- The LA Riots began on April 29, 1992, after four police were found not guilty for the beating of Rodney King.
- LA photographer Ted Soqui covered the riots over five days. He had also grown up with King.
- 30 years later, Soqui rebuilt his ’90s-era camera and returned to some of the locations he photographed in 1992.
Journalists often parachute into stories. For me, the LA riots were personal: I grew up with Rodney King, and Los Angeles was my home.
On March 3, 1991, King’s savage beating by Los Angeles police was caught on tape by a bystander watching from his balcony. LA had a long history of police brutality, but now we were all witnessing it first-hand on our TVs. Watching the beating was especially jarring for me because King and I had grown up in the same Pasadena-Altadena community. We’d gone to school together. We weren’t close, but I knew him — who went by Glen, never Rodney — as a gentle, friendly kid.
The four police — Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind — went on trial the next year. Adding to public anger, the trial was moved from LA to Simi Valley, a predominantly white “cop town” northwest of the city.
I was 30 years old, and I covered the trial for LA Weekly and the now-defunct Impact Visuals photo agency. Back then, journalists were supposed to keep their personal feelings out of stories, even more so than now, and I didn’t mention my connection to King. I was there when the verdict was announced on April 29, 1992, at 3:15 in the afternoon. No one expected all four officers to be acquitted. But that’s how the verdicts came down: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.
I stayed at the courthouse for about an hour. Outside, people were at each other’s throats. Most of it was people saying things like, “Fuck this. This is bullshit.” I spotted the director John Singleton, whose film “Boyz n the Hood” had come out the year before. He was wearing a Black Panther baseball cap and walking away from the courthouse with a look of disbelief spread across his face.
I knew the city’s response to the verdicts wasn’t going to be good. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” But I didn’t expect the city to burn and then turn in on itself, as it did over those five days in 1992.
I went to my car and turned on the radio.
There were reports of people throwing rocks and bottles at the corner of Florence and Normandie (the intersection that would later become synonymous with the riots). It didn’t seem like a wise idea to go down there. (Associated Press photographer Craig Fujii was nearly killed there on that first night — savagely beaten as others stood by cheering and catching the moment on video. A few years later, I covered the trial of his assailant, Damian Williams, and saw the video footage for the first time.)
Something also appeared to be happening at Parker Center in downtown LA. I went to check it out.
Parker Center, a giant building with no windows facing out, was the LAPD’s headquarters. It looked like a fortress, and not like part of the city.
When I got there, it was already surrounded by protesters trying to force their way in. I photographed the row of officers standing guard out front. (A few years ago, one of those officers told me: “If they got past us, that building would’ve been burned down.”)
Earlier this year – as the 30th anniversary of the riots approached – I built a camera to approximate what I’d used back in 1992 and stocked up on 35mm film. I selected some of my images from 1992 and decided to capture what those places look like now.
The site where Parker Center once stood is now an empty lot. It remained the LAPD’s headquarters until 2009 and was finally demolished in 2019. A new Police Administration Building has since gone up across the street. It’s all glass and reflects the buildings around it, including City Hall. When you walked by, you could see inside. Slowly, though, curtains started going up.
Back on that first night of the riots in 1992, I quickly discovered I was out of film.
There was one camera store called Pix Photo, on Melrose. Back then, it was open 24 hours. I went in and said, “Gimme every roll of film you got,” and the guy just threw me a bunch of film. I think it may have been 20 rolls — which wasn’t much — and it was a hodgepodge of color and black and white. The guy locked the door behind me. All the photo labs in town — Kodak, Pan Pacific — shut down. Samy’s Camera, on La Brea, was looted and burned to the ground. You couldn’t get film anywhere.
Without much film, I’d have to shoot with care: concentrate, click.
I set up a photo lab in my garage. I’d shoot all day, process at twilight, and then use a hair dryer to dry the film quickly. (Film purists eschewed this technique since it allows dust to become embedded in the film. But in those pre-digital days, it was common among news photographers working on deadline.) I was printing all night, getting almost no sleep, and then going back out.
After the riots, in areas like Midtown, right in the center of LA, there was talk about revitalization. But most of those places never got an upgrade.
Koreatown was probably the most dangerous area during the riots.
Animosity had been simmering between Black Angelenos and Koreans, who owned shops in Black areas. Less than two weeks after King’s beating, a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins had been shot dead in Empire Liquor Market and Deli by one of the shop’s owners, Soon Ja Du. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but was only made to serve community service.
