On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, more than 300 angry, confused protesters gathered in front of the Ventura County courthouse. Just an hour before, four LAPD officers (three were white and one was Mexican American) had been acquitted of the vicious, videotaped assault of Rodney King, a black taxi driver. The beating, which consisted of kicks and 56 baton swings, and lasted a reported 15 minutes, left King with a fractured skull, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage. The acquittal in the face of video evidence ignited long-standing racial tensions in the community into the LA Riots. It was a six-day explosion of fiery protests, looting, and a National Guard deployment that resulted in more than 50 deaths, as many as 10,000 arrests, and more than $1 billion in property damage.
That afternoon, residents were outraged. They discussed the verdict across the city on court steps, street corners, grocery stores, and university campuses. Many protested in the streets, swarming numerous locations including the then-LAPD headquarters and the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues in South Central, which would become the violent epicenter.
Abraham Torres and his friend John Torres (no relation), two students at East Los Angeles College, talked for hours and listened to post-verdict commentary. Eventually, Torres, who was studying journalism, decided to join the protests, grabbing his camera, lens, and a flash. The images he captured—firemen wielding shotguns, flame-engulfed storefronts, and mostly empty streets at night—were like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie.
After the intensity of the riots, Torres developed a cognitive dissonance around his experience and felt the images he captured weren't important enough to be developed. He went on to UCLA for a bachelor's in political science. After graduating in 2000, he has held many jobs, including being a United States congressional liaison and a member of 20th Century Fox Studios international film division. Twenty-five years later, compelled by the events in Ferguson and Baltimore, Torres decided to uncover the undeveloped film that captured the first night of the Los Angeles uprising.
Inspired by my Black Trademarked Photo Editing Software History segments on VICELAND, Torres reached out to me, hoping that I could help him correct the narrative of the LA protests, a story that continues to fascinate and serve as a cautionary tale of the unfinished business of race relations in America. His photos have never been published before.
VICE: How did the LA protests begin from your perspective?
Abraham Torres: We were listening to the whole experience on the AM station radio. In East LA, I don't think anyone thought it was going to be riot. We didn't think it was going to get so big. There was a protest in front of LAPD. [We said] let's go down and let's protest. We get there about nine or ten o'clock. There's nobody there, there's pieces of cars, there's flamed-out things, [but] there's nobody there. By the time we get there—I didn't know at the time there was already a curfew in place. We venture into South LA from Downtown LA. As we got into [South] LA, I started photo-ing all the fire. That's the night I almost got jumped by a group of kids on the corner. After I got away from that, we continued. We went to looted grocery stores [and took] all the images of burned-out buildings. I was probably one of the few photographers who went out the first night.
How did you feel when you arrived at the site of protest and expected protest signs and chants, but there was an urban wasteland instead?
It felt surreal. The whole experience felt surreal. You have to remember you're in a LA, a city with 10 million people, and at night there's fires burning and there's only firemen, myself, and a few people around. When is the last time you ever saw a fire burning in middle of the city, and nobody is around? So the images I have, there's no one around. That was the first part of the whole experience. All of a sudden, LA county became the Wild, Wild West. It was anything goes, do whatever you want, and I think that's [where] the looting came in. When people realized no one was going to stop them from doing whatever they wanted to do, boom, that was the second phase. The first phase was anger: Burn it, burn it down, let it burn. The second phase of the riot was, Let's go loot, let me get something out of this. I always thought a fucking verdict—you never thought it was going to come down to an acquittal. [The thinking was,] Now, if I'm not going to get my own in that way, I'm going to get my own a different way. I might as well take matters into my hands. I know the cops wasn't [going] to come around in the next couple of days.
Why do you think these events occurred and caused people to start acting like that?
It's been a build up of a couple of years before that. Latasha Harlins and racial profiling: Latasha was killed by a Korean store owner. [The store owner] basically got only five years probation. She didn't go to jail. People were pissed off. Where's the justice, where is the system of grievances that address [the situation] in a concrete way? Even to that day, the modern time of 1992, we were still getting people of minority descent being killed without any justice and without repercussions. So when the Rodney King tape came on, it was, Come on, we got it in the bag. For the first time, we are about to get our justice. There's no way these guys are about to get off the hook. There you go: They get off the hook. Afterward, that was really the spark. I didn't grow up in South LA—I lived in East LA, I knew they was going to be angry. I don't think anybody in South LA or outside of it knew there was going to be a riot.
What is East Los Angeles like?
East LA is basically Mexican-Americans, Latino. [It] used to be [a] Jewish community back in the early 1900s. It transformed into a Mexican American, Asian, Japanese American community. So, in that sense, there was a connection [with] what was going on, but not to the extent that was in South LA. New York has boroughs, LA has different sections.
So would you venture to South LA before riots?
I hung out there on several occasions, [but mostly] I stuck to our side. It wasn't a place to go and hang out. If it wasn't for my friend John Torres, who knew the area, I probably wouldn't have gone. The feeling you had going through was like, What the fuck? What am I going to do?
So this uprising was a unifying force that brought neighborhoods together?
I would definitely say there was a lot of Latinos looting. That was their way of showing their anger toward the situation. I don't think it's just saying, "I just want to loot." It's not just about that. It was underlying socioeconomic issues that were going on throughout that area as well. If you seen some of the shots, some of the cops took off. They couldn't break up the looting.
So the cops took off? You have one photo of some guy with a construction helmet and a shotgun.
That's a fireman. That's why I included that shot: When is the last time you've seen a fireman holding a shotgun? Firemen were being shot at because LAPD wouldn't cover them while they were putting out the fires. Actually, the Smithsonian has tapes of the fire department calling in for backup, and the LAPD is just ignoring. That's the Wild, Wild West part of it.
How should the media have portrayed what happened?
I think the media didn't realize it was going to be a war zone. They followed the protection of the cops. You see the air coverage, but when it comes to the ground, I was really surprised the media didn't send their war correspondents out into the field. They didn't get the full experience of going out in the field. That's why there's so many documentaries coming out telling what's not told—what's not said [from] 25 years ago, when it happened.
We've had Baltimore and Ferguson in the past few years. What would you say to a budding photographer for the next unrest?
When it comes to these civil unrest issues, anyone who does that has to be very careful. Go with a friend. Keep your head up. You are engaging in a dangerous situation. Don't be a hero; don't put yourself in harm's way. I don't think an image is worth your life. Be careful. This is some heavy war-correspondent shit.
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