A few years back, I did something that wasn’t very smart. I decided to place myself in a position of personal risk. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, and I didn’t realize how educational it would be. I knew there was potential for rioting if the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship in 2010 against the Boston Celtics since there had been riots in previous years. At the time I lived only a few blocks away from the area, so I decided to walk over with my video camera to see what would happen.
I placed myself at the corner of Olympic and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles, right near the potential center of the action. I began filming about one minute before the end of the game. Just as the game ended and the Lakers won the championship, the crowd became very excited. Everything was OK for about two minutes. After that, things began to change.
The area where I was standing at the edge of the street became overly crowded. A police line had begun to form, keeping pedestrians from walking into the street. Tensions began to increase as the spectators taunted the police. The police had shields and sticks. They were doing their very best to keep things in check. At one point during this build up I was pushed over and buried underneath the crowd. I figured I would be injured, or worse. To my amazement, rather than being trampled upon, I was quickly pulled up by those standing around me. It was obvious that I was on their side. We were one and it seemed to be us against the police.
There was now a very huge crowd and many police cars were in the streets. I decided it was time to move on. I headed north on Figueroa. The crowd was so compressed that it was difficult to move. After a moment I came to an opening. To my left, a large group of people were attempting to overturn a very heavy motorized construction sign by rocking it back and fourth. To my right, another group was attempting to kick over a metal newspaper dispenser which was bolted to the ground while they were waving flags. Those on the left finally succeeded while those on the right did not. The police began to appear with guns. They were incredibly calm, even as the situation was beginning to unravel in front of them.
The police line was now very slowly moving north on Figueroa, forcing everyone to move in that direction. Along this route there were car alarms going off, cars with windows broken in, and small, patchy fires burning on the ground. A few fights began to break out. In those cases, to my amazement, the fights were broken up by the rioters themselves. Order within the chaos. It would seem that their intention was to be destructive without causing bodily harm.
I developed a filming technique based on fear. Not thinking it was a good idea to let anyone know that I was filming them, I would turn the camera away just as I saw someone beginning to look in my direction. Because of this, I was moving the camera almost constantly, attempting to anticipate their motions. In a strange way it added to the drama of the final filming, but also meant that I was almost never pointing the camera in one direction or at one subject for an extended period of time.
The police line was now more organized and police on horseback were appearing. They began to order people to move in specific directions. They began to deploy. Police helicopters started to appear as well. The rioters began to look unsettled. A huge line of police on horseback was forming. They pushed the crowd east on 9th Street. There were still rioters who were taunting them. The police begin to fire rubber bullets. People began to run. We ran out of range and things quieted down.
Strangely, I realized that I was beginning to feel more relaxed. I realized that I was not being threatened by the rioters. These were riots but they were riots of joy. These were people who were celebrating. These were people who were enjoying themselves. These were people looking for an excuse to destroy. They were not out to harm one another. This was a big party. A huge, destructive party. Now, even my filming seemed to be non-threatening to them. They were eager to let the world know that they were happy to be destructive.
I walked down through a quieter area and came to the backside of a police line. One of the officers saw me and ordered, “Go this way”, to the left. A few others turned around, shields, sticks, and guns, and made sure I followed those orders. They had no way of knowing if I had recently destroyed something or if I was just a guy with a cheap video camera. I quietly slipped past them.
I continued further. Around a corner they were drawing on a taxicab with ink pens. They were writing words I couldn’t read, possibly graffiti. Further down I could see rioters dancing on top of taxicabs. They attempted to turn the cabs over. They were rocking them back and forth. There was a driver inside one of the cabs. They tried to turn his cab over. They tried harder and harder but could not overturn it. The cab driver escaped. A skateboarder approached and slammed the cab window with his skateboard, shattering the glass. Another rioter took a match and threw it inside the taxicab through the shattered window. Everyone began to quasi-chant. Slowly the interior of the taxicab begin to catch fire. The Rioters backed off. As they moved away the flames grew higher and brighter. There were loud bangs. Someone yelled out, “They’re shooting, they’re shooting!”, as the police fired off more rubber bullets. We ran down the street. I looked back and could see flames engulfing the taxicab. We ran further until we turned around a corner.
We ran through traffic to cross the street, an officer on a bicycle attempting to stop us. We dispersed into the crowd and into the night. In this area, things were beginning to calm down, with only smaller incidents taking place in the distance. The batteries were beginning to run low on my camera, so it was time to head home. I only had a four block walk to get there. It was hard to believe that all of this was taking place so near to my residence.
As I was walking home and just before my camera died, one of the rioters shouted out, “I don’t want to be a victim! I don’t want to be a victim! I don’t care! I want to get the fuck out of here!” Suddenly the guilty man was the innocent man. It’s all a matter of perspective I suppose.
I sometimes feel as if all of this was a strange dream. Growing up within protective suburbia, it was a unique experience. It left me with the feeling that everyone has a violent side that they would love to unleash, they just need a good reason to do so. Or even a bad reason. We’ve all lost our temper, maybe there’s proof in that alone. Maybe there are everyday versions of this, such as pounding a nail into the wall, or sawing a tree trunk.
I must say the the actions of the police were commendable. They were always incredibly calm, and highly successful in moving the crowd along using their slow and patient yet continually relentless techniques. Not once did I see an incident of police brutality or abuse of the kind amplified in the media today.
Below you can view the film. I apologize ahead of time for my roller-coaster camera work. If you have motion sickness, you may want to skip this one. I would suggest full screen, high volume, for best effect.