“Hi, my name is Shawn.”
She was calling from somewhere in Los Angeles. It was midnight of the first night. The power was out, and everyone was still up.
“I’m actually living a little north of all of this,” she said. “I’m up off of Olympic and I can smell the fires from here.”
The DJ, Eric “Rico” Reed, warned in a soft, late-shift baritone: “It’s on your way.”
The DJs at KJLH didn’t have to leave their booth to witness the L.A. riots up close. Twenty years ago, the violence erupted just outside their studio. Their phone lines lit up. A woman called in tears. A father called desperately looking for his teenage son.
Shawn said she was a lawyer and that she had spent some time at First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles’ Historic West Adams District, where people gathered after the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Some 40 miles away in Simi Valley, a nearly all-white jury had acquitted four police officers — three white and one Hispanic — who had been caught on film pummeling King, a black man, the previous year after a car chase. The acquittals touched off days of rioting in Los Angeles. More than 60 people were killed and thousands were injured.
BRANDON BOWLIN: I think we …
REED: It doesn’t even need to be described. I think we may be adding to it by telling people what’s going on.
BOWLIN: Once again, we want to caution everyone that the AMPM up the street – I believe it’s on Washington and Crenshaw.
REED: No. It’s on Crenshaw and Jefferson, Crenshaw and Rodeo. The Shell Station are on fire.
BOWLIN: They’re on fire.
REED: Sears is now on fire in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
BOWLIN: Drive clear of those two service stations please.
CARL NELSON: Yeah, cause they might explode.
BOWLIN: The whole block you should just circumvent and take an alternate, ulterior course.
NELSON: Just another reminder if you’re out there trying to do these things that the National Guard will be here within two hours.
REED: Or less.
BOWLIN: And nobody knows, nobody knows where they’re coming from … Hey, when they come in, they come in with a bang, brothers and sisters so you better be careful out there.
CALLER: Wanda. Hello?
REED: Hi Wanda. Go ahead.
CALLER: I wanted the number for school closings.
REED: The school closings, OK. What school are you concerned about?
REED: I’m sure USC will be closed. It’s not on the list but….
BOWLIN: Carl, do you have anymore information on what’s going on on Westwood?
NELSON: Only the fact that when they started to riot, the riot cops showed up.
BOWLIN: Right away.
BOWLIN: So we don’t know how far spread – this may go all the way to Westwood. It’s already there.
NELSON: Well, it’s already in Westwood but the cops already put it down….
REED: KJLH, hello, good evening you’re on Front Page. What is your name and where are you calling from?
CALLER: Hi, my name is Lisa. I’m calling from Compton.
REED: Hi Lisa.
CALLER: Hi. I just have one quick – actually a couple quick comments. The first thing is history. You think from ’65 to ’92 we would have learned from history of what happens with riots…. They burned down the ABC Market. They burned down the Sears down there. They burned down all those other places. And it wasn’t just black people. It was white people coming in to our community helping us loot, helping us burn down things. When they went back to their community and they had buildings. And here we are today, we just got the stuff built up. And here we are on the news. And it’s not just black people, it’s white people, it’s Mexicans. And they’re burning the stuff down … We’re going to start right back over.
REED: All over again.
CALLER: … This is not revolution. This is unorganized confusion.
REED: That’s exactly what it is. No it’s not a revolution. It’s just people driving down the street saying, ‘You think we should go in there? Yeah, yeah why not? Nobody’s looking. They’re going in, so let’s go in.’
REED: It’s the blind leading the blind.
CALLER: And instead of just saying ‘OK, I feel for Rodney King.’ They’re sitting there jumping in front of the camera, you know.
CALLER: Smiling. Taking, taking mug shots and running off with TV sets. [Who] are they hurting? [They’re] hurting us. They’re making us look bad.
NELSON: That’s exactly right. They’re making Chief Gates look very good tonight.
BOWLIN: Right ….
NELSON: OK. We have a firefighter on the line – Harold Johnson.
REED: Harold – you with us?
CALLER: Yeah, I’m right here with you.
REED: OK, go right ahead. Thank you for calling us back, Harold …. OK. Go right ahead, Harold what’s going on?
CALLER: Well I’m at home currently. Jackie called me and told me to call in and try to give you guys an idea of actually some of the problems that are going on out in the field. I spoke earlier with our, one of my buddies who works in our public information office and they’re currently at a fire on Crenshaw and Slauson. At that time they stated that they were having problems with hydrants being blocked and bottles being thrown at them. There’s a water shortage because of the major tax to the fire system. Actually we are also working with Los Angeles City in a mutual aid type of situation where county fire engines and fire representatives from surrounding areas are now going into areas that they currently wouldn’t – just to try to handle some of the bulk of the work that’s going on out there.
NELSON: OK, Harold. We understand you’re very, very busy tonight. And thanks again for speaking with us on Front Page.
CALLER: No problem.
REED: We appreciate the call. Thank you.
NELSON: Rico, First A.M.E. Church, you know, where they had that rally tonight?
NELSON: Hundreds of people went over there and then they found they couldn’t go home because of what’s happening in the streets.
REED: Of course, not. Can’t get back in their own communities.
NELSON: So they’re camping out at A.M.E. At First A.M.E. Church.
REED: Is it safe over there?
NELSON: At First A.M.E. Church? Yeah it’s fairly safe I should say…
REED: Is it near that Florence, Normandie area?
