The George Floyd Protests in Los Angeles, And Memories of the 1992 Riots

June 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

After George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, large-scale protests began in Hollywood, the Fairfax district and downtown Los Angeles. These were met by a heavy police presence that failed to prevent looting and burning, and by May 30 Los Angeles was locked down by curfews that continued until June 4. The screenshots above, from the June 1 protest on Sunset Blvd. between Vine and Gower Streets in Hollywood, show large formations of police in riot gear advancing on protesters. Because all of this took place only a couple of miles from my house, watching it on TV was frightening and surreal. It was also gut-wrenchingly familiar.

Because I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over thirty years, memories of of the LA Riots came rushing back. But this time felt different, because it was different: in contrast to 1992, the outrage was national, and even international. And the fact that this year’s protests and property damage were spread across Los Angeles County made it impossible for people in places like Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles to ignore them and their cause: police brutality against people of color.

In 1992 I lived in a different neighborhood: Hancock Park, a wealthy HPOZ with a high crime rate and an atavistic Frederick Law Olmstead plan: sweeping front lawns with no front fences or gates allowed except on Rossmore Avenue, a major thoroughfare. Even in the best of times Hancock Park is surrounded by gang territory, and its location–flat, centrally located and well-served by public transportation–is a magnet. Hancock Park also lies on the borders of Koreatown, which in April of 1992 erupted over the unpunished murder of the teenaged Latasha Harlins by a Korean liquor store owner. Korean-American stores were looted, fires broke out, and for days my young son and I listened to gunfire and smelled acrid smoke. Aside from the fear and uncertainty, what I remember most vividly are the phone calls from Westside friends lamenting our “dangerous” neighborhood and inviting us to shelter in their “safe” ones. Because this us-against-them sentiment was widespread and the physical damage from the Riots was not, Los Angeles soon returned to business as usual.

This time, as the plywood comes off the buildings and the protests wane, Los Angeles has another chance to change. Mayor Garcetti’s decision to divert $150 million for the LAPD’s budget and redirect the money toward housing, health care and gang intervention is a step that should have been taken in 1992, when reforms consisted of weeding out the most egregiously violent cops and hoping the younger ones didn’t follow in their head-cracking footsteps. If, going forward, mental health and homeless problems are handled by social workers, police officers will be able to fight crime instead of tackling crises they weren’t trained for, with sometimes fatal outcomes. At any rate, that’s the idea. As a citizen whose encounters with LAPD have been met with indifference at best, and who has never had a crime against her pursued despite pleas and ample evidence (fingerprints, video footage, license plates, and positive identification), I welcome any signs of progress.

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Strength Through Adversity: How the Calamities of the Early 90s Transformed Los Angeles’ Self Image

April 2, 2012 § 1 Comment

The LA Riots of 1992/Courtesy

When I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles in 1989, I did so at some risk, quitting my job, selling my house and uprooting my preschooler in a life-changing leap of faith. My decision was met with disbelief by colleagues and acquaintances, who were incredulous that a) anyone would leave the Bay Area voluntarily and b) that anyone would move to Los Angeles without being forced. When they found out I didn’t even have a job waiting for me, their incredulity turned to derision. No one even bothered to put a positive spin on what they considered an incomprehensibly awful idea. The nadir of these comments, reported to me by my son’s babysitter, was spoken to my bewildered 5-year-old: “Have your mommy buy you a gas mask.”

Once we were here, I noticed no one in Los Angeles ever said anything bad about people who did the reverse. Leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco invariably brought congratulations and positive statements. I love the Bay Area! was the general theme. Clearly, these attitudes had to do with the historic rivalry between the two cities, but also with the fact that Los Angeles–having surpassed San Francisco economically–was on its way to usurping San Francisco’s position as the state’s cultural capital. Los Angeles-bashing only underscored San Francisco’s provincialism, but no one in either city seemed to mind.

More surprising–and disheartening–were the comments Angelenos made about their own city. Los Angeles circa 1990 was thought of almost entirely in negative terms by people who ostensibly had moved here without duress. The city was polluted, expensive, traffic-filled and stressful. There was too much going on, or not enough going on, depending on whether you were talking about culture or sports. Having grown up in Tokyo, which at the time was far more polluted, crowded, traffic-filled and stressful than LA, and yet was universally considered an enviable place to live, I found it odd. The only thing people in Los Angeles didn’t complain about was the weather–unless of course it was raining. (An English friend of mine used to say the winter rains here were the most depressing she had experienced in her life. “But you’re from London,” I said, at which point she embarked on a comparison between the lovely soft English rain and the cold, pelting Los Angeles rain. I’m not kidding.)

