Rodney King and Freddie Gray: Remembering the Race Riots
By Maria Morales
April 29 will always be a day that stands out in my life and in our world. I was in Los Angeles when the “not guilty” verdict was announced against the police officers who brutalized Rodney King during a traffic stop, and the city erupted in violence.
I was in Baltimore 23 years later in April 2015 when that city imploded, too, after Freddie Gray was murdered by the police.
Twenty-nine years ago, in April 1992, I hopped on a plane from my hometown, Pittsburgh, with a suitcase and a dream, headed for Los Angeles. I was 22 and a recent college graduate.
I landed on a Saturday night. The next morning, Easter Sunday 1992, I went to what became my home church there in Los Angeles, West Angeles Church of God in Christ. I clearly remember Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., standing in the pulpit and announcing that it was the first citywide “no killing weekend.”
That should have been a clue to me of the depth of the situation in L.A. The city had been existing under years of notoriously high murder rates stemming from gang violence and the drug epidemic. Paralleling that was a historically rocky relationship between Black Angelenos and the Los Angeles Police Department.
So, when Bishop Blake made that announcement, the packed church erupted in cheers. The covenant lasted until later that afternoon, when someone was shot and killed in South L.A.
A week and a half later, on a Wednesday afternoon, I was sitting in a hotel room filling out application packets from a job fair I’d attended the day before. I was watching BET around 3:30 p.m. when they broke in with a news conference outside the courthouse in downtown Los Angeles where Black elected officials and community leaders were denouncing the outcome of the Rodney King trial verdict, which had just been read moments before.
I watched a few minutes of it, shrugged my shoulders and turned off the TV. I was not surprised by the verdict, so I went about my business. I took the packets and walked around the corner to a Mail Boxes store on Wilshire Boulevard across from the vacant Ambassador Hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
When I got back to my room and turned on the TV, I was stunned. I flipped from BET to the local news channels and they were all showing the same thing: hot spots of violence. Not protests. It was so much more than that. The anger was real, and it struck a match in an area already prone to wildfires.
I felt safe, though. I’d gotten all of the AAA maps that my mom sent me to L.A. with, and I was tracking the outbreaks as news crews were finding them. They were miles from me.
My mom and a friend’s mom, who also had an adult child living in La-La Land, were panicking back in Pittsburgh. They decided that the friend’s son should come get me, but he lived in Westwood, where UCLA is, and they’d sent out the National Guard had been sent out to protect the Westside, which is predominantly white. Coming for me was not an option.
The city shut down public transportation at 6 p.m., so I couldn’t get across town. Everything shut down.
The next morning, my mother called again, this time with my aunt on a two-way call. They’d been watching their local news all night, which had broken into continuing coverage from the streets of L.A.
“Use the ticket!” they yelled in unison. “Come home! You can go back out when it’s all over.”
Nope. I had a round-trip ticket but I was not leaving my dream behind.
Now, I was surrounded. The fire lines had jumped from South L.A. north to Hollywood. Rioters had decided it wasn’t enough to burn down their own neighborhood, so they went where they thought people would care.
(For the record, I still call it the L.A. riots, although others want to debate it. I know “civil unrest” is the politically correct term to use, but as a survivor of that event, allow me a point of personal privilege to call it what I want.)
I called SuperShuttle, you know, the blue vans, to get a ride to the airport. “Where are you at?” the operator asked. “Ma’am, we can’t come get you.”
The operator put my name on a list and said that when they felt it was safe, they would come get me. Late that night, the second night of rioting of the first full day of the LA riots, I got a call from the shuttle service, telling me to be ready at 6 a.m.
The van showed up with an illegal amount of people in it. I remember the door sliding open, and I saw a skinny Russian guy with his obese wife sitting on his lap, with their luggage at their feet, as was everyone else’s. I sat up front with the driver, an Israeli émigré I was the last passenger they picked up and the last guest to leave the hotel.
The guy, wearing a yarmulke, sped through the empty streets of L.A., slowing down, then coasting through red lights. I understood why. Just two days earlier, truck driver Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and severely beaten.
“I’m afraid,” the driver said in a thick accent, “but I cannot lose my job. When they said I had to go, I had to go.”
We wound south to get onto Interstate 10. At the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard near the on-ramp was a torched gas station, still smoldering. Less than a mile away was my church, which was designated as a Red Cross safe haven but I couldn’t get there.
I made it to the airport and was able to board the plane.
When the plane lifted off the runway, it had to go off path to avoid the heavy smoke that hovered over the city. We could still see smoldering fires rising in the sky. Some people leaned over their fellow passengers to look out the windows, and I could hear people sobbing. I can still see the looks of shock on some people’s faces and the balled-up tissues.
The guy who I was leaning on worried about the loved ones he was leaving behind to deal with the aftermath while he was headed to New York City for a business meeting. We didn’t know until after we landed that city leaders in Los Angeles had called for healing, and that white residents had gone to Black neighborhoods with brooms and shovels to begin the cleanup and the healing.
I never thought I’d live through anything like that again. It was a once in a lifetime experience, right?
Fast forward to April 2015. I’m now a single mom of a teenage Black boy living in Baltimore, where I’d come to be with family after my mom, who’d relocated to Southern California with me, passed in 2010.
Church has always been home for me and the center of our family. Empowerment Temple AME Church was an activist church. We’d been on the front lines since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, then the Michael Brown killing the summer of 2014 — marching, staging die-ins, and holding peaceful protests.
In 2012, a young member of our church died after being chased down and put in a choke hold by an off-duty Baltimore County police officer. His name was Chris Brown. He was one of my son’s closest friends and his high school football teammate. Brown was a wonderful young man who called me “Ma” and who I shuttled around with my son.
Three years later, another young man was injured while in police custody. He was unconscious, on life support at a hospital in Baltimore. The family asked for prayers and help, and people shared the posts. By the time word spread, Freddie Gray was dead.
Young Black men, whose parents and grandparents had lived through the 1968 riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, some of whom weren’t even born when the L.A. riots happened, said “Naw, man,” and took to the Baltimore streets. A city that still bore those scars ripped off the bandaids and burned fresh wounds.
Working at one of the transit offices in downtown Baltimore where the bus and light rail operations are, I was the fly on the wall when the decision was made to shut down the Mondawmin Mall bus loop, which spurred one of the largest outbreaks of violence Baltimore has ever seen.
I never thought I’d see military tankers rolling down city streets again. But there they were in force, on one of the main streets downtown, and eventually some were stationed at the mall in the following weeks.
A co-worker, who coincidentally was from L.A. and moved to Baltimore after the 1992 Rodney King riots, stood beside me as we pressed our faces up against the tinted office windows to watch troops shoring up the business district. While we were capturing this moment with our cell phones, hers rang. It was her family in L.A., calling to make sure she was alright. The Baltimore uprising was on the world news.
The events of the next couple of years kind of blend together. Our church led protests and supported families around the country, including Freddie Gray’s family, as more Black and brown people became victims of police brutality.
In an anticlimatic event, the cops involved in the death of Freddie Gray went unprosecuted. One by one, their trials were dismantled, dismissed, and swept under the rug.
This year, as in every year since April 1992, my mind goes back to Cali. And in every year since April 2015, I watch the news from both L.A. and Baltimore, as they commemorate the moment.
Facebook also kindly reminds me of where we were when. And I share, to remind others of where we’ve come — where I’ve come — what I can survive, what we can survive, and the work that needs to be done, in me, in us.