With the debate over gun control at fever pitch following the atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, I thought readers of The Jewish Press would find the following account of my experience during the Los Angeles riots of 1992 both timely and interesting.
When a jury acquitted four L.A. police officers who’d been charged with assault and excessive force in the beating of motorist Rodney King, the streets erupted. My wife, our children and I were trapped for several frightening hours. We were unarmed, helpless save for our wits. The police were conspicuously absent and the bad guys, frequently armed with heavy weapons, owned the streets. It was a defining moment in my life.
Wednesday evening, April 29, 1992.
The rioters are surging toward the front doors of the theater. They are shouting, but the glass doors are so thick we cannot hear what they’re screaming. The visual is quite enough. Their faces are twisted into expressions of raw hatred. The mob looks intent on some serious violence.
A few kids are laughing, milling about aimlessly and in apparent good cheer. Hey, maybe this is just a community street festival.
We’re at a screening for a new movie. It’s a Hollywood premiere, a charity event for, get this, inner city youth.
I’m friends with the executive producer.
“Bring Karen and the kids,” the producer chirps on the phone. “It’s a kid-friendly movie, there’s gonna be a reception, and really, Robert, it’s gonna be fab-u-lous.” And so because this producer is my friend and I want to support her movie, and because I’m a Hollywood screenwriter and personal relationships grease the wheels of the business, and because the producer is a player and admires my work, I schlep Karen; Ariel, 11; and Offspring #2, seven, to the screening/charity benefit in the DGA building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
What could possibly go wrong at a swanky premiere?
The film, a real stinker, at long last cuts to its final fade to black. Everyone is now mingling in the reception area. Guests congratulate the producer, director and stars, assuring them that the film is: ”great, just great,” and “the best work you’ve ever done,” all the expected and acceptable lies we tell each other.
Suddenly a chill sweeps through the room.
Something is happening outside.
I step toward the large plate glass doors of the theater. The security men, two burly rent-a-cops, deeply alarmed, start locking the row of doors.
Mesmerized, I stare as something hard bounces off the thick glass.
“Step back from the doors,” the security men say.
I stay put. I want to see what’s happening.
“Please, step away from the doors,” they plead as more guests press forward trying to glimpse the fearful gathering outside.
I see it happening. A classic shot unwinding in slow motion: the mob swarms toward the DGA building, toward us: a thick wave of fury marching with a terrible velocity towards this cocoon of – there’s no way around this – Hollywood liberals.
It’s almost funny.
Here we are, inside, raising funds for inner city youth – and the inner city youth are outside trying to get in.
Not, mind you, to express their everlasting appreciation for our spectacular generosity. No, hard as it is to believe, it looks as if the objects of our charity would like to lynch us.
Or maybe burn us to death.
Almost funny. But not quite.
Abruptly, we are plunged into darkness.
And as if on cue, a woman screams, just like in the movies.
A rent-a-cop calls out: “We turned off the lights so they can’t see inside. It’s a safety precaution.”
Panic spreads like a virus through the crowd.
It is pitch black, rioters are gathering outside the DGA building, and to make matters worse, women and children in the lobby are yelling and sobbing in panic.
Karen does not scream or yell. Even as rocks thwack sharply against the front doors, Karen doesn’t even flinch.
“Karen,” I whisper, “I think we should get to the car and get out of here.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
Offspring #2 is still in my arms, still glued to my hip, and though seven years old she has regressed and jammed her thumb in her mouth; she trembles mightily, as if freezing. I can actually hear her teeth chattering.
Karen and I edge our way to the staircase; we are not going to wait for the police. We are not going to sit here like victims.
We are going to make our way down to the parking garage, jump into the car, and drive home. We are going to take our fate in our own hands.
“Where are you going?”
A rent-a-cop is posted at the staircase.
“To our car,” I tell him.
“That’s not a good idea, sir.”
“We think it is.”
“We’ve called the police.”
“Where are they?”
He says nothing.
I gesture toward the rioters doing their hostile little dances outside the DGA building: “What happens when they start throwing Molotov cocktails?”
Rent-a-cop takes a deep breath.
“The police are coming,” he insists.
“Excuse me, we’re going to our car. You can’t stop us.”
He steps aside, murmuring something about not being responsible for our safety. Poor guy. He’s trying to do his job, but he no longer knows what his job is.
* * * * *
I snap Offspring #2 into her car seat. Ariel sits in the back with his younger sister. He is pale with fear and confusion. I touch his arm and murmur: “Everything is going to be fine.”
Ariel gives a weak smile and nods his head.
Our children trust us to protect them.
The burden of parenthood has never felt more grave.
Starting up the engine, I realize I am drenched in sweat. My shirt clings to my body. Karen reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles. “We may have to find a different route home,” she says.
As we cruise up the ramp, my breath catches in my throat, for there are a dozen rioters milling about the exit.
Am I going to be able to put pedal to metal and smash through a bunch of real live human bodies?
A friend of mine, a heroic Israeli tank commander, told me that in the first few days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, both fronts, the Sinai and the Golan Heights, were so weakly defended that had the Egyptian or Syrian high command been strategically bolder, tactically smarter, and their soldiers braver… well, the Arab armies could have achieved massive breakthroughs, and Israel would have found itself facing genocide.
But small pockets of brave, determined, and well-trained Israeli troops held their ground and attacked enemy forces sometimes a hundred times their strength.
All this whips through my mind as I aim our car – I’m already thinking of the Lexus as a tank, a Centurion – toward the exit of the parking garage. A knot of rioters is milling about at the exit. It’s hard to see clearly, but oh, boy – it looks like a few of them are brandishing baseball bats.
I’m going to make a wild guess and assume they’re not Little League dads.
