Colleagues Recall L.A. Riots Unfolding Like 'A Movie'

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It's been 20 years since the Los Angeles riots shook that city — and the nation. On April 29, 1992, several white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of black motorist Rodney King during a traffic stop.

News of the acquittals sparked unrest across the city. The fires, looting and violence lasted for several days and devastated neighborhoods — many in the city's African-American communities.

Three colleagues at radio station KJLH on Crenshaw Boulevard, just seven miles southwest of the city center, watched from their office window as the riots erupted on the street.

"We were prepared for people to be unhappy," says Karen Slade, now general manager of KJLH. "But we couldn't believe our eyes. People were beyond angry. They were crazy. It's like they lost their mind," she recalls.

The all-music station quickly changed formats as listeners began calling in to describe what they were witnessing across the city.

"The phone started lighting up, and my jocks shut down the music," Slade says. "They stayed on the mic — they took the calls. And probably for the next three days, we just became all talk."

Eric "Rico" Reed was one of those jocks. Looking out the studio's picture window, he says, "was just like looking at a movie screen." Rico gave an on-air play-by-play as he watched people smash the window of a repair shop and run off with a broken TV.

"I can't believe this guy," Reed told the audience. "It's a TV repair shop. The TVs don't even work, man. They just stealing them to be stealing them. It makes no sense."

Arthur Williams was a driver for KJLH at the time. He recalls watching as a group began beating a Hispanic man in the street.

"And a black priest went out in the middle of the street and held his Bible up and draped himself over the guy," Williams says. The group dispersed.

"You know, what he did was unbelievable," Williams says. "He's a hero."

The riots were devastating, Slade says. But, she notes, they didn't destroy the fabric of the community. She remembers a woman who brought the neighbors together as the violence subsided.

"One lady came out, and she had some of the neighborhood kids. And she got them brooms and everybody was sweeping," Slade recalls. "They were cleaning up Crenshaw — I had never seen it before!"

Even so, it took "almost forever" to get new stores back in a "community that [was] burnt to the ground," Reed says.

"Our community wasn't perfect, but it was gorgeous," Reed says. "Some areas haven't come back — and probably never will."

KJLH won a Peabody award for its coverage of the riots.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.

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