L.A. Burning: Remembering the Riots 20 years later

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 20 years ago almost to the day. I was teaching a group of active 6 and 7 year old students at Mid-Wilshire Christian School in Los Angeles. I had lived in Los Angeles for almost a decade and had settled down into a life of routine-ness. I had many really good friends and a job I loved and was adjusting to a city much larger than the one I had come from.

It was fairly late in the morning, perhaps right before lunch time. I was standing with my back to a door with a 1-foot window in the center of the middle. I had an easel to my right and was demonstrating a reading lesson on the easel. I would talk to the group and refer alternately to the book. The easel was placed so that I could see the window and what was going on outside in my peripheral vision. I remember looking out one time and then looking out again not five minutes later and saw what was to be one of the most surreal things I have ever witnessed. One by one I saw buildings going from my left to my right erupting in flames. It was too much to believe and too much to take in.

I have always been a news junkie and kept up with the conversations around and about Rodney King and the verdict. And even though I worked at 3rd and Vermont, which is too close to the flash point where all the unrest began, I was wholly unprepared for the scenes of that day and the subsequent days.

We herded the students into the auditorium and “entertained” them (Thanks Miss Hill!! Love ya and miss ya!) while we assessed the situation and prepared for a dismissal that, I assure you, no school wants to have to do.  The school where I worked was a ministry of the L.A. First Church of the Nazarene so we felt secure since it didn’t look like the “looters and bad people” were torching schools or places of worship, of which we were both.

The principal and I (Rudy the Great) were the last out of the building, and honestly I had not considered my personal safety once. Until I hit the streets. The drive was too slow and weird and like driving–yes I’m going to say it—through a war zone. Really. Because it was. There were people throwing molotov cocktails, running around and over cars, people carrying ill-gotten loot, and just plain mayhem. The next day I learned that trucker Reginald Denny (among others) had been dragged from his vehicle and beaten horribly not far from where I was trying to get home.

The city smelled like smoke and cinders for weeks it seemed. I can never forget the sights and sounds of that day. Even 20 years later.


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