LA Riot photos: Capturing the rage and flames as the city burned

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On April 29, 1992, my plan was to cover the guilty verdicts at the Rodney King trial, quickly process the images, and join friends later for a birthday party.

I was inside the press room at the Simi Valley courthouse in the early afternoon, awaiting the verdicts in the case against four white L.A.P.D. officers whose beating of Rodney King was caught on video the year before. 

Then the verdict was announced four times: “not guilty” on all charges. Gasp and disbelief filled the room. I went outside to try to get a photo of officers Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, Laurence Powell, and Stacey Koon. 

I ran into film director John Singleton, who was wearing a Marvel hat depicting the character Black Panther. He looked worried as mayhem began to break out as the cops left the courthouse.

Local radio news said people were throwing rocks and bottles at Florence and Normandie in South Central LA. I’ve been in that area before and knew to avoid it in this scenario. 

I was low on film, so I headed to the camera store. I had just finished buying all the film I could, and I heard a rhythmic sound against the building. Someone just fired an automatic weapon at the camera store. We were told to leave as they shut down.  

I headed to L.A.P.D headquarters, Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles. A group of protesters began to encircle the building, and they knocked over a parking kiosk and lit it on fire. 

I thought it would be safe to park near a L.A.P.D. cruiser. The crowd began to riot in the downtown streets. They came upon the cruiser and turned it over, then set it on fire.  

They began to turn my car over. The only thing that stopped them was the ammo popping off from the cruiser fire.  

Covering the riots was totally different than it would be now. The internet wasn’t in play. No email, social media or text messaging. I tuned into an AM radio broadcast, followed columns of smoke, and listened for sirens or gunshots to find things to photograph.

I was lucky to not get beaten, shot and robbed, unlike many of my colleagues. I shed my press credentials and carried one camera in a sack with a hole in it to take photos through. My nights were spent in my makeshift darkroom inside a garage that wasn’t light-tight, so I had until early morning to finish processing film and prints.  

When I finally succumbed to exhaustion after a few days of shooting and processing, a light rain fell upon the city, briefly washing away the soot. That wasn’t the plan at all.

Angelenos in South Central LA gather on a street corner to ask fellow residents to stop the violence and rioting. Photo by Ted Soqui.

The National Guard is deployed in South Central Los Angeles as residents look on. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Armed National Guard soldiers hold a line on Crenshaw Blvd. in South Central LA. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Rioters overturn a parking kiosk in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Rioters set a parking kiosk ablaze near LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Ted Soqui.

A swap meet mall in downtown Los Angeles burns. Photo by Ted Soqui.
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Police officers form a line outside of LAPD headquarters, Parker Center, on the first evening of the LA riots. Photo by Ted Soqui.

A masked rioter burns a U.S. flag over a palm tree above the 101 freeway. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Palm trees are on fire next to an empty 101 freeway. Photo by Ted Soqui.

Firefighters attempt to extinguish the Pathfinder bookstore on the 2500 block of Pico Blvd. Photo by Ted Soqui.

A looted shopping mall burns in Los Angeles. Photo by Ted Soqui.

A woman and her two children walk on Vermont Ave. in South Central Los Angeles. Photo by Ted Soqui.
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A group of children walk by damaged businesses in South Los Angeles. Photo by Ted Soqui.