Exactly 25 years ago on Sunday, May 3, the Los Angeles riots were just beginning to calm down. It was the fifth day of rioting. Mayor Bradley insisted things were under control and there was only one death reported.
I watched the news coverage that day from my dorm room at Rutgers University. I was a sophomore majoring in African-American History and while I was from a community that could be considered hood, I could not understand what was happening in LA.
Each night, after my classes were done, I climbed into bed, turned on the television and caught up on the drama, violence and death as if it were a nightly reality show.
My roommate would come in and we’d watch together. The fires, the protests and the ruined stores — my hand was often over my mouth as I watched. The footage of Reginald Denny, a white innocent bystander, being pulled out of his truck and beaten nearly to death made me sick to my stomach. My roommate and I looked over at each other. We didn’t speak, but we were both thinking the same thing.
Why are they doing this?
I didn’t understand the riots. I just didn’t understand how ruining businesses and harming innocent people made any sense at all. Of course I now understand all too well how a community can become a tinderbox lit with the fire of rage and discrimination. But in 1992, even though I was outraged the cops were acquitted, I was also outraged the people of Los Angeles reacted the way they did.
Here’s the thing. Before social media, it was easy to just depend on entertainment to understand what was happening in the world. (It wasn’t like I was picking up The New York Times or watching the evening news.) Whatever my parents were clucking their tongues and shaking their heads about went in one ear and out the other.
I had seen Boyz N the Hood the year before the riots and it introduced me to a lot of things. But it was still entertainment. I enjoyed the movie and then went back into my bubble. My friends repeated punch lines from the film and salivated over how cute Ricky was. (It would be the movie Menace II Society, released the year after the riots, that would open my eyes to what was happening with urban Black America across the country).
Back then incidents didn’t trend on Twitter. I couldn't scroll through endless photographs from people literally around the globe. I couldn’t watch police brutality as it happened on Facebook Live. All I knew for certain was what happened in my hometown, East Orange, New Jersey, and to an extent, New York City. And with the little I did know, I remember feeling helpless. What could I really do as an 18-year-old college student with exams to study for?
In addition to a lack of technology, proximity and location was a large reason why my young friends and I didn’t understand South Central and the riots.
I vaguely knew things were bad in some place named Compton and N.W.A was rapping about it. But for me, my boombox was all about Boyz II Men and Jodeci. And they were not singing about police brutality. Back then, I really thought Los Angeles was mostly Hollywood and beach culture. How could a place like South Central coexist with movie studios and the Hollywood sign?
Faith Evans once told me this story. In the early '90s, she went to the West Coast to pursue her music career. One night, she needed to get off a highway to get gas. It was dark and she was alone. She didn’t know the area at all and she had to just decide based on the names of the exits. She finally saw one that seemed safe — Long Beach. She had no idea she was just twenty minutes away from Compton and that Long Beach was also known for violence. (She learned quickly. A stray bullet grazed her while she was pumping her gas.)
I wasn’t a part of the movement when it came to the LA Riots and the Rodney King verdict. There were campus protests and demonstrations, but I watched from afar. Looking back, it seems strange. I was raised in a very politically active household with parents who were activists committed to enacting change in their community and expected my siblings and I to do the same.
But for some reason I remember the time of the LA Riots as a time to grab some popcorn and watch the news, like watching the juicy comments section of a Facebook post.
I asked my mom how she reacted to the news she watched in the sixties. The dogs being used as weapons on demonstrators. The sit-ins at restaurant counters. The young children integrating schools.
I was shocked by her answer.
She told me she didn't pay much attention to it at all. The whole world was changing right in front of her eyes. But she was still a high-schooler twirling her baton at every football game. It wasn’t that she didn’t care. She said it just seemed so far away. It was something happening to those people over there.
And just like with me, proximity and location was a large factor. When she was in high school, there was no need for a bus boycott. She’d always sat wherever she wanted for as long as she could remember. There was no need to sit-in at a diner. She ate anywhere she wanted to. Because the South lagged behind the North when it came to civil rights, the things my mom saw on television felt like a far away land. And what could she do as a 15-year-old high-school kid with exams to study for?
Today, it’s hard to stay on top of everything I want to support. As soon as I join an organization and give what I can, I get an email about another that needs help and is also doing great work.
It’s a strange time. We’ll look back at the next years the way others looked back at the civil rights movement or the LA Riots. I have my what were you doing when… story about the LA Riots and I’m not really proud of it.
I have a what were you doing when… story about the times we’re living in now. And I think when I’m 100 years old, I’ll be able to tell my stories with pride.
There’s so much to grasp. Thanks to technology and the tiny world we live in, there are thousands of issues that could use your help. It’s impossible to do it all. But can we manage more than a social media connection? Hopefully, we can tell our grandchildren we were able to do more than just watch.
(Photo: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)