Koreatown was one of the first places that saw a lot of violence. People from the community ended up perched on top of buildings with firearms, shooting at looters or anyone who was Black. It didn’t matter what you were doing there.
People from the community organized two peace marches, and on May 3, Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Koreatown leaders to push for reconciliation. A lot of auto-parts stores were looted and burned down, including this one in Koreatown.
This is South Vermont Avenue and Manchester. Some of the buildings were destroyed during the Watts riots in 1965 and never rebuilt.
The area got hit hard again in 1992. Politicians said the city would rebuild, but it hasn’t happened, and 30 years have passed.
Smart & Final was a wholesale supermarket where you could buy giant rolls of
or 50 packs of Coca-Cola. It’s right across the street from the University of Southern California.
Back then, people were scavenging for whatever they could find. It got rebuilt, and today it’s still a Smart & Final.
On Sunset and La Brea, I spotted private security dressed to look like LAPD outside Silo Electronics. Someone had sprayed the words, “Sorry, we’re empty,” on the front entrance. For years afterward, that space sat empty.
I was hearing that photographers were being attacked, or shot at, or robbed of their gear. Friends and colleagues were calling to share news. Gilles Mingasson, a French photographer, was robbed and narrowly avoided something far worse. John T. Barr, who photographed for Time magazine, had his car shot at while he was inside.
Nobody was doing well. Every single day, I was carrying more anxiety. I knew I had to be careful and to avoid getting in people’s faces. Every picture I took had to be worth it.
Black photographers had it worse. They were being harassed by the police and accused of being looters. Police were pulling them over and searching their cars.
There was nobody to run to. There was no safe side. You were out there on your own.
As I made my way around the city, I was alone a lot of the time. As a photographer, I had a few assignments where I’d go out with a writer, but nobody wanted to stay out too late. It was really dangerous.
As a kind of camouflage, a lot of times I would hold my camera in a paper bag. I put a hole in the bag, and what I’d do was move my hand from the hole and expose the lens and click. But most of the time, I ended up just wasting film on pictures of my fingers.
Our natural instinct as photographers is to work it. But you didn’t want to loiter. You had to just get the picture and move on.
This was an apartment building right on the outskirts of downtown. The area is known as the Pico Union area. It’s primarily Hispanic, Salvadoran, and Central American residents.
It’s now a school. This is the gate where you come and pick up your kids. You can see the skyline in the background, and there are a couple new buildings.
South Vermont Avenue is wider than most freeways. Back then, this was known as South Central LA. Locals still use that term. But because of all the negative connotations from the riots, outsiders came in and gave these neighborhoods cute, new names like Morningside Park or Vermont Vista.
When I photograph people walking, I count the footsteps. I try to capture people mid-stride. I set a metronome in my head to mark the steps and then concentrate on the composition. Their foot’s up or, sometimes, you want to show it pointed down or flat. I learned that in fashion photography shooting runways. If you catch the foot heel up, it conveys a little more energy.
In 1992, we didn’t have Twitter. We didn’t have the internet. I had the radio and a police scanner, but the information they were giving me wasn’t reliable, so I turned them off. To figure out where to go, I watched the skies.
You could see fires all over the city, with the smoke rising upward like columns. There wasn’t a lot of wind, and the fires burned vertically. Wherever there was a big column of smoke, that’s where I needed to go.
This is one of the columns of smoke that I saw.
Back then, the neighborhood was predominantly African American. The graffiti mostly had things like: “Fuck the police.” Now, it’s largely people from El Salvador. The graffiti relates to gangs.
This is West Adams, at the edge of South Central. There’s a group of streets named after former Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington. Obama Street was added recently.
When I stopped here in 1992, a crew of photographers had just been robbed. Locals approached me and said: “You should leave now. We just saw people get robbed, and there’s nothing we could do. We couldn’t stop it. Nobody’s going to stop it.
“You seem like a nice person, but get out of here.”
On that first night of the riots after I left Parker Center, I saw this guy in a full mask burning an American flag over the 101 freeway. Palm trees, which are very flammable, were being set on fire across the city.
Down at the freeway below, burning palm trees lit the way like giant torches.
After the riots, the burned trees were cut down to their stumps. If you look closely, you can still find some of those stumps around LA.
The 2020 images included here were shot on 35mm black-and-white film, using the same kind of camera and lens that Ted Soqui used 30 years ago. Soqui’s narration was based on an interview Soqui did with Alan Chin.