I haven’t turned on the car’s headlights. We’re still lurking in the shadows, not yet detected by the barbarians.
I inch the car forward, gain speed, 4 mph, 7 mph…
Now: I switch on the headlights using – surprise! – hi-beams, drenching the marauders in white light. I lean on the horn and the rioters are drenched in the powerful lights and the shrieking horn is amplified by the concrete garage walls.
The knuckleheads are blinded, frozen as I bear down on them at what seems like Formula One speed, and now they fall back like bowling pins – and we blow right past them, making a sharp left turn. We’re ordered by a street sign to turn right, but that would deliver us to the front of the DGA building and directly into the eye of the mob, and so, tires screeching, we race away from the theater.
I zoom down the block, pull over, and gulp oxygen.
“You okay?” Karen asks.
I nod. But my heart is slamming in my chest.
As we cruise through the chaotic streets, we spot fires burning all over the city. A canopy of red and orange spreads through the velvety darkness. It takes me a moment to recognize the distinctive signature of Molotov cocktails.
Small businesses are deliberately torched.
Los Angeles has turned into Fatahland.
“Where’s the fire department?” Karen asks.
Looters help themselves to everything from television sets and stereos to diapers and liquor.
Every so often we hear the distinctive flat crack of gunfire. Nowhere do we see any police.
Trying to avoid a massive traffic jam, I turn down a side street. Karen leans forward, spots something and cries:
Thirty yards separate us from a group of thugs chilling in the street. They watch us with flinty eyes. All wicked and street-savvy, they shuffle in our direction.
I shift into reverse. Back up a few feet, shift into drive, angling for a sharp U turn, but the thugs are coming up awfully fast in my rear-view mirror.
“Robert…” says Karen says through clenched teeth.
No time for a neat, driver’s-ed three-point turn.
I blast forward, squeak through a gap between two parked cars, hurtle right up onto the sidewalk, and then it’s yet another bone-rattling move down the high curb, back into the street.
It takes us over an hour and a half to get home. Normally, this drive would take twenty minutes.
Listening to the radio, we hear about the Rodney King verdict. So that’s the grievance du jour.
The fire department, we learn, is not being deployed because its men have come under intense gunfire.
We hear – and I have trouble believing this report – that the Los Angeles Police Department has been “pulled back for their own safety.”
Huh? I thought that was part of the job description.
* * * * *
Casa Avrech: I carry Offspring #2 to bed, where she recites the Shema and then promptly falls asleep. We tell Ariel how proud of him we are. He shrugs. No big deal. Five minutes later, he’s fast asleep.
Karen, crisp and efficient, pins a bed sheet over the large picture window in the living room. We cannot be too careful. I search the house for a weapon, settling on an old ice axe from my mountain-climbing days.
Karen and I watch on TV as poor Reginald Denny, pulled from his truck by a group of savages, gets his brains bashed in. (We later learn his skull was fractured in 91 places.) We gaze in horror and disbelief as the barbarians dance over his broken body. With tears in our eyes, we see pious citizens step in and halt this atrocity, rescuing the tragic truck driver.
There’s a video of Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant. He, like Denny, is pulled from his truck and robbed. But theft is almost beside the point. The rioters/torturers smash open his head, then slice off an ear.
Gazing from our bedroom window, we watch orange flames lick at the darkness, pillars of black smoke climbing into the sky. We can actually smell the acrid odor of burning rubber.
“Look how close they are,” says Karen.
“Just past La Cienega. Maybe eight blocks away.”
Karen gives me a long penetrating gaze: “What do we do if they come here?”
“After this is all over,” I vow, “I’m going to buy a pistol.”
Karen says: “How about a shotgun?”
* * * * *
Some fifty-eight people died in the rioting – fifty of them were murdered – and two thousand were seriously injured.
At last, the LAPD was deployed. Its officers made approximately ten thousand arrests. Between 800 million and a billion dollars in property damage was reported. Approximately 3,600 fires were deliberately set, destroying 1,100 buildings.
Korean shopkeepers were specifically targeted by black rioters. But the Koreans owned guns and heroically defended their property and lives through force of arms, frequently using AR-15s against heavily armed looters.
If the Los Angeles riots taught us anything, it’s that you’re a fool if you count on the authorities to protect you in times of civil chaos – in fact, at any time. In the end, only I can protect my family.
I’m never going to allow myself to be outgunned by the bad guys. All the gun laws that are on the books just make it that much easier for the barbarians to amass weapons and for law-abiding people like you and me to be at their mercy.
If you outlaw weapons, only the state and the outlaws will be armed. Which leaves ordinary citizens at the mercy of an all-powerful government and a variety of merciless criminal subcultures.
When Hitler and Stalin snatched power, one of their first moves was to outlaw private gun ownership. They understood that armed citizens are a mortal threat to totalitarian rule.
Imagine: several million European Jews owning firearms between 1938 and 1945.
Is the mind capable of such a leap of faith or is it too painful?
One week after the riots I legally purchased a pistol: a 1911 Springfield .45. It’s the pistol I trained with in Israel. Yes, it’s heavy, and yes, the recoil kicks like a Rockette; but this is the weapon I know best and on good days I can shoot the wings off a fly at twenty-five yards.
I cordially invite any mugger, rioter, criminal or Jew-hating Islamist to come at me or my family. Because now I am a Jew with a gun.
About the Author: Robert J. Avrech is an Emmy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and producer. Among his numerous credits are "A Stranger Among Us” and "The Devil's Arithmetic.” His novel "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" won the 2006 Ben Franklin Award for Best First Novel and the Association of Jewish Libraries Award for Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content. His most recent book is a memoir, “How I Married Karen,” an eBook available at Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble, which Avrech is now developing as a major motion picture. His website is Seraphic Secret (seraphicpress.com).
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