By midnight, no one phoning long-distance bothers with hello. Instead, they just ask, ‘Is it as crazy as it looks?’ I want to say, ‘It started long before all this . . .’ Long before this afternoon’s bewildering decision left me less astonished than strangely numb. Long before George Holliday ran tape capturing Rodney G. King’s struggle and submission. Long before Latasha Harlins, Eulia Love and Marquette Frye became cautionary symbols. Long before Watts shouted its existence into the sky in ’65, sending up searchlights in the form of flames.footnote

They want me to make sense of footage I’m mesmerized by, of the faces that register anger giving way to elation. Sirens. Police in riot gear. Familiar landscape altered by skewed aerial views and flame. I try to put into simple words what I’ve seen and heard in the last few hours of this day. Until I can see it up close, with my own eyes, I’m relying on sound- and video-bites as if they were air: first the radio reports of an ‘intentional’ accident at Florence and Normandie; 100 to 140 people sprinting through intersections at rush hour; the new, bloody chaos at Normandie and 70th. Mayor Tom Bradley, whose face doesn’t seem able to accommodate any more fatigue, standing solemn at the pulpit at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, tries not to flinch when pelted with boos. Local ministers use their melodious baritones frantically to implement ‘Operation Cool Head’. Too late. By sundown rocks and bottles sail toward the windshields of passing cars, through store windows, at nothing in particular. Random debris jams the city works.

I’m in a press of traffic motoring east on Washington. It thins dramatically when I swing south on La Brea to Adams. My wide stretch of boulevard, gateway to black LA’s Sugar Hill of the 1940s. Old churches, big trees, even bigger houses. A place that seldom before surfaced for the world as representative of Black LA. But no doubt the world will see it now. At Crenshaw, I see what has been sketchily described on the radio for the last couple of hours: figures rendered to silhouettes, occupying the street, advancing randomly. Shouting, laughing, they drift on foot into traffic, into the beams of headlights, as if they are truly invincible. My tyres eat glass, trundle over big, splintered husks of plywood, of brick and clods of dirt. On my left I see a waterfall of glass. I don’t hear the sound of it breaking: this scene has no soundtrack, no narrative line to hold on to. Out of the other window I watch six pairs of hands pry apart white iron security gates. Here I see an ironic twist on the multiethnic coalition that local community leaders have been talking about for years, but not successfully implementing: black and Latino teenagers coming together to lift a sofa out of a furniture store’s showcase window, onto shoulders, then down the sidewalk.

As a reflex, I’m already speedily taking notes, as if the act of writing down what I see and what I hear will bring about some sense of order. Clarity. But my handwriting turns out looking like angry, spiky hieroglyphics. Automatic writing. Subjects without predicates. Issues without resolution. I don’t head towards First AME for answers. I know that right now there are none to be had. Maybe the warmth of others equally confused, or moving toward sadness or rage will thaw my numbness. When the decision was passed down, I wasn’t sure how to process the information; I didn’t now how to respond to Powell’s smile, to interpret Daryl Gates’s barely suppressed grin; to understand my own emptiness.

Closer to the church, spectators have left cars all over, along red painted curbsides, in driveways, in loading zones, abandoned at the centre of the road. Those of us circling for parking places are told to move on. Since the streets have quickly heated up, the 24-hour vigil has been cancelled. Praying in public tonight is too dangerous. I smell alcohol in the air, strong, oozing out of broken glass that has hit the pavement. Then come the stones. Random. They thud against the thin metal of my car. Random, I slowly understand, we’re in the heat of chaos.

I wind back to Adams. At the corner of Western, where looms the Golden State Mutual Life insurance company (an early monument to African-American business ingenuity and tenacity in Los Angeles), two men set fire to a wooden bus bench. The first flames are weak. They egg it on with words first, look around for something to stoke it—paper, wood, maybe a piece of their own clothing. I watch transfixed for too long as the fire leaps, changes in colour. I remain because I know that tomorrow I will not recognize this corner. I want to preserve what I see now. Over radio static, I hear City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas on the radio composing his thoughts carefully: ‘. . . we haven’t recovered from Watts yet . . . ’ I conjure a picture of familiar city driving, down Martin Luther King, Arlington, Jefferson, other wide central-city ‘business’ corridors, looking at row upon row of rundown nothing. Dilapidated façades with decaying or neglected interiors. Never been rebuilt, no plans to even begin. My foot trembles as I lift it from the brake, to place it on the accelerator, heading east, heading home. It tremors, I realize, not with fear but with rage, and I’m relieved that I finally feel something. Problem is, as always, I don’t know what to do with it, or who will hear.

I’ve already seen the look. Driving through the Silver Lake hills to avoid Sunset Boulevard’s panicked snarl, I climb along the incline. People are out jogging and walking their dogs, even though fires have moved closer, are no longer a distant TV hell. The higher I climb, the more I see residents take note of my car’s make and colour; they mentally record the licence number, but most importantly, my unfamiliar deep-brown face, any distinguishing marks. They look at me as if they will at any moment join together to form a human barricade if I make a wrong or abrupt move. Later, across town, a blond man in the next lane looks over LA pickup casual, then quickly lifts his smoked-glass window. The same video feeds that have inspired their terror have fuelled my own curiosity, augmented my pain. For hours I’ve been transfixed, watching childhood landmarks swallowed up in the surprisingly liquid aspects of billowing smoke and flames—stores, streets, memories, futures. I’m watching my old neighbourhood blister, turn to embers, rendered entirely foreign. I hear fear in the voices of my relatives and friends who’ve been trying to track the course of the flames, guess the trajectory of anger.