April 29th, 1992 was the day that four LAPD members were acquitted for the use of excessive force in the arrest of Rodney King after a high-speed chase down the streets of Northern Los Angeles. Following this decision, riots broke out in Los Angeles, throwing the city into chaos and causing destruction and turmoil of historic proportions.
On Sunday, April 23rd at 8:00 PM (ET/PT) the Smithsonian Channel will air a documentary called The Lost Tapes: LA Riots, from Executive Producer, Tom Jennings. This documentary features previously un-aired footage and recordings captured by both the Los Angeles police and fire departments that put viewers right back to 1992 for firsthand accounts from those at the center of the turmoil.
CBS Local’s Adam Bloom spoke with Jennings ahead of the documentary’s TV premiere for an inside look at the creation of this audio-visual time capsule.
AB- Hi Tom, happy to speak with you today. I’m actually from Los Angeles, and I was there during the time frame when the riots occurred. I remember seeing tanks roll across Ventura Boulevard and having the curfew, knowing everyone across LA had to be home by a particular time.
TJ- Happy to speak with you as well, Adam. And you are correct, I remember what you remember (laughs).
AB- I really enjoyed the way you’ve told the story, through your use of images and video. I’m curious if you could describe the process in deciding to create it the way you did. Can you take us through the editing and what your primary objective was in creating this piece?
TJ- Well, we do a series for the Smithsonian Channel, of which this is a part. The series is called, The Lost Tapes, and we’ve done a few of these before that have no narration and no interviews. I used to be a newspaper reporter here in Los Angeles, and I worked at the old Santa Monica Outlook and after that the LA Times, but that’s where I was at the time. When I changed to doing documentaries for television, it was great to interview people and put together pieces with a narrator to explain. I love telling stories, I still do. And I had reached a point a few years ago where I thought [that] there’s got to be a better way to make people really experience what these events were like. It’s been done a few times over the years, but it’s a very difficult format, in that we got rid of the narrator. We didn’t do any interviews, and we relied just on the media from that time to tell the story. So we go out and gather all of this material that we can get our hands on. Then it becomes this huge jigsaw puzzle to use other people’s words and reporting to put it all together in a way that makes it feel like you’re actually experiencing what went on.
The story would just continue to flow, almost like a movie. The difference is, everything in this documentary is real and accurate. So we’re taking factual information and presenting it in a way that I think viewers will find much more experiential. We wanted people to feel like this is happening right now. With the state of the world today, so much division in the country, picking a story like the LA Riots to do in this format felt very right and necessary. Hopefully you experience it in a way that is unique to other accounts of what went on.
Then in your own mind, [you’ll] be able to say, “Gee, that’s what it was really like to be around in LA in 1992. How has the world changed today compared to that experience I just had from watching this? Has it changed?” So the point of doing it [this way] was to make it come alive in a way that other documentaries, that have people telling stories from the past, just can’t do.
AB- And I think you did a great job of that, as someone who kind of lived through it. The other interesting aspect is you are telling it for the first time to younger people, who may have never seen images like this before.
TJ- I started out doing History Channel docs after I was a reporter, and it attracted a certain audience of people who were really into history. And that’s great, I am too. There are wonderful and important stories to tell in that format. But for younger people, who really don’t know about something that is relatively modern American history, I think it’s better to let them live through it, experience it, like we did.
It’s intended to just reach out and grab viewers. I always joke that when we do a film like this, people are waiting for the narrator to come and save them. And the narrator never shows up (laughs). It engages you in a different way. Television is so reflexive. Images bounce off your eyes while you’re listening to something, and it’s easy to check out. But it’s hard to check out of this format of storytelling. You’re interacting almost with the story in a way that other forms don’t [allow].
AB- I love that, “You’re waiting for the narrator, and he never comes.” So I’d like to touch on, having been there at the time, some of the more personal things and your feelings about being there. I’m curious if you remember when you saw the Rodney King video and the emotions you had after that initial viewing?
TJ- A lot of the riots at the time, especially having been a reporter, are a blur to be honest. Because you just went on autopilot when the thing started and woke up six days later like, “What just happened?”. But there are key moments I recall distinctly. Working at the paper in Santa Monica — it was a pretty good-sized paper — and when I first saw both the King video and the eventual verdicts of the trial, I was in the newsroom. We had a television hanging from the ceiling, and people were gathering around. When that first report came out with the King beating — I was covering cops at the time — I remember being with a few other reporters when this report came on. It was a video shot by a guy named George Holliday out in the northern section of LA.
At first it was hard to comprehend exactly what I was looking at because it almost seemed like a movie. Then you realize that this isn’t a movie, this is just going on and on and on. There were some more cynical reporters who said, “Well, he was leading police on a 100 mph chase,” which is true, he didn’t stop. But even they after a while said, “Now that’s too much.” People ask me about my first reaction to it when I was a reporter, and I thought somebody should have said, “Stop!” It just didn’t stop.