NELSON: No, no — that’s down on 79th. The American Red Cross is attempting at this time to get into that area and provide the people with items so they can get through the night. They’re going to set them up with cots and stuff like that.
Some 5,000 South Central residents are now said to be without electrical power. We don’t know if that was by the fire or if they turned off the juice. Stores at La Brea and Rodeo including the Foot Locker shoe store, and the Warehouse record store have been set on fire and has the Thrifty drug store across the street from those stores. They’re also on fire…
REED: Yes, you are?
CALLER: I’m Lee Ann.
REED: All right, Lee Ann, go right ahead.
CALLER: OK. I’ve, oh God, on [unintelligible], and what I’m really appalled about is that they’re burning down the AMPM and that they forget that we live, people live behind the AMPM.
REED: Thank you.
CALLER: Trying to burn us down with it, OK? And also we were standing outside and people are outside shooting. Have they forgotten that we have babies here? We have children. Have they forgotten about the two little babies that got killed by crossfire shootings?
REED: I don’t know. It seems like all that’s gone out the window. We’re looking at the police right now pulling up. There’s about 50 people right across the street running inside looting a store. The police are pulling up with lights but that’s all they’re doing.
BOWLIN: Is the AMPM still burning?
CALLER: No. I mean they just. That was like the first building. The AMPM was the first one that they – the fire department – came to stop …
NELSON: We’ve got to cut away now to Governor Pete Wilson. He’s making a special announcement. Thank you for calling.
GOV. WILSON: There will be as many as 750 California Highway Patrolmen made available. The key purpose is to try to seal off the area and try and keep people, motorists from entering the area. They will also be able to — by their containment of it — assist the law enforcement personnel from LAPD and from the sheriff’s office in seeking to contain the area and ultimately to shrink it down. The problem with the fires obviously has been that in order to fight the fires, the firefighting crews have required protection themselves. We’ve had a couple of firemen shot this evening that we know about. Having said that, additionally we have made available some 2,000 National Guardsmen. They are on standby, prepared to move. Transport has been arranged so that additional guardsmen and CHP… In short, we have sought to provide the local authorities with the reinforcements necessary for them to contain this rioting and looting.
I join with Mayor Bradley and the leaders in particular of the black community who have urged the people of Los Angeles to remain calm. Clearly the rioters are ignoring that. The bitter irony of course is that the injury that is being done to South Central Los Angeles will be hurtful to the residents of that area. It is our hope that people will not be injured by the actions of what are apparently comparative few….
Mayor Bradley has indicated that he either will impose a curfew or has by this time done so. I think his appeal is well taken. I hope that it’s heeded. There is no good that is being done by the actions …They will not assist Mr. King …
REED: OK. That’s Governor Pete Wilson on the line here on 102.3 KJLH. It’s 12:14. We’ve got a special edition of Front Page discussing the aftermath from the Rodney King verdict today in the Rodney King trial. Carl you had something you wanted to add to that?
NELSON: Yeah, I just want to say that those of you who are concerned about the school systems – which schools are going to be open, you can give us a call here at KJLH. We’ll let you know if your school’s going to be open. But most of the schools in the South Central area are going to be closed…
REED: Let’s go back to the phone lines — KJLH , thank you for bearing with us. You’re on the special edition of Front Page. What is your name, where are you calling from?
CALLER: Yes, my name is Jarrel. I’m calling from Inglewood. The issue and the problem that we having right now you know it was unjustified what happened today in this case. But what I’m seeing right now, we are actually replaying what happened when Martin Luther King was here and the Watts Riots. Maybe this is being done for a reason—so your public officials will pay attention to what the people want now. I mean we want respect. We don’t want the police beating on us. We want peace. We want things to be done right around here. I think this is happening for a reason. I hope people don’t [get] hurt out there. I mean we had a couple of deaths and injuries.
REED: I’m looking at people yanking TVs and stuff out of stores with no regard for the glass on the ground or anything. They’re just handing things off. People are seriously getting injured looting. People are ending up in emergency rooms with cuts from glass and other things.
NELSON: The sad part about those fellows too — those are used, old TVs.
REED: And they don’t work.
REED: They don’t even work. Man, they just be stealing them to be stealing them. It makes no sense.
CALLER: Well I hope that the people would take the public officials, the government, and the people on the city council and the courts and the police department look at this and say, ‘Hey, these people they are taking this very seriously. They are not taking this lying down.’ It’s like I said before it was and … Maybe the tables should turn right now.
REED: Well, I agree with you. I don’t agree with the verdict at all. I really thought that there would be at least one guilty. To me, Powell was guilty. I thought Powell was definitely going to be found guilty and get some time.
CALLER: Well, I’m not one to judge. I’m a Christian so I put that in the hands of the lawmakers.
REED: I just went by what I saw just like everyone else. And not only in Los Angeles but across the country, around the world, everyone was appalled by the Holliday video.
CALLER: Well I agree with that. That’s why I said was unjustified.
REED: Of course, but personally I don’t see what tearing up the streets and stealing and robbing from a lot of African businesses and other businesses in the community has to do with it. What is that going to prove?
CALLER: What did it prove in the Watts Riot? …
REED: Thank you for your call. We appreciate your time. 12:18, 18 minutes after midnight. It’s a new day, but the same thing is going on and we’ll try to give it to you as we see it. Good evening, you’re on Front Page. What is your name and where are you calling from?