But in 1990, something good happened: the air quality improved noticeably. The apparent reason was the closing of the last auto plant in LA, which ended 50 years of ill-advised heavy manufacturing in the Los Angeles Basin, an area the Tongva Indians used to call The Valley of the Smokes, which perhaps was the original local put-down. In any case, smoggy summers soon gave way to blue skies, and in winter the views of the San Gabriels were stunning. Nevertheless, the civic mood hardly had time to improve before the Rodney King beating (March ’91) and subsequent riots (May ’92) made Los Angeles the most reviled major city in the country. At the time of the riots, I was living in Hancock Park, in a house that lay 6 blocks from multiple fires. My son and I cowered in our house all during that first day, not knowing whether the mayhem on Western and on Wilshire would spill over into door-to-door violence. It was a strange and frightening experience, surreal both at the time and in retrospect.

The following months brought an exodus of Los Angeles haters–people who, if not for the riots, probably would have stayed on unhappily, infecting the civic mood. Instead they lit out for their various hometowns, or New York, and things brightened considerably. But it took the Northridge Quake (January ’94) to really sweep the city clean of detractors who, terrified of The Big One, left in droves. Unfortunately, the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman that June set back the city’s self-image once again, but nothing could undo the post-Rodney King reform of the LAPD, which changed the head-cracking culture of local law enforcement and brought about a huge decline in crime.

Two decades later, it’s unreal to think about these events, all of which eventually changed Los Angeles for the better. As I luxuriate in relatively clean air and low crime rates not seen since the 1950s, it occurs to me that years have passed since I’ve had to listen to anyone disparage Los Angeles. Though it might be because word has gotten out that I’ll say, “Then you should leave,” I think it’s because Los Angeles has become a great place to live. Still, we should let the haters think otherwise, or else they’ll come back.

Bronson Canyon Murder Victim Named

January 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

The man whose head, hands and feet were found in Bronson Canyon this week was Hervey Medellin, a 66-year-old retiree who lived at 6238 DeLongpre Avenue in Hollywood. According to neighbors, Medellin had gone to Tijuana before New Year’s and not returned. His car was impounded from the garage of the apartment building as the police investigation continued.

Medellin worked for Mexicana Airlines before his retirement and apparently had no family in the area.

Bronson Canyon Park reopened to the public today. The park was combed by more than 120 law enforcement officers during the two-day search.

Searching for Body Parts in Bronson Canyon: Day Two

January 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

Investigators and search dogs combed Bronson Canyon today, finding a pair of hands and a pair of feet near the site of yesterday’s discovery of a severed head. According to a friend who tried to walk his dogs there this morning, Bronson Canyon Park–which includes the former quarry (aka “Bat Cave”) and trails leading to the Hollywood Sign–was closed to the public.

Police believe the murder was committed elsewhere and will use dental records to identify the victim. According to LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith, “There’s no other evidence that this is anything besides a single, individual isolated occurrence.”

It would be sad if Bronson Canyon became known for this macabre event. A a regular visitor, I intend to return for a hike as soon as I can. I hope others will do the same.


Helicopters Over Bronson Canyon, and a Gruesome Discovery

January 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Hiking in Bronson Canyon 1/1/09/Hope Anderson Productions

For the past 1 1/2 hours, helicopters have been circling and hovering overhead–an unusually long time for the Hollywood Hills. I soon learned why from a neighbor, who emailed me this link:

Those who hike in Bronson Canyon can attest to the ease with which they can leave the city and hit the trails. The last time I was there, on Christmas Day, my visiting sister was amazed at how quickly we reached wilderness from my house: 10 minutes by car and another 5 on foot. She remarked that it would take her more than half an hour to drive to a comparable area from her much less densely populated city on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Since moving to Beachwood Canyon, I’ve experienced two other incidents of prolonged helicopter surveillance. The first occurred around 2007, when two hikers got stuck on one of the steep trails near the quarry. One was injured, and both required rescue. The second incident, in 2010, was the tragic death of Sally Menke, best known as Quentin Tarantino’s film editor, who collapsed in Bronson Canyon while hiking in record-breaking heat. 

According to the latest report, today’s emergency began when a dog discovered a human head in a bag. Leaving aside uncanny similarities to the work of Tarantino (and David Lynch), I have to wonder at this sentence from a press release I just received: The detectives are treating the case as a possible homicide. Possible?

According to breaking news on the LA Times blog, the head is believed to be that of a recently murdered Armenian man in his 40s. Police are looking for “additional body parts in the area.” Hikers–and their dogs–beware.

Update, 12:40am: The search was suspended at 8pm and will resume at sunrise on Wed., January 18th. Better hike elsewhere today.

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Hollywood’s Trial By Fire

January 4, 2012 § 4 Comments


The fires started in the early morning hours of December 29th. The first broke out in the parking structure of an apartment building on N. Fuller, burning four cars and damaging an apartment above it. Then came three trash fires nearby, on N. Poinsettia, Sunset and McCadden. The arrests soon afterward–of a 22-year-old man, Samuel Arrington, in connection with the first two fires, and a 55-year-old man, Alejandro Pineda, in connection with the last–gave us reason to believe these baffling and unanticipated arsons had ended. 

