I am republishing my three-part series about the LA Riots of 1992 in which Karen and I and the children were trapped for several frightening hours. We were unarmed, helpless save for our wits. The police were conspicuously absent and the bad guys, frequently armed with heavy weapons, owned the streets. It was a defining moment in my life.
I’m reposting this series as a cautionary tale because the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre has sharpened the claws of the statist utopians, whose ultimate aim is to disarm law-abiding American citizens.
Just as Obamacare has nothing to do with health, and cap and trade has nothing to do with so-called global warming, anti-gun laws have nothing to do with saving children’s lives.
It’s just another opportunity for the left to centralize power.
Los Angeles burns, 1992.
Hollywood is Burning
Hollywood is on fire.
Karen and I lock every door in the house, shut tight the windows. We move through the house switching off all the lights.
Gazing from our bedroom window we watch orange flames lick at the darkness, pillars of black smoke climb into the sky. We can actually smell the acrid odor of burning rubber.
“Look how close they are,” says Karen.
“Just past La Cienega. Maybe eight blocks away.”
Karen gives me a long penetrating gaze:
“What do we do if they come here?”
My mind is racing away. The truth is we are defenseless. Unless I get crazy inventive like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs.
“After this is all over,” I vow, “I’m going to buy a pistol.”
The rioters are surging toward the front doors of the theater. They are shouting, but the glass doors are so thick we cannot hear what they’re screaming. The visual is quite enough. Their faces are twisted into expressions of raw hatred. The mob looks intent on some serious violence.
A few kids are laughing, milling about aimlessly and in apparent good cheer. Hey, maybe this is just a community street festival.
We’re at a screening for a new movie. It’s a Hollywood premiere, a charity event for, get this, inner city youth.
I’m friends with the executive producer.
“Bring Karen and the kids,” the producer chirps on the phone. “It’s a kid-friendly movie, there’s gonna be a reception, and really, Robert, it’s gonna be fab-u-lous.”
And so: because this producer is my friend and I want to support her movie, and because I’m a Hollywood screenwriter and personal relationships grease the wheels of the business, and because the producer is a player and admires my work, I schlep Karen, Ariel, 11, and Offspring #2, seven years old, to the screening-slash-charity benefit in the DGA building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
What could possibly go wrong at a swanky premiere?
Inner City Youth Are Outside—But Not For Long
It is a Wednesday evening, April 29, 1992. The Rodney King tape has been running like an eternal loop on every network 24/7.
The film, a real stinker, at long last cuts to its final fade to black. Everyone is now mingling in the reception area. Guests congratulate the producer, director and stars, assuring them that the film is: ”great, just great,” and “the best work you’ve ever done,” all the expected and acceptable lies we tell each other.
Suddenly a chill sweeps through the room.
Something is happening.
It’s happening outside.
I step towards the large plate glass doors of the theater. The security men, two burly rent-a-cops, deeply alarmed, start locking the row of doors.
Dustin Hoffman in “Straw Dogs,” 1971.
Mesmerized, I stare as something hard bounces off the thick glass. There is a tiny white wound.
“Step back from the doors,” the security men say.
I stay put. I want to see what’s happening.
“Please, step away from the doors,” they plead as more guests press forward trying to glimpse the fearful gathering outside.
I see it happening. A classic shot unwinding in slow motion: the mob swarms towards the DGA building, towards us: a thick wave of fury marching with a terrible velocity towards this cocoon of—there’s no way around this—Hollywood liberals.
Sheesh, talk about a target-rich environment.
It’s almost funny.
Here we are, inside, raising funds for inner city youth, and —
— and the inner city youth are outside trying to get in.
Not, mind you, to express their ever-lasting appreciation for our spectacular generosity. Nope, hard as it is to believe, but it looks as if the objects of our charity would like to lynch us.
Or maybe burn us to death.
Almost funny. But not quite.
Hey, This is Just Like the Movies, Only Not Really
Abruptly, we are plunged into darkness.
And as if on cue, a woman screams, just like in the movies.
Offspring #2 leaps into my arms.
Trembling like a frightened rabbit, she stutters:
“D-d-d-daddy, what’s happening?”
Karen grips my arm:
Ariel squeezes my hand, and asks:
“What happened to the lights?”
I’m thinking: Do I really look like I have the answers?
A rent-a-cop calls out: “We turned off the lights so they can’t see inside. It’s a safety precaution.”
Panic spreads like a virus through the crowd.
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War I had a long and detailed conversation with an Israeli officer, an incredibly brave and highly decorated tank commander who explained why Israel always beat the Arabs in war:
“We maneuver, we remain flexible, creative and liquid. The Arabs have a fatal tendency to fall back into a defensive posture. You cannot win a battle or a war when your position is static. We shoot and scoot. We keep moving, we probe the enemy’s flanks and then move in for the kill.”
We are trapped in the lobby and outside a mob of rioters is moving in, surrounding the building.
Time to go Israeli.
I have to protect my family.
I’m pretty sure the mob outside is dead serious about breaking in and getting down to some serious violence.
