Sunday Snapshot: One Small Step

For today’s Sunday Snapshot I bring to you a couple faded prehistoric film negs of an image I composed and snapped exactly 15 years ago. Though the timing of the images is one reason to present them today, what’s more compelling is their location that late afternoon of April 29, 1992, at Kenneth Hahn Memorial Park in Ladera Heights. Little did I know while I was making the pictures what had begun unfolding around me. While Reginald Denny was getting his head bashed in four miles southeast of me at Florence and Normandie and the old Fedco store a mile to the northwest was being set on fire, here I was at a horseshoe pit in the middle of a park in the middle of a burgeoning apocalypse just trying to fulfill the requirements of a Pierce College photo class project until another park visitor clued me in to what had gone down and I got the hell out of the park and just in time (click to biggify):

Why exactly was I so far from home taking a picture I could have easily done in my Sherman Oaks backyard of the time? If you’re interested, that and more of the fateful hate-filled day is all laid out after the jump in the form of a column I wrote for the campus paper way back near the riot’s one-year annniversary.

I spied the elderly black woman out of the corner of my eye as I stood bent over, my camera pointed at a sandy footprint that was to be the hastily arranged subject for “my current beginning photo class assignment whose theme was “Man’s Impact.”

I had initially come to this place to get a dramatic shot of the ever-bobbing oil wells that pock the hills alongside La Cienega Boulevard as it travels through Ladera Heights on down into Inglewood. The machines’ up-and-down motion was the closest I ever got as an L.A. kid to bucking broncos so growing up I’d always refered to them as “oil horses.”

But after motorcycling up and down the boulevard and unsuccessfully trying to find the right angle and the right light, the oil horse idea wasn’t panning out. So instead I went marching around the nearby Kenneth Hahn Memorial Park where I went totally last-resort literal on the theme. Opting to set-up a scene of a flower crushed by a deep footprint in the sandy soil of one of the park’s horseshoe pits I realized, of course, that such a scenario could have just as easily been created in my back yard.

And as the woman began to walk towards me, I realized my back yard was a long way away. I was the only white person in the park, but this didn’t frighten me. I knew the area I had come to. I knew of its population demographics, and I’m not some sheltered bigot who pegs race and skin color as grounds for fear. Instead I was far more concerned with the sun’s position and the settings of my Konica camera than with the curious glances from other park visitors and I went about my business as if I was in my own backyard. Besides, it was a beautiful warm spring day in April and I was enjoying the sunshine.

But it wasn’t much longer before the woman made her way to the horseshoe pit’s backstop and had a seat upon it before politely asking me what I might be doing. I told her about my assignment and my original plan and how this was a back-up to it. She nodded solemnly and I went back to shooting.

“Didn’t you hear the news?” she asked, and I looked up at her shaking my head. “They were acquitted,” she said. I knew immediately what she meant and upon my stunned look she returned to her solemn nodding while I got completely lost in a mental replay of the infamous videotaped beating of Rodney King at the hands and feet and batons and stunguns of the LAPD.

All I could cough out was how wrong I felt such a verdict was, but it didn’t occur to me about the level of any public reaction to any decision. I didn’t even consider any potential danger. In fact, after staring at her for a few more moments I just went back to taking pictures until the woman cleared her throat and stood up.

“I’m black, and I’m getting out of here,” she announced, looking around the still peaceful park. “I’ve lived her 14 years and I’m frightened.”

She saw the realization finally dawn on me and tried to smile, but it was all sadness and fear. Suddenly race mattered in the wrong way, and with nothing more than a “take care” to her I was walking quickly back across the park to where I’d parked my Kawasaki, and I arrived to it at the same moment a pick-up truck with two young black men in the cab and four more in the bed cruised slowly past me and stopped, all angry eyes on me. Very fortunately for me at the far end of the lot there was a black-and-white with “Safety Police” stenciled on the door above the city’s seal. An officer was in the driver’s seat, his back to us. Frozen in indecision while looking at the cop and back at me I had time to throw on my helmet, ignite the bike’s engine and gun it out of there without looking back.

