Monday, April 30, 2007

My 1992

Where was I when I heard the verdict in the Rodney King case? Probably in "The Coop," a rather bland eatery in UCLA's student center, over the university's low power radio. I might have listened momentarily, thinking that the verdict defied expectations, but thought no further. It was a little later, sitting in US Intellectual History, where the professor pushed aside his normal lecture in order to frame the verdict in historical context that I considered the verdict more fully. But the idea that there would be anger and outrage had not yet crossed my mind.

It was only late in the afternoon, when I reached my apartment, that I fully realized what was taking place: the outbreaks of rioting and violence. Watching the television, I was afraid and confused. The streets and neighborhoods mentioned by reporters were familiar to me only in name. They had no place in my mental maps of Los Angeles, mostly of the west side, almost oblivious to anything east of Rampart and south of Pico. Indeed, in my unfamiliarity, I could imagine the barbarians at the gate, so to speak: that organized rioters making their way up Wilshire into Westwood.

The next night the calm of Westwood intensely contrasted with the paranoia on television. My friends and I, feeling the strain of being trapped inside, met and, essentially, had a party. It seemed unlikely that such jollity could break out. Indeed, it seemed to us as if we were defying the mood of the city, claiming that the horrors happening elsewhere had no personal sway over us.

The third night, I biked several miles to jam with my band. I biked back later in the evening. I saw a few police cars. No one stopped me. In the following days we talked, but not as if the events were personal. We laughed about the friend who drove eight hours straight to get home, or the "new stereo" someone else suddenly had in their room.

With regret, I offer no powerful memories of the 1992 riots. As in Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game, I was surrounded by a decadence that was oblivious to the brewing storm. My actions seem self-serving.

Was I alone? There may have been many Angelenos who watched the riots on TV, who had no personal contact with it and could not understand the outrage. Geographically so close, we could not have been socially farther away. Perhaps it was because of how the city was laid out. It was easy for parts of Los Angeles to remain isolated from one another. Or perhaps we were just modern spectators, our witnessing mediated by television.

Perhaps historical memory is seldom personal memory.

I am but an indirect witness to events that happened in my own hometown. The magnitude of the riots, their context, their meaning, didn't wash over me until I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, three years later. Even now I can speak more personally about 9/11 ( I was at least on the 103 floor of one of the Twin Towers). I can't explain why the riots aren't part of my personal memories: because I was not engaged; because I could see nothing but the world around me; because I was in a world apart ... . It's only after the fact that I can talk about the worst nights in my hometown's history.