Not to mention liberating some pretty major karats. At the reception, I noticed huge diamonds whose glitter could induce seizures; watches: at least a dozen Cartier Tanks; I could not count the Rolex Oysters, and no doubt there’s enough loose cash to make your average L.A. rioter reasonably satisfied. This is, after all, an affluent Hollywood crowd.
Armed & Dangerous With a Swiss Army Knife—Just Kidding
I have to protect my family.
In my pocket, as always, a little Swiss Army knife.
“I’ve never yet seen an eyeball who felt that the Swiss Army knife was not a dangerous weapon.”
This charming and somewhat gruesome comment — advice, really — was given to me by my Israeli buddy, a grizzled tank commander who, one drunken evening, cheerily listed for yours truly all the common, everyday objects that have lethal potential. My friend was a big fan of the ordinary Swiss Army knife and its zillions of nifty attachments.
So: it is pitch black, rioters are gathering outside the DGA building, and to make matters even worse, women and children in the lobby are yelling, sobbing—every moist and yucky sound imaginable—in panic.
I feel like announcing:
“People, shrieking does not help. Really, it doesn’t.”
But why bother? It’s a mob mentality and there is no reasoning with such people. Unless maybe you’re Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Which I am not.
I’m busy formulating a plan, trying to figure out a way to escape this building before the rioters break in, before they figure out a way of crashing through one of the numerous doors.
Karen does not scream or yell.
Unnaturally calm is the love of my life. Even as stones—where do the rioters get rocks?—thwack sharply against the front doors, Karen does not even flinch.
It’s almost eerie. Basically, everyone else is losing their collective minds, but Karen’s expression just builds into this magnificent wall of serene composure. Her posture goes taut, as if a steel rod is welded into her spine and molding her into an incredibly cute Marine.
I have this really weird urge to lift her sleeve and seek out the Semper Fi tattoo. And then there’s her lovely face. All the open and generous softness has receded and been replaced by a look of, by a look of — well, the only way to describe her expression is —
Napoleon at Austerlitz.
— have you ever seen those military paintings of seventeenth-century generals? You know those huge canvases where you get to see a full battle, say Austerlitz, or Waterloo, thousands of men are fighting, dying, blood and guts strewn about, rearing horses with eyes wide as saucers, but the general, the reason for the painting in the first place — well, he’s usually sitting on his white horse, on a hill, watching the battle, and his expression conveys determination, resolve, bravery, a self-assurance that says to the viewer: Look, believe me, I know exactly what I’m doing.
Anyway, that’s what Karen looks like tonight.
“Karen,” I whisper, “I think we should get to the car and get out of here.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
I’ve been in love with Karen since I was nine years old and have come to the realization that she’s one part Antigone and all Patton.
“Everybody, everybody! Attention, please! We cut the lights. We don’t want them to be able to see inside. Do you understand? We shut down the power. Not them.”
There is a collective buzz as a rent-a-cop repeats this vital announcement.
“What are we supposed to do now?” people shout.
“We’ve called the police,” comes the weak reply.
More nervous buzzing.
“Please, ladies and gentlemen, just wait for the police to arrive.”
I’m thinking: famous last words.
Offspring #2 is still in my arms, still glued to my hip, and though seven years old, she has regressed and jammed her thumb in her mouth; she trembles mightily, as if freezing. I can actually hear her teeth chattering.
Karen and I edge our way to the staircase; we are not going to wait for the police. We are not going to sit here like victims.
We are going to make our way down to the parking garage, jump into the car, and drive home. We are going to take our fate in our own hands.
The cavalry, I’m pretty sure, and with all apologies to John Ford, is not coming to the rescue.
The Police Are Coming—But Not Really
“Where are you going?”
A rent-a-cop is posted at the staircase.
“To our car,” I tell him.
“That’s not a good idea, sir.”
“We think it is.”
“We’ve called the police.”
“Where are they?”
He says nothing.
“How long before they come?”
I gesture toward the rioters doing their hostile little dances outside the DGA building:
“What happens when they start throwing Molotov cocktails?”
Rent-a-cop takes a deep breath.
“The police are coming,” he insists.
“Excuse me, we’re going to our car. You can’t stop us.”
The rent-a-cop has about two hundred pounds—all muscle—on yours truly and I’m terrified that he’s going to challenge me.
Thank G-d, he steps aside, murmurs something about not being responsible for our safety.
Poor guy. He’s trying to do his job, but he no longer knows what his job is.
Robert’s Rules for Driving Through a Riot
1. Do not stop for anyone or anything.
2. Not even to help someone. My first responsibility is to my family.
3. If rioters try to blockade the car, drive straight through.
4. If the car stalls, don’t leave the car.
5. Unless the car is on fire.
These rules flash through my mind in a split second.
The Fashionable and Magic Backpack
The stairwell is pitch black. Not good. In fact, it’s bad, very bad.
Suddenly, a golden beam of light slices through the velvety darkness.
“Look,” says Ariel, “Mommy has a flashlight.”
The children are delighted.
Karen carries an extremely cool and very feminine leather backpack. It’s something of a joke in the family that the backpack is magic. Whatever you need, whenever you need it, it’s gonna be in the backpack.