No such luck. The next night, December 30, saw 19 fires in Hollywood and West Hollywood. Most were started in carports and garages and spread to the apartments above them. But one of the fires, in Laurel Canyon, attracted notice because it burned a relatively out-of-the-way single-family home that once housed Jim Morrison of the Doors. As it happens, the current owner is an acquaintance of mine. She woke up to find her car on fire and flames spreading to the house and managed to escape, along with her cat. [Note: I’ve since found out she was renting the house.]

By New Year’s Eve, Hollywood and West Hollywood were on high alert. I was surrounded by patrol cars as I drove north on La Cienega at 10pm, and found Hollywood Boulevard lined with more police cars than cabs. On Argyle, there seemed to be as many uniformed officers as revelers. Nevertheless, that night the fires spread to the Valley, with others in West Hollywood.

On New Year’s Day, there was only one reported fire. It took place in the Valley and apparently wasn’t related to the others. The arsons resumed on January 2nd with 11 fires, 9 in the Valley and two in West Hollywood. There probably would have been more if not for the arrest of the suspect, 24-year-old Harry Burkhart, by a quick-thinking reserve sheriff’s deputy at Sunset and Fairfax at 3am. Burkhart, a German national who was captured on video leaving the scene of a fire in the parking garage of Hollywood and Highland, was found with fire-starting materials in his van. He has been charged with 37 counts of arson.

The rampage followed Burkhart’s outburst in the courtroom where his mother, 53-year-old Dorothee Burkhart, has been fighting extradition to Germany, where she is wanted on multiple fraud charges. A Russian who speaks limited German, Ms. Burkhart apparently is a career grifter known in Germany for taking deposits for apartments she did not own, and for bilking the surgeon who augmented her breasts. During her time in Los Angeles, she started a business offering “sensual Tantra massage” in the Sunset Blvd. apartment she shared with her son. In court yesterday, she described him as “mentally ill” and, according to the LA Times, “appeared disoriented without her son at her side.”

Meanwhile, Harry Burkhart has earned the nickname “Hollywood Feuerteufel”–“Hollywood Fire Devil–in the German press. He is on suicide watch, and his bond was set at $2.85 million.  

As for Hollywood, things are quieter now than they were during the arsons, when sirens and helicopters were heard all night long. But when a fire truck roared up Beachwood Canyon earlier this evening, sirens blaring, I felt an all-too-familiar dread.

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When Life Imitates an Action Movie: The Shock of Recognition at the Sunset Vine Shootings

December 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

It happened a week ago, but the horror hasn’t worn off: at 10:19am on Dec. 9th, a deranged young man named Tyler Brehm walked up Vine Street towards Sunset Blvd., shooting at the drivers of passing cars. Before he was killed by off-duty LAPD officers, two of whom just happened to be driving through Hollywood, Brehm managed to wound three people, one of whom later died, firing off at least ten rounds. It might have been much worse: there were scores of cars passing through the intersection, and pedestrians caught in the crossfire. Confusing matters further was a nearby film shoot, which made passersby wonder if the shooting wasn’t part of the movie.

Videos and photos only increased the surrealness of the event. The photo above, in which two police officers approach the downed gunman (who has just been shot), recalls “Southland,” as well as every other police drama set in Los Angeles. Even more stunning was the photo, since vanished from the Internet, of Det. Craig Marquez, an off-duty LAPD officer, striding toward the gunman, weapon in hand. Marquez, who was honored today for heroism along with two other officers, looked like he had walked straight out of (or into) a Michael Mann movie.

Beyond the fast and fortuitous police action, there was an extraordinary (and oddly cinematic) intervention by a civilian. Chris Johns, a resident of the Sunset Vine Tower, saw Brehm from his fourth floor apartment and distracted him by pretending to be suicidal, leaning out the window and yelling, “Come on up here, Buddy!” It worked: Brehm took notice, asking Johns for an ambulance and more ammunition. When the police arrived, Johns identified Brehm as the gunman. Then it was over.

The shock has yet to subside, and not just because those of us who live here drive by Sunset and Vine constantly. What lingers disturbingly is the randomness of the crime, and its lurid imitation of TV and cinema. Since Brehm was a newcomer from Pennsylvania, it’s fair to ask, why take it out on us

And why take it out on Hollywood? Though hardly crime-free, it’s not an area where residents or outsiders fear for their lives. Night and day, crowds of tourists roam the streets, along with locals and suburbanites who come for the movies and plays, restaurants and clubs. At Sunset and Vine, everyone uses the ATMs and shops at Trader Joe’s. For the most part, Hollywood is a very pleasant place. 