I remember I was horrified, and I was thinking [that] this is going to cause all kinds of trouble. Los Angeles at the time had this subtext of racial unrest. There had been a young girl killed, named Latasha Harlins, prior to that by a Korean-American grocery store owner, and she was convicted of voluntary manslaughter by a white judge, but given no jail time. We also had riots in ’65 in Watts and a lot of those issues from back then. We liked to think they had been settled, but they really hadn’t. Los Angeles was, and in some ways still is, a very segregated city. You didn’t go to South Central, you stayed out of certain neighborhoods, and it was like everyone didn’t want to admit that. We just wanted to live in the land of endless summer and [think] everything was fine. The King beating was hard to watch, it was a lot to take. And I just remember thinking, well, something is going to come from this with the legal system, you just can’t do that.
AB- It’s interesting, thinking about it now, you almost have to explain to the new generation [that] it wasn’t something standard, as it is today. You couldn’t just record something. It was unique in the sense that someone did that.
TJ- Oh, it was very unique, George Holliday just happened to be living out there. I think he was in his apartment, and this started to unfold across the street from where he was at. He just happened to have one of those old camcorders, and must have said, “Gee this is weird.” He didn’t even get the very beginning of it. I was talking to someone the other day, and I said, “George Holliday was the outlier in terms of capturing horrific things on tape by members of the public. Today we’re all George Hollidays, every one of us. If you have a phone, you’re George Holliday.”
AB- Were there moments from your coverage of the riots that stick out to you, moments when it really hit you how dangerous the environment around you had become?
TJ- I remember distinctly, I was on some street in central LA; I was curious and wanted to get closer [to the heart of the riots]. As you get closer, there’s buildings burning, people smashing storefronts. Then, just wandering in, and all of a sudden I hear gunshots. Now, before we went out, one of the photographers at our newspaper had served in the Vietnam War, and he gathered us around. He described what a bullet sounds like coming towards you versus going away from you. So, if you here this sound, you need to hide. But if it’s going away from you, you can probably keep moving.
Later on that night, the lights were out. There was smoke everywhere. [I] didn’t see a cop, the fire department couldn’t get there because they were being shot at. And I heard gunfire. I remember going into a little storefront alcove and crouching down to hide in the shadows, I was scared because the sound that guy had described, those bullets were coming in my direction. I didn’t feel like I was being shot at personally, but those bullets were coming down the street that I was on. And I remember distinctly thinking, “Wow, I am in LA. This is a city I know, I know exactly where I’m at. The streets are paved. I speak the language, this is the U.S. And I am freaked out.”
AB- The truth is I think it’s all come around. Do you feel that had an impact on what you’ve created?
TJ- It was a very hard story to tell the way we did it. Normally it’s hard to tell [in] that format to begin with, but I wanted to try to find some balance in it. It’s very easy in a story like that to just be one-sided, and it was tough because there were so many points of view to try to explain in a relatively short period of time.
We just had a screening last night actually at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. Nate Holden was a councilman at the time, he was there last night along with other LA dignitaries. So this was the true litmus test of how good the film is. People would say afterwards just when you thought, “Oh you’re showing too many rioters, you pull it back and show the first AME Church from inside and people of reason trying to figure out what to do.”
So I agree, my experience as a reporter helped me in picking and choosing which images and which sounds to put in. Regarding format, people say, “Oh isn’t it funny you were a reporter, you used words for a living to tell stories, and now you don’t write any words at all.” To that I reply, it’s actually all writing, I’m just using other people’s words. It’s actually harder that way because I have to rely on what they said. There’s no crutch, there’s no narrator to turn a corner in the story. We have to rely on what was written in the past to bring it to life in the present.
One thing I want to say about that, there was a radio station in Compton called KJLH. It’s owned by Stevie Wonder, and they were an all-music station at the time who went to an all-talk format. They kind of went into crisis mode, and we found their tapes from then. In telling the story, I was kind of looking for a hero, something positive to hold on to. They reported it themselves but also became kind of a beacon for the community to call in and share their very dramatic stories and emotions. They were obviously frustrated and upset, but they kept it together and allowed people to vent. And we juxtaposed those sounds with the horrible images of the city burning down. That was key in helping tell the story in the most balanced way possible, and it was tough. When I was watching it last night with this audience, I thought people might be really outraged by it. But they all thought it was well done and as balanced as you could possibly make it.
AB- I agree, and I’d like to congratulate you, not only on last night and that screening, but as a person who lived through it in that city I thought it was incredibly well done, and it was great talking with you today! Really appreciate your time.
TJ- Thank you, my pleasure Adam!
The Lost Tapes: LA Riots will air on the Smithsonian Channel at 8:00 PM (ET/PT) on Sunday April 23rd. But you can view the documentary on demand right now at Smithsonianchannel.com. Check your local listings for more information.