Three black journalists talk about the L.A. Riots, 25 years later
For a lot of people born after the 1990s, the movie “Straight Outta Compton” may well be their first real exposure to the beating of Rodney King, or the L.A. riots. In the two decades since these events, a lot has happened in L.A. But how much has actually changed?
The following is a conversation between three black journalists at the Los Angeles Times: Kirk McKoy, a photographer who covered the events in Los Angeles after the not guilty verdict in 1992 that set off rioting, and two young writers who are still new to the Los Angeles Times staff: Tre’vell Anderson and me, Dexter Thomas.
We talked about the TV show “black-ish,” the story behind some of the iconic photos McKoy took in 1992, what it’s like to be a parent (or a child) right after a racially polarizing beating of King, and how the conversations about these things have changed in the age of social media.
DEXTER: Kirk, a lot of these photos from the immediate aftermath of the Rodney King trial I’ve actually never seen before. Can you tell me about this picture?
KIRK: That was the back half of a convenience store that had been burned out. Another photographer and I were driving around and listening to the police scanners, and I just caught those words out of the corner of my eye. I had to take a picture of it. The slogan, “Look what you created,” meant a lot to me.
DEXTER: What did it mean?
KIRK: For me, it meant, “I have reached my limit. This is what you’ve done. this is what you created. You did this. I didn’t.”
DEXTER: Who do you think the “you” is there?
KIRK: The police, the city, the establishment. And who’s saying it: everybody who’s ever put down by anything.
DEXTER: What were the conversations that you were having at that time? Tre’vell was born a few months after the beating, I was in the first grade. How old were you at that point?
UPRISING, OR RIOT?
KIRK: I was 35. But before we get into those conversations, would you guys call that a riot, or would you call it an uprising?
TRE’VELL: I would say an uprising.
DEXTER: I think I would probably say the same thing. Well, I think it depends on who you were talking to, and who you’re talking about.
KIRK: For me, as a person who was there on the street corner, it turned into a full-blown riot. The mob mentality, it has no mind. Whatever someone says, everybody does. These photos right here, this guy got off the bus, and someone just yelled “get him!” and the whole crowd just jumps on the guy and beats the guy senseless. He was bleeding all over. Why? Nobody knew him. The guy was Latino. He wasn’t white. He lived in the neighborhood. Thankfully someone came and helped him.
At this point, in this picture, it’s a riot. At earlier points, where you saw the slogans, and even throwing rocks, breaking windows, that was an uprising. That’s a group of people saying “enough is enough”. This photo is plain outright riot. …It’s difficult to describe. I go back and forth, but that’s the best way I can describe it. It started off as an uprising but ended as a riot.
DEXTER: What was it like for you, both as a photographer and just as a black man in Los Angeles? What kind of conversations were you having in your family?
KIRK: It really wasn’t safe, not just because of the riots, but because the police were pulling black people over everywhere. I got pulled over, just trying to go home one night. At that point we lived right on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. And pulling into Beverly Hills as a black man, when the city is burning, you can imagine. So the officer who pulled me over asks where I’m going. He says I’m past curfew. And I’m trying to tell this police officer, “as a member of the press, I’m allowed to be out here if you are out here. So, you have no right to stop me right now. I understand you want to know where I’m going, but you have no right to detain me because I’m doing my job.”
So we’re going back and forth and he’s giving me lip, and I’m giving him lip right back, and at some point in time I realize I’m alone with this guy. “Accidents” do happen. So I just said “yes sir, I’m on my way home.” And then he let me go. So as my brother said, “the man was just messing with you until you turned into an Uncle Tom.” That’s his take on it.
DEXTER: It’s interesting that you say that, because there was an episode of “black-ish” where the grandmother tells the kids that there are only seven words they should use with the police: “Yes sir,” “no sir,” and “thank you, sir.” But one of the points where the characters argue is how early we should be talking about the realities of racism to our children. When did you give your son “the talk?”
KIRK: My son and I had a miniature talk in 3rd grade. I probably should have done it sooner. We’re in Santa Clarita, which is pretty much an all white neighborhood. He had some little minor incident, where he got left out, because he was a little black kid, and I had to explain it to him. But we had a big talk in 11th grade. I wanted to make sure he was ready for the world before he went out to college by himself.
TRE’VELL: I think the first hint at a conversation that I had was in elementary at some point. But the real direct conversation came in high school when I started driving. My mother sat me down and taught me how to engage with police. I used to talk back to teachers a lot. So when I started driving, she let me know: when they pull you over, make sure your hands are visible, let them know what you’re doing as you’re doing it. But then a lot of what I learned on how to engage with police was just from observing my mom and her conversations … seeing her have conversations about the stuff she was going through at work in the military taught me how to deal with stuff.
KIRK: My son just wanted to be a student, an American student. Not a “black student.” Like any of us. Like any of us, we want to be what we are, and not have a label thrown on us. That’s the way I brought him up. You are not a color, you are a person.
DEXTER: But you still told him about the reality of being a black man in America.
KIRK: Right, I still told him that some things you’re just going to have to watch out for. The interesting thing about Tre’vell and I is we’re both from South Carolina. We have that background where there are some things unspoken, that are understood, that you just don’t mess with. My brother found a guy tied to a tree, in 1964 or ’65. He had been used as target practice, for shooting. This was the back of our property. So, I have an understanding of where I came from, and who I am.
Things are different now, but they’re not that different. Racism still exists around us. It’s not as visible as it used to be, but it’s still there and it’s always in the back of your head.
