Rodney King’s death spurs race memories

WBEZ's Managing Editor reflects on her experiences covering the L.A. Riots

June 19, 2012

Sally Eisele

AP/Douglas C. Pizac
A building smolders in Los Angeles in the wake of the 1992 riots.

When I think about race, I can’t help thinking about the late Rodney King.

Twenty years after King became an icon and a symbol of police brutality, I think about the riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat him. I think about what I learned about race in one of the scariest moments of my professional life.

I don’t remember the name of the street.  It was a key thoroughfare in South Central Los Angeles.  I was driving in a small rental vehicle with no air conditioning just days after what would be known as one of the worst race riots in American history. Fifty-five people had died.  Much of the neighborhood looked like a war zone.  It felt like anything could happen.   I pulled up at a red light behind a long line of traffic wondering whether it was a smart idea to be out tooling around on my own.   A car full of young black men pulled up alongside me.  The man closest to me looked over at me and slowly raised his right arm. He had a gun. He aimed it at my face.

I was a reporter in San Francisco and co-host of a weekly political show in California. In 1992, the mantra was change. Sound familiar?  Change what though?  Bill Clinton was running for president. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were soon to become the first pair of female U.S. Senators from the same state. The Democrats were on a roll in California.  And Los Angeles was burning.  Nobody on the campaign trail had been talking about the issues that fueled the violence in South Central.  They weren’t in the stump speeches because it wasn’t going to help anyone with the kind of votes they needed to win a statewide race.  The problems were there. The political will to solve them was not. That was my story. And I flew down to L.A. to find people willing to talk about race.

I found people gathered in alleyways, in vacant lots that still smoldered, in front of smashed up convenience stores.  I found anger. I found grief.  I found a lot of people who really didn’t want to talk to me at all. And then I found myself in the middle of the story with a young guy pointing a gun at me just because I was a white woman in his neighborhood.   As I tried to make myself very, very small, I wondered if he knew how scared I was. And in that second, I thought I was starting to understand on a real personal level the magnitude of the rage.

Twenty years later, the name of the neighborhood that exploded in 1992 has changed. The demographics have, too.  South Los Angeles, once the heart of black culture in the city, is now predominantly Latino. The LAPD went through years of public reform efforts.

But as a country, and here in metropolitan Chicago, we’re still struggling with many of the same issues that led to the L.A. riots.  And that brings me to our series, Race: Out Loud. Over the next few months, we want to get people talking openly and candidly about race, racism and segregation.  What have we learned as a society in the last 20 years? How far do we still have to go?  We hope you’ll join in the conversation.

As for what happened to the naïve young reporter in the rental car and the guy with the gun on that hot spring day in L.A.? Well, we stared at each other through the open windows of our cars for what seemed like forever  in and I wondered if I was about to die.  I couldn’t speak.  I found myself pleading for my life with my eyes.  And then I saw a sparkle in his and the hint of a smirk. He’s thinking, “Scared white girl in a riot zone? She probably thinks all black guys have guns. Guess what?  LOL. I do.”  Then just like that, the light turned green. Traffic began to move.  He laughed. They drove away.

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