L.A. Riots: From the Inside

Story and photos by Bart Bartholomew
Staff Photographer

(Editor’s note: This is a first-person account by the only professional journalist to document the flashpoint of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which featured some of the worst rioting, looting and arson in the history of the United States. At the time, Bart Bartholomew was a freelance photographer in L.A., working for Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, USA Today and The New York Times. He now lives in Pacific Palisades.)

On April 29, 1992, I was on assignment for The New York Times. I parked my car in a grocery store lot in South Central L.A. and jumped into an LAPD squad car, joined by two LAPD officers in the front and an F.B.I. agent beside me. The drug market in L.A. was embroiled in a turf war, and police suspected that a gang from El Salvador was making inroads.

We cruised alley after alley searching for “MS13” graffiti until the car radio blared: “Judge Stanley Weisberg will hand down the Rodney King beating verdicts in two hours.”

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I called The New York Times photo desk in New York and was told to go to the courthouse in Simi Valley. I argued. If it was a guilty verdict against the LAPD officers who had beaten Rodney King, the photo would be reaction in the courtroom. That would be a “pool photo” (one photographer shoots it, but must share the photo with everyone), and I didn’t need to be there. But, if the LAPD officers were pronounced “not guilty,” the reaction would be on the streets of South Central. I was IN South Central. The rest of the press corps was in Simi Valley. My gut said, “stay put.” New York agreed.

Entering the 77th Division headquarters (between La Brea and the 110 Freeway, north of Century), I went straight to the sergeant and said I was from The New York Times and asked, “May I speak to your lieutenant?”

The sergeant grinned at me and said, “I’ll let the lieutenant know you are here, but there aren’t going to be any ‘ride alongs’ today.”

The lieutenant was equally succinct. “I’m going to be responsible for a lot today. I don’t want to be responsible for you.”

I wandered into the narrow hall, and officers were crowding into a room for roll call. I heard one officer speak softly, “Do you think they’ll hold over ‘day watch’?” It was clear there were twice as many officers as normal. I walked in and grabbed an officer’s hand. “Hi, I’m Bart and I’m with The New York Times.” I moved steadily around the room counterclockwise grabbing every single hand. I made eye contact with each officer and said, “I may see you later today.” When the lieutenant entered, I was gently pushed out the door.

Now what? I went to my car parked in front of the station, and reached in the trunk to grab my camera bag. I remembered I had a bulletproof vest in the wheel well, a leftover from the ’84 Olympics, and donned it.

I heard the voice of an officer from the rooftop. “That vest is a good idea today,” he said. I was looking into the sun and could see only a silhouette of a man with a rifle and scope.

I shouted, “Where do you think it will start?” Without hesitation he said, “It’ll be a liquor store.”

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In the car, I tuned to an all-news radio station, waited, and then fell in behind a squad car leaving the lot. It was surprisingly quiet. Every front yard was uncharacteristically empty. Traffic seemed to lighten. I wasn’t having any luck.

I stayed with traffic going north on Hoover, then came back south on Vermont. I turned east on Florence and saw five squad cars headed west, Code Three, sirens and lights flashing.

I made a quick U-turn and followed the last police vehicle, driving about 55 mph. There was little traffic. I saw two squad cars turn right on Normandie, while the others screeched to a halt on Florence. They descended on a corner grocery with a yellow sign and black letters: “Tom’s Liquor.”

I quickly turned right, a block before Tom’s, looking for a safe place to leave my car. On foot, I followed officers from the two lead cars.

The liquor store was overrun with young men filling their arms with as much liquor as they could carry. Cars screeched away with trunks full of beer.

Two of the lead officers singled out a suspect for arrest, and immediately the crowd tried to wrestle him free. Officers tried to establish space between the suspect and the crowd.

Bottles and rocks started flying toward the officers. One broomstick streaked past us as the officers tried to establish a skirmish line between the crowd and the suspect.

The noise was deafening. The crowd was screaming, sirens were blaring, police speakers were shouting orders.

I heard a voice in the crowd, “Cops gonna die tonight.” And just over my shoulder, a hushed voice, “It’s Uzi time.” I rewound my first roll of film, shoved it in my pants pocket, and without reloading the first camera, picked up my second camera.

The police wrestled the first subject into the back seat of a squad car. The crowd was growing rapidly and the police were heavily outnumbered.

Above: Outnumbered police officers received the controversial order to break ranks and quickly retreat to squad cars as Florence and Normandie was evacuated. Right: An empowered crowd taunted retreating police officers before turning and beating the only professional journalist to record the flashpoint of the rioting, looting, arson and killing that followed on the streets of Los Angeles.

Above: Outnumbered police officers received the controversial order to break ranks and quickly retreat to squad cars as Florence and Normandie was evacuated. Right: An empowered crowd taunted retreating police officers before turning and beating the only professional journalist to record the flashpoint of the rioting, looting, arson and killing that followed on the streets of Los Angeles.

A helmeted officer slowly walked the skirmish line from left to right and patted each officer on the shoulder and said, “We’re outta here.”

Over the loud speakers and every officer’s radio came the order, “I want everybody out of Florence and Normandie. Everybody out.”

To avoid a gunfight, LAPD retreated to their cars. This move seemed to empower the crowd. They had won their first battle and now they owned the streets. I started to make my escape.

Bam! I took a strong uppercut from a 2”x4” to my left jaw. I stumbled, but stayed on my feet and continued walking towards my car. Four guys surrounded me and started punching my stomach and kidneys.