DEXTER: There’s another scene in that episode of “black-ish,” where the characters don’t quite say it, but that when Obama got out of the car at the inauguration in 2008, that they were afraid someone would assassinate him.
KIRK: I was there. I was there when Obama got out of the car and he walked around. And there was a running joke among some of the photographers, saying, “You think anyone’s going to take a pot shot at him?” Maybe that was a joke for them. But it’s always in the back of your head.
WHOSE HISTORY ARE WE READING?
DEXTER: I’m interested in this photo right here. I think most of the photos we’ve seen are of black and brown people. What’s going on in this one?
KIRK: This is a white woman being detained. Actually, she called me, complaining about the photograph, saying that she wasn’t arrested during the riots. But she was. I took that one from an overpass… I never got to talk to the police to find out what she was being detained for. But she was vehemently saying that they let her go, that it was a misunderstanding. But the picture shows her being arrested. It’s part of the story.
DEXTER: The thing with Rodney King, the trial, and everything after that is … I grew up in Southern California. This is a current event, or local history for us. But we never talked about it at school.
KIRK: You know what they say. Ignorance is bliss.
TRE’VELL: I think the only time it popped up in our books, it was just the riots. Nothing really about Rodney King. And it was a quick little paragraph, it wasn’t an in-depth explanation of why the riots were happening, or the cultural sentiments around race at that time, and what it meant. Just a little blip, and let’s keep on moving. As is the case with a lot of black things in history books.
DEXTER: Do you think that’s going to happen again in history books? What do you think the history books are going to be like when we talk about Ferguson?
TRE’VELL: There’s a way to connect it to so many things. Ferguson is so connected to social media and Black Twitter. It may not necessarily show up in the history books when they’re talking about civil rights movements, it might show up when you’re talking about technology and social media. But … I don’t know if the people who are writing the history books have changed. The thought process that goes into what is history, what is important to know, that is still very much a white-centric, white-leaning thing. There are so many things about black history and civil rights movements of all kinds that you don’t find in history books. Until maybe college; you might be introduced to it in college. I was introduced to it because I went to an HBCU [a historically black college or university], and they make sure you learn about this stuff. But everyone doesn’t necessarily get that when you go to college.
WHEN DO YOU TALK TO YOUR KIDS?
DEXTER: Yeah, it’s an elective. If you don’t take that course, you have no idea. So, in the “black-ish” episode, one of the parents tells the kids to sit down and watch the news about the police shooting. And the other parent tells the kids to go into the other room. Kirk, do you think it was easier — if you were so inclined — easier to hide things from your kids in the past?
KIRK: Of course. It was a lot easier to hide it in the past. Now, with social media, my kids are on their phones 24/7. My daughter falls asleep with the phone in her hand. So, they talk about stuff that I have no idea about. Violence, drugs, who got pregnant, they know all about that.
DEXTER: Even if you don’t let your kid have a phone, somebody at school is going to show them a video of a police shooting or something.
KIRK: Right, they’ll look it up on YouTube or something, and it’s right there. I’d rather get in front of it, and explain to my kids, “This is what happened,” as opposed to someone else that I do not know educating my child the wrong way.
TRE’VELL: When Ferguson was happening, my younger sister was 12, but my mother didn’t want to bring it up. My sister was on Instagram and Facebook, and I know she’s seeing some of the same things I’m seeing. So I need to make sure my sister is getting a well-rounded view of what’s going on. Not necessarily the extremist point of view, but not the oblivious point of view either. She needed to know. My family has always been like, there’s “kids’ business” and there’s “grown folks’ business.” Like, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” But you can’t do that anymore because social media is providing access to a lot of this information. So I had to tell my mother, either you’re going to have the conversation with her, or I’m going to have it.
DEXTER: But then on the flip side, just to bring it back to school, I’m still a little shocked that we never talked about Rodney King, or about the riots, in class. I was more likely to hear about it from Ice Cube than I was from my middle school teacher. And looking back, maybe some of my teachers wanted to talk about it, but didn’t know how.
KIRK: The question is, how diverse was your classroom?
DEXTER: Very diverse. It’s public school in San Bernardino, so really diverse. We had everyone. The teachers were mostly white though.
KIRK: Well, there it is. Sometimes the teachers don’t know how to bring it up in front of a mixed crowd. They don’t want to be thought of as racist. Sometimes, you have to give your personal opinion, but when you do that, you set yourself up for a fall. So especially if you’re white, and you’re talking to a bunch of black students, a bunch of Asians, and Latinos … .
DEXTER: Which is pretty much what my classroom looked like.
KIRK: Right, and so suddenly the teacher is the minority in the room, and they feel uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or how to say it.
DEXTER: Right, so then I think the teacher might just default on not saying anything, because it’s safer. So, in the early ’90s, if a teacher wanted to talk about it, and it’s not in the textbook, maybe they didn’t feel comfortable making up lessons on their own. But now, in 2016, you can Google “Ferguson classroom materials,” and you can find it.
KIRK: If you try to wing it on your own, you risk doing it wrong. But you’ve got social media now, and you can get that information. But you also have to have a teacher that’s willing to stand up there and do it.
TRE’VELL: There’s a lot of teachers that aren’t willing to do it.
KIRK: And even if it does, every time anything happens with a black person, everyone turns around and looks at the black kid to explain it. But you can’t do that. I’m black, but I have my own opinions, everyone has their own way of looking at the world, we were all brought up differently. Not every black person thinks the same way.