April 29, 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots of 1992. Spurred by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers charged with the beating of African American taxi driver Rodney King, the LA Riots would last six days, claim more than 50 lives, and lead to more than 11,000 arrests. Due in part to the civilian taped coverage of the beating and the widespread media attention to the events, in the eyes of much of the public, the acquittal equated to a judicial approval of police on minority brutality. The outcome was outrage and subsequent anarchy. At the end of it all, as a National Guardsman who was deployed into the thick of it all, I witnessed humanity emerge. Because of those instances, I learned a few things.
As the rioting started, I remembered the bizarre and tragic events of March of 1991, wherein Rodney King, who had previously been convicted of robbery and fearful of returning to jail, led police on a high-speed pursuit through the San Fernando Valley. Under the influence at the time, King and his two passengers eluded police through approximately eight miles of surface streets, reaching speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.
Ultimately, King was forced to stop and after resisting arrest, was repeatedly beaten with batons by police officers on the scene. The ensuing assault was caught on camera by a civilian taping from his apartment balcony and subsequently released to KTLA news.
The Holliday video, so named for the civilian who taped it, was seen by millions across the country. The video brought the state of America’s race relations to the surface, igniting an outcry for police accountability. Thus, when the officers were acquitted, reverberations shook the country. President George H. W. Bush declared, “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids…”
In Los Angeles, violent rioting began almost immediately after the verdict was announced, and as I recall, all the Los Angeles television stations were broadcasting the events as they unfolded and escalated, and so too did the national news media. Police, firefighters, and civilians were brutally and publicly attacked, hundreds of buildings were looted and set ablaze. A curfew was placed on the afflicted areas though the unrest was to the extent that it went mostly unchecked, spreading throughout much of the less affluent areas of Los Angeles. Gun stores were looted giving rioters an arsenal. Korean businesses were targeted during the LA Riots, their owners often taking up arms to defend themselves. The police were unable to quell the unrest and the National Guard were deployed to restore order.
As a 35 year-old National Guardsman, I was one of those who were called upon to put an end to the violence or at least help assuage the fears that were spreading beyond the scenes of violence. I was watching TV and the phone rang at my home. Of course, the TV was full of images of South Los Angeles burning. I was fully expecting to be activated.
My unit was located in Corona, California which is about 45 minutes from Los Angeles. I arrived there on April 29, 1992 and was issued an M-16 assault rifle, handgun, face mask, baton, and Vietnam era flak vest. My unit was Armor, which meant we were tankers, operating M60-A3 battle tanks. The tanks had four man crews; driver, loader, gunner, and tank commander. I was a sergeant and the gunner, which meant I operated and fired the 105mm main gun.
After we were placed on full active duty, the National Guard could not deploy us until we had ammo for our weapons, which was not a surprise considering none of us had ever been mobilized before. The bulk of the ammunition was in central California at Camp Roberts in San Luis Obispo County, and as Camp Roberts had no lights on the landing fields, the helicopters sent to pick up the ammo couldn’t land until daybreak. We all watched the rioting continue all night, on television.
Finally the next morning the ammo arrived. Each man was issued 40 rounds of 5.56m; full metal jacket rounds. We locked and loaded and got on the troop transport trucks and headed out to our landing zone, Los Angeles High School gymnasium. As we passed through neighborhoods, residents came out of their homes waving to us and shouting, “what took you so long?”
While we anticipated some sort of hostile reactions, none were forthcoming. Rather, all who greeted us were obviously happy to see us. Though caught off guard by the warm reception, something we had not prepared for, we maintained our unit integrity.
Still, even with all the happy faces and waving hands, we were apprehensive about what lay ahead. We didn’t know if we would be shot or attacked. Plus, our official rules of engagement were fairly simple: we were authorized to use deadly force to protect and preserve life, our lives or the civilians whom we were sent to protect. When one gets a standing order to kill if necessary, especially in our own community, it is a daunting burden to carry, but carried it we did.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, the streets were empty. The burnt buildings were still smoldering. It was very quiet except for the sound of our heavy trucks. My four-man team were assigned to a two-man team of police officers. There were several thousand law enforcement personnel on the ground and it appeared they had no real control of the situation. Our team was assigned to a Vons supermarket that had been looted at the corner of Fairfax and Pico. At the time, LAPD did not have access to riot gear such as our protective face shields. They were also very interested in our M-16s, which still had the ability to fire fully automatic. At this time, except for SWAT and special units, the police did not have access to such weapons. They were glad to see us and they made their sentiments known, openly. And, we were very glad to see local law enforcement as well.