I told myself, “Don’t run (scared rabbit) and don’t get on the ground (kicks to the head).” My bulletproof vest deflected the blows, and I felt little compared to the beating they were giving me.

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“Get his film. Get his film.”

I opened the back of the second Nikon and pulled the film from the cassette. I was sacrificing only three frames. One thug grabbed the film and started waving it over his head. The crowd cheered.

“Give them victories,” I thought. I gave away a camera and the crowd cheered.

Over my right shoulder, I felt the presence of an athlete trying to shield me.

“We need to get you to your car and you need to get out of here,” he said.

I never saw my savior in this sea of madness.

The young man got me to the car, but I saw two guys standing on the trunk, another guy was jumping on the roof and two more were jumping on the hood, attempting to kick in the windshield.

I fumbled with the keys trying to open the door and fell into the driver’s seat. I shoved the keys into the ignition and heard the engine roar. Somebody pushed the door shut as I stepped on the gas and pulled the wheel to the left. Instantly the side window shat- tered as a rock flew into the left side of my head. I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw blood flowing from my left temple. I thought, “I need to find help.”

I turned onto Florence to see the last squad car leaving the scene. Ever so gently, I rear-ended the police car. Two startled of- ficers turned as I leaned forward to the windshield. I pointed to my face and yelled, “Remember me? New York Times?”

“Follow us!” We sped east on Florence, and about a dozen blocks later pulled to the curb. The driver of the squad car approached. He was a big, barrel-chested man with a white bushy moustache. He was a lieutenant and “Moulin” was on his name tag.

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He opened the door, and then screamed at two other officers, “Throw him in the back of my car and take his car to 77th.” I was pushed into the back seat of the squad car. Moulin told me, “Keep your head down.”

“I’m from The New York Times,” I said.

“I know who you are,” Moulin said. “I’m just glad you got out of there.” Moulin spoke into his microphone: “I need an ambulance and I don’t care how many calls you have on your list, I am your new number one. It will be for a New York Times photographer.” I reached into my pocket to feel around for that one roll of film. I pulled it out and said, “Moulin, if I lose consciousness will you get this to The New York Times?”

He put the film in his breast pocket. “I will,” he said. Somehow, it was the calm tone in his voice, that let me know my film was on its way to New York.

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Two officers helped me out of the squad car, shoved my car keys in my pocket and escorted me to the 77th lobby. A paramedic was waiting and said,“You don’t look so good.”His exam was quick but thorough. “I’d say you have a broken jaw, blunt force to liver and kidneys, and an ugly face for a few days. I’d like to take you to Martin Luther King Hospital.”

I looked at him and said, “You are dismissed.” He seemed surprised, but I explained, “Look, a white guy with a broken jaw at MLK? The riots have just started. MLK will be full of gunshot wounds, knife wounds and burn victims. I’ll take my chances getting home.”

“OK,” he said, and had me sign a release.

A van arrived, full of officers eager to take back the lost ground. As they mingled with the rest of the squad, I stood up and calmly walked out the door to my car. Broken glass covered the driver’s seat but it was easily brushed aside. I started the engine and left the lot, quickly reaching the elevated 110 Freeway. The noise of wind rushing through the broken glass was pierced by gunshots from the neighborhoods below. My safest position was in a center lane.

When I reached West L.A. via the 10 Freeway, the contrast was surreal. Everything was completely normal. As I neared my home (on Barry Street) neighbors were at the corner market, kids were riding bikes, and there was my wife, watering flowers. Not a soul knew the riots had begun.

“Don’t let Alley (our four-year-old daughter)see me,” I told my wife, Zena. A neighbor picked Alley up and took her to her bed- room, while Zena drove me to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.

I remember babbling non-stop about the insanity of the whole day as our car sped down Olympic Boulevard. I walked into the emergency room and every doctor and nurse was watching the television showing the live helicopter feeds of looting, arson and rioting in the streets of South Central.

One doctor turned to see me stumbling toward him with a bloody face, bulletproof vest, swollen jaw and press passes dangling. He tapped another doctor’s shoulder and whispered, “Call everybody.” The riots were sweeping across the city.

Los Angeles burned. Looting was rampant. Firefighters were shot. Korean storeowners fired handguns and rifles indiscriminately at crowds. It was chaos and it wasn’t ending soon.

South Central burned for days before Governor Pete Wilson forced Mayor Tom Bradley to speak to Police Chief Daryl Gates (they hadn’t spoken in more than a year), and the National Guard was called in to restore order. With one bullet per rifle (there was an ammo shortage), soldiers cleared the streets as a curfew was enforced.

I was bedridden a few days, but I had the television on 24/7 and an open phone line to the L.A. Bureau of The New York Times. When the National Guard left Long Beach and headed for the inner city, I shouted into the phone, “Get a photographer on a bridge over the 110 Freeway to photograph troops entering L.A.” Similar situations came up and Times staffers in L.A. thanked me.

The Times staffers in New York were appreciative of my work, but told me to “Knock it off, you are supposed to be in recovery.” But I still needed to be in the game. My wife was ready to kill me.

Over the next week, the town was brought from a boil to a simmer. On May 4 Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew, but the Army National Guard remained until May 17.

In the following months and years, there were commissions and blue-ribbon panels, federal investigations, books and television specials. But, it wasn’t until businesses felt comfortable reinvesting in manufacturing, retail grocery, education and creation of jobs in South Central that Los Angeles could heal.

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