April 17, 1993, Saturday, 2:30 a.m. I am fully clothed and laying in bed watching Sting in the science fiction movie “Dune,” while eating Girl Scout peanut butter cookies and drinking coffee. I am in a hotel room at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Commerce, California along with off-duty San Jose detectives and ex-Navy Seals, all of who have been hired as freelance and assigned to me as bodyguards, and all of who are armed to the teeth. A Seal will drive our bulletproof Crown Victoria that is being rented by the production company for a thousands bucks a day, and one of the detectives will ride “shotgun.” Our team has been issued flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, pepper spray and Israeli gas masks. Ironically, the instructions for the gas masks are in Hebrew and none of us can reads Hebrew. Unlike the first intifada – the L.A. Riots of 1992 – I now have an official backstage pass to the “L.A Riots Part 2-1993 Tour.” I’m embedded with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Special Enforcements Bureau, in a platoon made up of thirty-six Sheriffs Deputies traveling in sixteen marked patrol cars and one “armored hostage rescue vehicle.”
3:15 a.m. The call comes in to prep the gear, check out and travel to a new location. Crap! Dune is not over and I will miss the best part where giant sandworms appear out of the desert floor and destroy the Harvesters that mine for the Spice on the planet Arrakis. In the hotel lobby I am informed that the production company has had second thoughts and now feels the thousand-dollar-a-day bulletproof car is too expensive. They do not want to be held responsible for any damage to it. Looks like I will be riding in a Deputy Sheriff’s patrol car.
8:25 a.m. We have rendezvous with several other platoons of uniformed deputies in what appears to be an abandoned hotel parking lot. Some deputies are relaxing in their vehicles, others are outside, pacing nervously. It is here that I hear the verdict and sentencing of the defendants in the second Rodney King trial as I’m searching for a place to get some coffee. Several of the patrol cars have their trunks open with portable radios tuned to the KFWB all-news station. The newscaster’s flat voice echoes across the parking lot along with news of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nuclear accident in Russia, a fire fight with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas and a nifty review of Billy Crystal hosting the 65th Academy Awards and the shows ratings.
Falling Down For A Meal……
11:25 a.m.This is our first sit-down meal since Thursday night the 15th of April. “Today is Saturday the 17th of April” I think. I’m sitting in a chair at a table where both have been bolted to the floor. This is Angelo’s Burgers on Atlantic Boulevard in Lynwood. I am getting ready to eat a breakfast burrito, in the company of fifty deputy sheriffs in this small burger joint. After the meal we talk with the deputies and drink coffee when I notice a homemade sign made of cardboard and a magic marker on the counter where you place your order. “The Movie ‘Falling Down’ with Michael Douglas was filmed here on May 12th, 1992.” It was here at Angelo’s that the famous scene where Michael Douglas’ beleaguered character is trying to order breakfast from a fast-food chain called “Whammy Burgers” was filmed. The menu has changed from breakfast to lunch and Michael wants breakfast not lunch. In short, the movie is about a man in L. A. who goes bonkers. It’s ironic that we are sitting here at Angelo’s with deputy sheriffs having breakfast waiting for a city to go bonkers.
Saturday 2:15 p.m. It is not the result of the announcement of the court’s verdict that sends us racing at top speed from Lynwood to an amusement park north of Los Angeles. Apparently a scheduled rap concert has been oversold by a thousand tickets or so. As expected, some of the fans were upset, and out of frustration windows were broken at restaurants across the street from the entrance to the amusement park.
I love Scottish Food……
4:35 p.m. The deputies, our crew and assorted bodyguards are in a holding pattern at the upper entrance to the park. Everyone is hungry. With my supply of Atomic Fireball jawbreakers, Balance Bars and gum gone, the production company finally breaks down and decides to get McDonald’s quarter pounders for everyone. Half way through the order, McDonald’s runs out of quarter pounders and we end up with Happy Meals for most of the crew and seventy plus deputies.