From my perspective, the presence of the National Guard did much to curtail the violence and looting, though tensions were still high.
One moment really stands out in my memory, during this early stage of our involvement. I was confronted by an individual, who was obviously quite agitated and on the side of those rioting. He said he heard on TV that we didn’t have any bullets for our weapons. I explained to him that yes we are armed and loaded. I actually had a 20 round magazine in my M-16 and was carrying a fully loaded handgun. The gentleman appeared to contemplate his next move, would he lash out, or move on. Thankfully, he chose the latter and I did not have to respond with force.
Later we were reassigned to South Central. We set up a defensive position at an intersection. I was nervous because we were out in the open. The traffic lights were operating and traffic was allowed on the streets again. In the beginning, it was scary. There was a significant number of folks who looked to be pondering looting, or worse. But, the tensions and violence, at least in front of us, rapidly subsided. But it did not disappear entirely. Honestly, I am surprised we never fired our weapons, and I am most grateful for that as well.
People I have spoke with about that time, asked what the most memorable part of being deployed in Los Angeles during the Civil Unrest concerned me most.
I always surprise them when I say that it was the generosity of the civilians in the affected areas once things started to calm down. We had people drive up and give us food, drinks, cigarettes. The manager of the looted Vons we were guarding came out and asked what we needed or wanted. Our wish list included razors, snacks, cigarettes, and baby wipes. He returned with boxes of goodies for the troops. That surprised me. It surprised all of us. But, as a Native born and raised So-Californian, in hindsight, I am not surprised. To borrow from Rodney King, we do all tend to try to get along.
There was another side to my memories, one that stands out equally to witnessing the upheavals. Strikingly, in neighboring affluent communities, life continued without interruption, or, for that matter any display of consciously feeling any of what was transpiring so close-by.
For example, late in the first week, we were given four-hour leave time to buy individual supplies. We were about one mile from the Beverly Center. When we arrived there, everything was normal, business as usual. It was as though we were in a John Hughes movie set in the Midwest, 2,000 miles away and not just around the corner from the epicenter of unrest. The folks who were at the Beverly Center did not seem touched by the rioting; at least as best that we could tell.
We were spoiled by all the goodies given to us by grateful civilians, when we ate at the Hard Rock Café, no one offered to buy us lunch or even say thanks or hello. They were only a few thousand feet from looting, burning, and chaos. Though, their detachment belied the geographic proximity.
The chaos, finally, came to an end. The six days of violence, looting, and burning left Los Angeles marred, changed.
There was a lot of destruction. Most of the damage was in the poor sections That was very obvious throughout the entire ordeal. It really hammered home for me the economic divide, being quite pronounced in LA and SoCal in general.
While many people were saying the rioters just got tired and went home, I think there was something more to it. This “something more” that has stayed with me, is that law enforcement and the National Guard as well as communities who collectively deal with adversity, are tribal societies.
I offer that as a positive interpretation of the term “tribal”. They both take care of their tribal people first. I have first hand knowledge of being in the field training when two fellow Guardsmen, a white supremacist and African-American acted like brothers. We were running low on water and it was hot. One of the two individuals was out of water. The gentleman with the water gave his canteen to the one without, and he drank from it.
That would never have happened in the “outside world.” In the tribal (army) world, they are not black and white. Rather, they belong to a tribal society. The rules are very different in the tribe. Also, as I witnessed first hand, tribalism was not confined to just those attempting to bring back order. Rather, I saw this tribal mentality in the streets, where people helped each other, regardless of their ethnicity. Their sense of community created a tribal consciousness, one of fellowship and understanding of each other. At the end of it all, people helping each other helped take the steam out of the anger and frustration that had been raging across the LA metro.
In all, during the six days of violence, looting, and arson that encompassed the LA Riots of 1992, more than 50 were dead, more than 2,000 were injured, more than a thousand buildings were destroyed, and as much as $1 billion in damages were done.
As Guardsmen, we patrolled the streets of Los Angeles for two weeks easing concerns that rioting would erupt again. Though, as the days moved on, I could see how the tribal spirit and community reality proved to be the stabilizing force. Perhaps, we are all hard wired for tribalism when preservation calls for it.
Gary Dubois is currently the Director of Cultural Resources for the Pechanga Band of Indians in California. He earned JD/MSW, both from Washington University in St. Louis. He is a disabled veteran as determined by the Veterans Administration.