But last Friday, a homicidal gunman decided to stage his final act there, like a villain in an action movie. He claimed one life but left his mark on many more.

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Prisoners of (the Newly Revitalized) Hollywood

August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

Your Home Is Our Stomping Grounds

Hollywood has spent most of the past century in decline, a process that began in the 1920s and reached its nadir in the 1990s, when the average tourist (according to a poll conducted by the LA Visitors’ Bureau) spent a total of 20 minutes on Hollywood Boulevard. Given the Boulevard’s extreme local color at the time–including panhandlers, petty thieves, runaways and drugged-out zombies–20 minutes seems remarkably generous.

During the early 90s, my  own visits to Hollywood Boulevard averaged one a year–usually at Halloween, under duress. My young son’s enthusiasm for Hollywood Toy and Costume could not be quelled, so we would arrive at the store in daylight, park directly in front (not a problem in those days) and shop as quickly as possible. We were always sure to leave before dark.

Although Hollywood’s revitalization was a Los Angeles objective for decades–and the focus of much governmental planning and investment–it didn’t occur until Hollywood and Highland was completed in 2001. That shopping mall-cum-theater-cum-hotel accomplished what City fathers had long dreamed of:  Hollywood’s return to its origins as a family friendly destination. Tourists came by the busload. New restaurants and clubs followed, and soon Hollywood became a hot spot  for Angelenos as well. It was a striking change: within a couple of years,  Hollywood’s junkies and teen prostitutes gave way to throngs of suburban and exurban teens in search of an exciting nightlife.

The runaway success of Hollywood’s revitalization became clear to me on Halloween of 2008, when some friends and I decided to go for drinks at a bar on Argyle. Although the trip  from my house was about two miles, it took us twenty minutes to drive there because all the streets from the 101 to Sunset were blocked with Halloween revelers. Getting home took over half an hour, and involved getting mooned by a frat boy type whose car was stuck next to mine in traffic on Gower. Since then, I’ve stayed home on Halloween. 

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s “near riot” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. When it began, I was on my way to West Hollywood and unaware of the cause of the gridlock. After several police cars appeared, sirens on and sometimes approaching head-on, I realized I had to abandon my plans. Since I couldn’t get home–traffic was by then backed up through Hollywood–I headed toward Los Feliz to wait it out. 

Even east of Vine, traffic was at a virtual standstill. While stuck in a line of cars at Hollywood Boulevard and Wilton, I noticed a homeless woman lying on the sidewalk, screaming in agony. A man hovered over her, attempting first aid–or so I thought until I saw him tapping a syringe so that he could shoot her up. By the time traffic started moving again, she was sitting up, though still screaming hysterically.

After I got home an hour and a half later, I learned the “near riot” was caused by DJ Kaskade, who had tweeted his followers to come to Hollywood Boulevard for a free mini performance before the premiere of the rave documentary, “Electric Daisy Carnival Experience.” What should have been a crowd of 500 (at least according to the permit) swelled to a few thousand before the LAPD broke it up. Then came the melee that resulted in arrests and the vandalism of three police cars, one of which was set afire.

And then there was the frustration and fear of countless people who, like me, were caught up in the chaos as we tried to go out for the evening, or get home. We live here, pay taxes and never, ever run amok. But in the shiny new “revitalized” Hollywood, our quality of life counts as little as that of those homeless junkies a few blocks to the east.

Party on!

Schadenfreude, Tour Bus Edition

April 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Busted in Beachwood/Courtesy

Coming down Beachwood Drive just before 1pm today, I was amazed by the sight of a motorcycle patrolman ticketing the Starlines Tour trolley bus. Yes, the red-and-green bus that comes up to Hollywoodland several times a day was busted. What for? It might have been for running the stop sign at Scenic, but I’d guess it was for illegal stopping.

Normally this sort of lawlessness–tour bus drivers slamming on the brakes every so often, forcing all traffic behind them to stop–goes unpunished. The drivers take it as their right to stop wherever and whenever they want, regardless of the fact that Beachwood Drive is a two-lane road where passing is mostly prohibited.  They do it with impunity: the one time I confronted a tour van driver (from a rival company) who’d impeded my progress for the past mile, he refused to look at me, let alone respond. It was as if my demand that he pull over to give his spiel were unreasonable, if not crazy. Clearly, the idea that people actually live near the Hollywood Sign came as a shock to both him and his passengers, who stared silently into middle distance as I complained. 

So I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the Starlines trolley ticketed. Little did I know that a half an hour later, on my return trip, I would be further rewarded by the same officer, now ticketing a Hollywood Tours van in exactly the same place, just north of Scenic. Could this be the start of a crackdown? Please say yes, LAPD! And thank you for making my day.

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