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The Fire Rises

Why the L.A. riots still matter — maybe now more than ever

Twenty-five years after Los Angeles rose up, how far have we come as a nation? Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.

They almost killed Rodney King right around the time that I was learning how to drive. On March 3, 1991, I was six months from 16. Before I knew anything about the man I saw being beaten by four LAPD officers on George Holliday’s videotape, I knew he was black and that he was a motorist — one thing I already was and another thing I was about to become. I dreaded the prospect of being pulled over by a cop, and not simply because I feared the ticket and the talking-to from my parents that could follow. No, I shared a terror with my family and everyone else out here with melanin — that I and anyone who looks like me had a real chance of dying during a routine interaction with a person charged with our protection.

I could lose my freedom, or my life, if I didn't act right. It's an essential phobia, as much a part of me as any cell in my body, put there by stories I’d heard over and over — from relatives, from friends, from the brother waiting in the barbershop — long before King's beating. I was horrified by what happened to King in the 81 seconds captured on that tape, but more than anything, I recall feeling validation. Here, finally, on national television, was proof of everything we’d been taught to fear. Perhaps this time, they'd believe us.

The six days of fire, destruction, and death that erupted in Los Angeles 25 years ago this Saturday weren't just the “language of the unheard,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once described riots. There had been international outrage over the Rodney King video, widespread condemnation of LAPD chief Daryl Gates, and considerable attention to the trial of the officers who had beaten King. Black folks had been heard. But the acquittal of those officers told us that we weren't believed; that others get to decide what is real about our reality; that our own experiences are not for us to interpret, not even when the entire nation witnesses them on television. And that private property is worth more than black bodies, even when our bodies are treated like property.

Although today's graphic, high-definition smartphone videos of police assaults and killings make the Rodney King tape look quaint by comparison, little else has changed since then. We've gone from one “tough on crime” president to another. The attorney general cares more about the feelings of cops than the rights of citizens, let alone those of undocumented immigrants. Whatever a “blue life” is, it continues to matter more than mine. So it's reasonable to wonder: Why write about these riots when the resentment that fed them is still omnipresent?

In this collection of new essays and interviews, you'll find a few answers to those questions. An America that continues to misunderstand and misinterpret black pain and anger has something to learn from the killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner in Los Angeles, 13 days after the King beating, and from the star-crossed semi-public life Rodney King tried his best to live in the years after the riots. We've seen Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and countless others shot to death, so we need to look closer at our nation's fascination with police violence against unarmed black people, caught on camera, before we all go numb. Washington's reaction to Los Angeles’s riotous violence continues to matter a quarter-century later, as does the art that moment produced.

We look back because history has something to teach us, but also because the past is rarely as abstract as it seems. For the first time in 20 years, more than half of surveyed Angelenos believe that another similar riot is likely within the next five years. As long as we can't be sure we'll be taken at our word when we say we have been violated — whether or not we can produce a videotape that proves it — that possibility will hang in the air. But a city shouldn't have to burn for our stories to be believed.

Read More: Ten stories about the L.A. riots and the world they made.