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.