StoryCorps
1:06 am
Fri April 13, 2012

Colleagues Recall L.A. Riots Unfolding Like 'A Movie'

Originally published on Fri April 13, 2012 5:22 am

It's been 20 years since the Los Angeles riots shook that city — and the nation. On April 29, 1992, several white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop.

News of the acquittals sparked unrest across the city. The fires, looting and violence lasted for several days and devastated neighborhoods — many in the city's African-American communities.

Three colleagues at radio station KJLH on Crenshaw Boulevard, just seven miles southwest of the city center, watched from their office window as the riots erupted on the street.

"We were prepared for people to be unhappy," says Karen Slade, now general manager of KJLH. "But we couldn't believe our eyes. People were beyond angry. They were crazy. It's like they lost their mind," she recalls.

The all-music station quickly changed formats as listeners began calling in to describe what they were witnessing across the city.

"The phone started lighting up, and my jocks shut down the music," Slade says. "They stayed on the mic — they took the calls. And probably for the next three days, we just became all talk."

Eric "Rico" Reed was one of those jocks. Looking out the studio's picture window, he says, "was just like looking at a movie screen." Rico gave an on-air play-by-play as he watched people smash the window of a repair shop and run off with a broken TV.

"I can't believe this guy," Reed told the audience. "It's a TV repair shop. The TVs don't even work, man. They just stealing them to be stealing them. It makes no sense."

Arthur Williams was a driver for KJLH at the time. He recalls watching as a group began beating a Hispanic man in the street.

"And a black priest went out in the middle of the street and held his Bible up and draped himself over the guy," Williams says. The group dispersed.

"You know, what he did was unbelievable," Williams says. "He's a hero."

The riots were devastating, Slade says. But, she notes, they didn't destroy the fabric of the community. She remembers a woman who brought the neighbors together as the violence subsided.

"One lady came out, and she had some of the neighborhood kids. And she got them brooms and everybody was sweeping," Slade recalls. "They were cleaning up Crenshaw — I had never seen it before!"

Even so, it took "almost forever" to get new stores back in a "community that [was] burnt to the ground," Reed says.

"Our community wasn't perfect, but it was gorgeous," Reed says. "Some areas haven't come back — and probably never will."

KJLH won a Peabody award for its coverage of the riots.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time again for StoryCorps. Today, remembering the Los Angeles riots. Twenty years ago, L.A. police officers were charged, then acquitted, of assaulting Rodney King. The news sparked riots in the city, and we'll hear next from three people who lived through them in the neighborhood of South Central. They were working at KJLH, an all-music station located on Crenshaw Boulevard, right in the heart of the riots.

KAREN SLADE: I'm Karen Slade. I'm the general manager of KJLH Radio. We were prepared for people to be unhappy. But we couldn't believe our eyes. People were beyond angry. They were crazy. It's like they lost their mind.

The phones started lighting up, and my jocks shut down the music. They stayed on the mic - they took the calls. And probably for the next three days, we just became all talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

ERIC RICO REED: What is your name and where are you calling from?

ALLEN: OK. Hey, my name is Allen. I'm calling from Compton, 'cause they've been having fires out here. They say the guy got...

REED: What is your situation in that neighborhood right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A lot of smoke, a lot of sirens, a lot of gunshots and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Brothers, please, please stay indoors. Please, please take care of yourself.

REED: My name is Eric Rico Reed. Where we sat, our studio, we had a picture window, and it was just like looking at a movie screen, and we're looking right across the street at the TV repair shop, and we're watching people take something, throw it through the window, grab a broken TV.

I can't believe this guy. It's a TV repair shop. The TVs don't even work.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

REED: They don't even work, man, they're just stealing them to be stealing them. It makes no sense.

It was crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)

REED: There's a fire truck missing right now. A fire truck, a fire truck has been stolen.

ARTHUR WILLIAMS: My name is Arthur Williams. We saw an Hispanic guy. He was being beat severely, and a black priest went out in the middle of the street and held his Bible up and draped himself over the guy that everybody was beating. And they dispersed. You know, what he did was unbelievable. So I said he's a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

REED: It took almost forever to get stores back in the community that were burnt to the ground.

SLADE: It's very disheartening, but the knuckleheads were few. They were devastating and they had a horrible impact. But they didn't destroy the community. One lady came out and she had some of the neighborhood kids and she got them brooms and everybody was sweeping. They were cleaning up Crenshaw. I had never seen it before.

REED: There were just so many things that were in our community. Our community wasn't perfect, but it was gorgeous. And some areas haven't come back and probably never will.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: We heard Eric Rico Reed, Karen Slade, and Arthur Williams remembering the L.A. riots at StoryCorps. Their interviews will be archived with all the others at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. Get the project's podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.