I wish I had written this ten days ago. Yes, ten days ago when I only felt weary from being locked down in my home, surrounded by my family at all times for weeks on end. I love them. And I’m a writer. Writer’s need alone time. Quiet. No distractions. Freedom to live in my head for long periods of time that often bleed beyond the dinner bell. It’s been three months since I’ve had more than 30 minutes of solitude. Ten days ago, I was feeling hopeful about breaking free from the inside of my home. I want to go to the gym! I miss my local buffet restaurant (not Hometown Buffet – this one is classy … uh, that doesn’t sound right). I want to take another shot at planning a cool getaway for our now long past 25th wedding anniversary.
But no. It is not to be.
It’s 1992 all over again. I was there, working in Santa Monica on a temporary assignment, living in a corporate apartment only 4 miles from rioting ground zero. We were all in the office when we got the news. It was April 29th..
I grew up in the 60’s, a fascinating time for a kid in California. In 1968, my parents packed up a couple of bags and sent me and my sister to Lake Tahoe where my grandfather lived in a trailer on an empty lot down the street from the place where he tended bar. We ended up staying with a 1930’s lady named Mae who lived in the trailer next to Grandpa’s. There were riots in the Watts area of Los Angeles and my parents felt it best for us to be away from the trouble. I didn’t understand what was going on. I was just happy to be taking a trip to escape the tension.
We had been there a few days, spending most of the time swimming in the pool of the hotel located behind the back fence. Mae, who turned out to be a little crazy, looked mesmerizing in her 1930’s dress, her hair perfectly pinned into one of those rolled hairdos, ruby red lips, and thick layers of foundation heavily tinted with too much rouge. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her, especially her shoes. Nice at first, I noticed she seemed a little uptight (uptight – 60’s slang). It didn’t bother me; it felt like home.
After three days in the sun, my back was badly burned. That evening as my skin turned an ever-deeper shade of red, crazy Mae got the moisturizing lotion out and began applying it to my back, pressing down too hard while dragging her nails across my skin. I cried out in pain, but she only scolded me for being such a baby. That was it. I wanted to go home.
When I asked to call my mom, it was as if I’d released a torrent.
“Well, you little brat! So, you want to go home now, do you? Well, that’s just fine, but those people in Los Angeles … those rioters … they’re coming to our town. They’ll burn your house down! They’re coming! Yes, you go home, little brat. We’ll see how you like that.”
My mom came and picked us up the next day. I never told her what happened with Mae, but she knew I was upset. When we pulled into the driveway of our rental duplex, everything appeared to be as we’d left it. Watts had calmed down by then, but I’ll never forgot the experience. It was my first taste of big world reality; that is, the delicate balance of a civilized society is more precarious than I’d thought.
In 1992, I’had just returned to California after serving an international tour of duty based out of New York and then Florida. Almost as soon as I had arrived home, the firm shipped me off to Santa Monica to work on a software testing project. When I arrived, I joined a team with two other poor schleps who’d come in from the east coast to work on the same project. Nice guys … we got along well.
The daily commute from the corporate apartment (located at the end of a Los Angeles Airport landing strip) to the office in Santa Monica was smelly and slow, but I sometimes made it to work on time. We were having a brief team meeting that afternoon. And that’s when we got the news.
It was April 29th. The verdict on the Rodney King trial had just come out: the four police officers charged with excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King had been acquitted. Within 30 minutes we were told that a group of several hundred people had appeared at the court house to protest the verdicts.
Things moved quickly. The rioting and looting began within hours, eventually spreading throughout the LA metro area over the next five days. On that Friday, May 1st, Bush invoked the Insurrection Act, federalizing the Army National Guard and authorizing federal troops and federal law enforcement officers to restore law and order. The next morning, the National Guard and the US Military (the 7th Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division) arrived on the scene, moving through the city in Humvees. Eventually, 10,000 National Guard troops were activated.
On the second day, before Bush had invoked the act, my two schlepp-ee friends and I stopped at a Thai restaurant for dinner. You could feel the atmosphere change, my ears picking up angry tones clearly directed toward us. I looked over to see a large group two booths down, and I knew they saw an opportunity. I don’t remember feeling afraid. It wasn’t as if I’d never been exposed to the choicer words of the street. Growing up in the south area of my city, I was bussed to a nearly all black middle school in 1971. The next three had made me tough and street-smart … or maybe just delusional. Anyway, we got up and left the restaurant, no longer hungry. I think we realized that our normal after-work dinners might need to wait for calmer days.
The next morning, I got up and got ready for work like any a normal day, pulled out into traffic in my rented Chevy convertible and started making my way toward Santa Monica. The first few intersections, were I to take a right turn, would have taken me directly into South Central. But that morning, I wouldn’t have gotten very far. A line of Humvees filled with guardsmen and military soldiers extended as far as I could see down the boulevards.
Then I was scared. I turned around and went back to the apartment to call the office.
I stayed for a few more weeks. I don’t remember why, but I drove through the riot torn areas before I left. I’ll never forget what a burned down city looks like from the ground level. A lot of people were killed during those six days. Many more were injured. And tens of thousands were arrested.
It was a week ago this past Monday when I learned of a man named George Floyd, watched the video, heard the protests of the by standers, and felt a familiar wave of dread. It is nine days later, and where we now stand is heartbreaking. The rioting, looting, and physical violence is bigger, angrier, and seemingly more organized than anything before. I hate that this is overshadowing the voices of the peaceful protestors, people I think are pointing to a problem we need to pay attention to.
Something is seriously broken. A lot of things are broken. And I think it’s much more complex than what we can sort out simply by watching the nightly news.
God is able,
God is in control,
God’s hands will still the Temper’s sweep.
Every one of us is an infinite reservoir of beauty and creative possibilities, and when I look at someone, I search for their soul’s voice peeking out from behind whatever façade they may be wearing that day. To strive to see another is to seek to love them. Regardless of the anger, the sense of injustice, the violence … we need to try. We need to see each other.
I’ll be praying. And writing.