Twenty years ago today I was driving my family from Oklahoma City to Springdale, AR to meet my cousin's family for dinner. About the time we arrived in Springdale the jury on the Rodney King beating trial was delivering their verdict on the LAPD officers involved: Not Guilty.
My reaction: I'm okay with that. If you're going to drive drunk at over 100 mph risking untold lives in the process you probably deserve to get your butt beaten. The message apparently didn't get through to King since he's been in and out of trouble in the 20 years since.
However, I apparently did not represent the majority view, at least not in Los Angeles. Within minutes people looking for an excuse to steal stuff and burn buildings were taking to the streets. My guess is that 99% of them couldn't care less about Rodney King - this was just a chance at a free TV or some tennis shoes. Because we were busy with our family visit and taking the kids swimming in the hotel pool, I didn't get to see much coverage that night as things started going crazy in LA.
The next day we headed north with plans to spend a day or two with a friend in Nixa, MO. We stopped for lunch in Neosho, MO where they had CNN on TV in the Wendy's, and for the first time I really began to understand the scope of what was going on back home. The TV showed multiple fires, roving bands of thieves and vandals, and general lawlessness infecting large sections of Los Angeles. What I found out later was that truckloads of armed men had been seen heading toward the Beverly Hills area where I had three bank branch locations I supervised. The company had to close those branches and pull our people out of there to keep them safe. Some of them were actually safer at the branch because of problems in their neighborhoods.
The creeps tearing things up weren't very bright. They managed to burn down grocery stores and other businesses serving them in their own communities. There were some areas where you had to drive 5 miles to buy a loaf of bread because everything was gone. Real bright.
I managed to miss nearly all of it because of our vacation. By the time I got back to work it was all over, but the city was changed forever. It took mutual aid from many local police departments plus a serious show of force from the National Guard to calm everything down. And it was months and even years before some of those affected areas were back to what they call normal.
One of the most impressive images from the riots was that of Korean shop owners who took to the roof of their businesses armed with rifles, shotguns and handguns and basically dared the rioters to try and hit their shops. Those guys came away with their businesses and livelihoods intact while many around them suffered devastating losses. Good for them.
NBC in Los Angeles has created a special Twitter account which will document the LA Riots as if Twitter existed at the time. You can find it here.
As I've watched the whole Trayvon Martin travesty I can see this whole thing setting up to be another LA Riots, but this time on a national level. The people who have been promoting incorrect and inflammatory racial angles on that shooting are hoping to create the kind of racial divide that resulted in the riots. And they just might do it. It could be a long, hot summer.