7:46p.m. The sun has set. I tag along with a squad of seven deputies, taking in the sights and sounds of the park. I wonder if we can stop long enough to get a corndog. Occasionally families and kids looking for a way out of the park stop us and ask for directions. None of our group are familiar enough with the park and we are not much help in answering their questions. We have not been in the park longer than fifteen or twenty minutes at the most when there is an atmospheric change in the night.
There is now a lull in the sounds. The normal sounds of a carnival atmosphere where laughter and excited screams of kids on a wild rides are mixed in the night air have diminished. There is something different happening here. There is a different kind of screaming now. A disconcerted screaming that builds and continues until all laughter has been swallowed by the night. A swelling of emotions rises from my stomach and settles into my chest and heart. My instincts are telling me something that I don’t yet consciously perceive. It is at this point that time becomes a series of different scenarios in slow motion and other craziness in “quick time”.
Like locusts swarming upon a field of grain, kids and families are pouring out of nowhere, surrounding us. The deputies react by creating a circle in the middle of a concrete walkway. If you were to look down from overhead, you would see a circle of tan helmets surrounded by a sea of bodies. A sergeant is in the middle trying to hear the two-way radio above the human sounds. My eye is glued in the Nikon’s viewfinder, and the cameras motor drive whines with click-click-click-click-click. The framed faces are growing with expressions of dread, concern, and confusion as the volume of pandemonium rises to a higher decibel.
Somewhere in the park ahead of us panic strikes like lightning and like the delay of thunder, so is my reaction and that of the seven deputies. We catch the first swell of the crowd seeking safety. It is a stampede of hundreds of people coming right at us, and we are a mere wall of eight people. The noise level of crying, shouting and screaming rise again to a decibel level higher then an AC/DC concert. I hear a deputy shouting ” Was that gunfire ? Was that gunfire?”
The mob recedes and confusion fills the void. Again gunshots or firecrackers are set off somewhere in the park ahead of us and a larger tidal wave of families in sheer panic descend upon us. Unlike the 1992 riots I covered nearly a year ago to the day- this had the element of the vulnerability of families caught in the middle of a total breakdown of civil order. They have become a captive audience for Mad Hatter’s Wild Ride and Freak Show. A group of teenage boys and girls run up to us screaming that a park security guy is getting beat up behind us. We turn but can’t see anything but a wall of humanity one hundred yards deep.
More deputies arrive out of nowhere and we make our way across a sea of glass shards, white plastic coat hangers, price tags and paper images of cartoon characters. A helicopter flies overhead with its powerful spotlight shining down on the throngs. The beam creates a massive shadow from the tree limbs and scaffolding which slowly crawls over the entire area like a black web.
A Table, Chair and a Chef……
Passing by a restaurant I notice that the doors are cracked I peer into the darkness and silhouetted in the foreground are chairs, tables and serving trays stacked on top of each other. Beyond the barrier, a young man dressed in his chef’s whites stares at me with a dazed and anxious look. I can only assume that he has chosen to stand sentry with fire extinguisher in hand as the world outside goes for a roller coaster ride into a momentary lapse of sanity.
The park is now quieter as the deputies contain and prod the visitors to the main entrance. I pass a long line of kids at a pay phone trying to call their parents to come and get them while near by is a marble statue of a rabbit riding a horse waving goodbye to his guests.
April 19, 1993, Morning Coffee and the Times….
This morning I read in the L A Times, “The park reopened Sunday to an enthusiastic spring break crowd as law enforcement officials, park managers and a music promoter tried to pinpoint blame for two melees that damaged both the park and its reputation as a place for family entertainment. An all-night repair job replaced broken windows and looted merchandise in time for Sunday’s 10 a.m. opening”
I later learned that the “melees” cost the park an estimated 2 million dollars in damages, 40 people were emergency evacuated and that it took 450 deputies to move 40,000 people out of the park. Urban legend has it that a body was found underneath a roller coaster ride four days after the riot. In ShowBiz news, there is big buzz about the release of Steven Spielberg’s film “Jurassic Park” It’s about a team of genetic engineers creating an amusement park full of cloned dinosaurs – then all hell breaks out.