For the past couple of days, I’ve been obsessively watching the riots in England on the BBC live feed.
The only reason I can figure that I’m so obsessed with watching this is that when citywide, out-of-control rioting happened here, I was right in the middle of it and scared absolutely shitless for about a week.
What you can’t get on television is the smell of a city burning around you. It’s not a nice comforting campfire at night smell, it’s the acrid stench of building insulation, plastic goods and other assorted stuff that one really shouldn’t smell burning in a civilized society.
Looking out over the city, there was a thin band of daylight near the horizon, and the rest of the sky was pitch black with smoke. The Emergency Broadcast System had taken over the airwaves and the automated voice was begging people to stay at home and stay calm, but calm was difficult as there seemed to be far more rioters than police.
Several people who lived downtown had come over to my place because it seemed safer and offered better access to the roads leading out-of-town, but at some point, we realized that two converging mobs had sealed us in and escape from the city was impossible.
So we sat in the living room, drinking cheap beer and watching the televised images of the city burning as the city burned around us.
One would think that I’d have been out with my camera getting the shots of my life (or at least a better TV), but there was something so dark and terrifying about an out-of-control mob that I didn’t dare leave the house after the first foray where I camera’d up, got a few shots and then narrowly escaped getting the crap beaten out of me (no, I don’t have the photos anymore. I was shooting for one of LA’s throwaway newspapers and turned my half roll of film in to the photo editor. Not only were they never published, but I never got the film back).
There’s been a lot of discussion on the web about guns – if they allowed them in the UK, then this wouldn’t happen, blah, blah, blah…
From an eyewitness perspective, I can assure you that even a heavily armed police force and a heavily armed citizenry did nothing to stop or even slow down the looting and burning.
Most of the TV coverage was shot from the safety of aircraft, except for this bit of journalism gold from LA news icon Bill Kurtis:
The only thing that really got the rioting under control was the military.
The National Guard and the Marines rolled down the streets and all of a sudden the darkness began to ebb.
So much so that we decided to break curfew and go have pizza at a place on Fairfax that, back then, was good enough to risk getting arrested for being out of the house after dark.
The restaurant was packed – mostly with people just as relieved as us to be finally getting out of the house, but there were also quite a few police officers taking a dinner break in full riot gear.
They were reasonably relaxed and chatting with us criminal curfew-breakers who crowded around them to sincerely thank them for at least trying to keep us safe and offering to buy them dinner.
As the riots tapered down and it became safe to go out again, there was a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking and blaming and mea culpa-ing but it was a long, long time before life began to feel normal and the city hasn’t ever really been the same afterwards (although between the riots and Rampart we did get the ‘kinder gentler’ LAPD, which was a nice change from the ‘beat ’em all and ask questions down at the station’ LAPD).
I could do my own comparing, contrasting, and pontificating, but this is getting kind of long, so I’ll just leave with this:
I hope the rioting in the UK dies down quickly and everyone over there is okay. Until then, I’ll be watching on the interwebz re-living my own past.
Filed under: life in LA, Non-Work, Off-Topic, 1990s, better tv, campfire at night, cheap beer, emergency broadcast system, Fires, london, Los Angeles, police, riots, thin band