If they gave chase I shook them at the gridlock amid the increasing panic and chaos alongside a fully engulfed Fedco at the bottom of the hill and split the vehicle-choked traffic lanes in hopes of outrunning what very much seemed like the end of the world.

Man’s impact, indeed.

5 thoughts on “Sunday Snapshot: One Small Step”

  1. I remember the day well too. I had taken a long lunch as part of a going away party for a co-worker who was moving away. The location of my cubie was in an office building just to the east of the end of the Van Nuys airport runway. By mid-afternoon there were lots of ‘copters coming in and we learned that the National Gaurd was being brought in. We were sent home early and given routes to take home as there were reportedly snipers at some free interchanges in the Valley (none of that panned out). I stopped and grabbed my daughter and got home. My wife stayed at her office in Pan City until the usual closing time. Her boss escorted her home as there were large groups of people gathering around their office near the now defunct mall.
    I still remember watching the red glow from the otherside of the hill that night from our apartment at Laurel and Chandler in Valley Village.
    My work closed the next day for our safety. My wifes office didn’t but when they arrived and found it had been ransacked by looters that night the decision then was made to close. The stationing of a tank and armored trucks with Gaurdsman at nearby Laurel Plaza cinced it for us…we packed up and spent the weekend in Las Vegas with my folks.
    Looking back now I still don’t know what it accomplished other than illustrate how easily you can create an angry mob.

  2. I don’t know that “what it accomplished” is a meaningful measurement of anything to do with the King riots. I think what it did was to show was the level of frustration and despair in a community that most Angelenos had previously kept out of their minds.

  3. Well, this brings back 15 year old memories… I was working on a jobsite near the Slauson / Western intersection, just a young (white)architect documenting a crumbling old commercial center in advance of some sort of remodel. Little did I know that it would soon burn anyhow. Unlike Will, nobody warned me about what was going down… I was lucky to have finished up around 3:00 or so, and I just got this creepy feeling that something real bad was in the air. It had been building all week, and everyone was talking about what the verdicts might be, and how it would be real bad if the cops got off. I saw the first bizarrities around the intersection of Slauson and Central, as I was turning north on Vermont to head back home to my place in Boyle Heights. By the time I got up to Washington I knew it was getting real bad, seeing smoke to the west, south and north, listening to KNX and KFWB let me know to not take my usual route through Downtown – so I went over Washington to Soto and got home with no real trouble. The eyes of (mostly white) drivers desperately trying to get up on the 10 or 5 freeways at gridlocked onramps was scary to see – it reminded me of war footage of people fleeing Sarajevo, which had been attacked just a few weeks before. I didn’t see anything bad happen close to me, but by the time I got home it was well after 6:00 and I knew it was going to be a real nasty scene in the city.

    What really brougt it home though, was that while my (ex) wife and I were watching things unfold on TV, and our Boyle Heights neighborhood was heating up and getting restless, our close friends Mike and Cynthia (he’s white, she’s black) drove up and pounded the hell out of our door. They lived in South Gate and came up to our place because “your (my) wife is Latina and this looks like a black / white thing, so we should be safe in your ‘hood”. Well, by nigtfall there was smoke rising along parts of Whittier Blvd. in ELA and so forth, they stayed with us three days, freaked out. My neighbors set up barricades on the streets – manning them with the typical ELA/BH arsenals – and I do mean lots of guns – so we never had any real trouble. Later Cynthia told me that they left South Gate because they seriously feared for their lives as they were an interracial couple, and that to me was the saddest thing that I experienced in the whole terrible event.

  4. Ooops – geography fart. Not Slauson and Central, should have read Slauson and Normandie. Normally I’d take Central home from that site but with things getting strange I (foolishly) thought Vermont would be a better route.

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