hasn't.

Like Los Angeles itself, their lives have been inexorably changed by the cataclysm that played out in the streets of South-Central on those four searing nights in April. Yet many of the forces that gave rise to the paroxysm of looting and arson – economic disparity, racial animosity, Balkanized neighborhoods, a troubled police force – persist in some form.

Consequently, their stories of that night, and of their idealistic impulses to deal with it since, help explain whether Los Angeles, and, by extension other cities, can avoid the type of civil unrest that has periodically wracked urban America throughout history.

One defining moment for diverse three

The trigger on that fateful night was the acquittal of four white police officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. Before it all ended on May 3, fires had destroyed 10,000 businesses. Fifty-five people were dead. Estimated damage: $1 billion-plus. The episode left a cityscape resembling a bombed-out war zone, patrolled by the National Guard, Army, and Marines.