Long Beach and the Rodney King Verdict

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Long Beach and the Rodney King Verdict

Much has been written recently about the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict of April 29, 1992, when a jury acquitted four officers of the LAPD charged with excessive force in the arrest and beating of African American Rodney King. On March 3,1991, after King was arrested following a high-speed chase for driving while intoxicated, an uninvolved individual, George Holliday, filmed the incident and sent it to TV station KTLA. When broadcast, it caused a public furor, nationwide.  In Southern California, riots sprang up throughout Los Angeles County.   What went on in Long Beach following the verdict, is something I will never forget.

Rodney King – Wikipedia

It took more than 24 hours for the outrage caused by the King verdict to hit Long Beach, then on Thursday, April 30th fires erupted and looting began in North Long Beach and spread down Atlantic and Pacific avenues and Long Beach Boulevard.  At the Main library in downtown, we saw smoke to the north of us. We then heard sirens and saw helicopters circling overhead. Anxious to find out what was happening, we gathered around our security guard to hear the police broadcasts his walkie talkie was picking up. It was frightening – fires seemingly springing up everywhere, and massive looting.

Library administrators told us to keep calm, and continue our regular routine, but there were few patrons in the library to help, except those too scared to return to their homes in the beleaguered parts of the city. We were worried rioters were headed to nearby City Hall and wondered what that would mean for us. We anxiously awaited word that we could close the library and head for our homes while the way out of the downtown section of the city was still open.  We were continually reassured by city officials that everything was under control, but the police chatter on our security guard’s communication device said otherwise. From Charlie Scott, our security guard, we heard the mob was fast approaching, burning and looting. As the situation got tenser, patrons and staff – of all races and ethnicities – hugged each other in solidarity wondering how this could this happen.  Finally, when City Manager James Hankla declared a state of emergency, we were told we could go home early and advised the only “safe” way out of the city was down Ocean or Broadway.

Library employees were a little slower getting out of downtown than City Hall workers. In the days before cell phones, we made sure patrons and staff who lived in the areas affected by the discord used library phones to call friends or family to ensure they had a place of safety to retreat to. If they didn’t, many staff members offered their homes.

As I headed east to my home in Orange County, I saw panic spreading. Near Bixby Park there was a man on the roof of his business, rifle in hand. Other merchants were busy hammering pieces of plywood over windows.  Later that Thursday evening a city-wide curfew was imposed from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. but it did not keep rioters off the streets. By late Friday, May 1st, 218 fires were logged; 276 people injured, 96 seriously; and 340 people arrested. The Department of Motor Vehicles office on Pacific had burned to the ground. Snipers took pot shots at police near the Carmelitos Housing Project and at Long Beach transit buses. Police blocked Second Street and other affluent shopping spots while a crowd of 250 at King Park looted and burned area stores.  Violence spread as a crowd of 15 to 20 black youths shot and robbed two white motorcyclists trying to come to the aid of a black friend, killing one of the motorcyclists, Matthew Haines.

On Friday, May 1st, schools, courts, businesses, and libraries were closed. Marines and National Guard troops were called in. All scheduled events in the city cancelled. In neighboring Orange County, the Brea mall, Fashion Island in Newport Beach and Westminster mall were closed.

Slowly things settled down, and the curfew was lifted on May 6th, and schools reopened. Most of the disruption was in the southwestern part of the city and along Anaheim Street and Pacific Avenue. When the riots ceased one person was dead, 361 injured, 159 buildings damaged or destroyed, more than 1,175 people arrested, and many small businesses were in ruins.  The cases of looting flooded the courts. Long Beach was awarded $1.37 million in federal HUD relief, though $4.2 million had been asked for. Red tape slowed funding to rebuild the areas damaged during the riots, and for years afterwards I still saw vacant lots along Atlantic Avenue, Long Beach Boulevard, and Pacific Avenue, where businesses once thrived.