Except for a pistol.
Cautiously looking for signs of the rioters hiding in the garage, we make our way to the car. I’ve definitely seen too many movies. I almost declare: The coast is clear.
I snap Offspring #2 into her car seat. Ariel, 11, also sits in the back with his younger sister. He is pale with fear and confusion. I touch his arm and murmur: “Everything is going to be fine.”
Ariel gives a weak smile and nods his head.
Our children trust us to protect them.
The burden of parenthood has never felt more grave.
Starting up the engine, I realize that I am drenched in sweat, my shirt clings to my body.
Karen reaches into the glove compartment, pulls out the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles.
“We may have to find a different route home,” she says.
Using commencement-of-production bonus money from my most recent film, we bought a Lexus outfitted with a massive eight-cylinder engine. It was a good move. The Lexus is a gas guzzler, but who cares? It’s our Centurion.
And as we cruise up the ramp, my breath catches in my throat, for there are a dozen rioters milling about the exit.
Oh, man — am I going to be able to put pedal to metal and smash through a bunch of real live human bodies?
My Israeli friend, the tank officer, had something like sixteen kills in a Sinai tank battle during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When I complimented him on this huge kill ratio, he waved it off and said:
“It’s no big deal killing an Egyptian tank. They have this habit of hunkering down and using their tanks as artillery platforms. All wrong. Picking them off was a bit too easy. Remember: always fight an offensive battle. Most people are cowards, so if you keep coming at them, chances are they will retreat.”
The torture of Reginald Denny.
“Attack, always attack.”
My friend, the heroic Israeli tank commander, told me that in the first few days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, both fronts, the Sinai and the Golan Heights, were so weakly defended that had the Egyptian or Syrian high command been strategically bolder, tactically smarter, and their soldiers braver… well, the Arab armies could have achieved massive breakthroughs, and Israel would have found herself facing genocide.
But small — actually, tiny — pockets of brave, determined and very well-trained Israeli troops — in some cases just two or three tanks on the Golan Heights — held their ground and attacked enemy forces sometimes a hundred times their strength.
Screenwriter Escapes DGA Building—Note the Irony
“We had no orders except to hold our ground and whenever possible to attack—always attack.”
All this whips through my mind as I aim our car—I’m already thinking of the Lexus as a tank, a Centurion—towards the exit of the parking garage. A knot of rioters is milling about at the exit. It’s hard to see clearly, but oh, boy — it looks like a few of them are brandishing baseball bats.
I’m gonna make a wild guess and assume that they’re not Little League dads.
I haven’t turned on the car’s headlights. We’re still lurking in the shadows, not yet detected by the barbarians.
Good thing the car is fashionably black.
Karen says: “Maybe there’s another exit.”
“How do you know?”
“DGA building. I’ve been here like a zillion times.”
“What are we going to do?”
The Talmud teaches that when a husband or wife uses the collective “we,” it means there is love in the relationship.
Is there a finer way to enter battle than with the woman I have been in love with since fourth grade?
Ariel, 11, says: “I have to pee.”
Offspring #2, seven years old, doubles over with an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. She finds this absolutely hysterical.
“You’re going to have to hold it in for a while, Ariel. Do you think you can do that?” Karen says.
Karen and I exchange glances. Karen gives me a pale smile of encouragement.
Robert: “I just have to say it.”
Robert: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Karen inclines her head, questioning.
Robert: “Bette Davis, All About Eve, 1950, written and directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz.”
Karen sighs, tolerantly but with affection: “Robert, Robert.”
In the back seat, the nervous giggles from Offspring #2 increase tenfold.
My Israeli buddy, the tank commander, was fond of quoting Sun Tzu’s Art of War. One of his favorite maxims was:
Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
I inch the car forward, gain speed, 4 mph, 7 mph…
Now: I switch on the headlights using—surprise, hi-beams!—drenching the criminals in white light. I lean on the horn and —
— and the rioters are drenched in the powerful lights (those Japanese engineers, G-d bless ’em) — and the shrieking horn is amplified by the concrete garage walls. The knuckleheads are blinded, frozen as I bear down on them at what seems like Formula One speed, and now they fall back like bowling pins and —
Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.”
— and we blow right past them, make a sharp left turn—we’re ordered by a street sign to turn right, but that would deliver us to the front of the DGA building and directly into the eye of the mob, and so, tires screeching—hey, just like Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”—we race away from the theater.
Heaving a great sigh, I realize that I have not taken a breath in, gee willikers, a long, long time.
I zoom down the block, pull over, and gulp oxygen.
“You okay?” Karen asks.
But my heart is slamming in my chest like a Ginger Baker solo.
Hey, Los Angeles is Just Like Fatah Land—Only More Fashionable
Karen snaps on her little flashlight, studies the Thomas Guide. Using her index finger, she traces a route home.
“I think we should stick to the main streets. It’ll probably be safer.” Karen says.
“You navigate. I’ll pilot.”
“Let’s get moving,” Karen cautions.
Karen’s like: Huh?
I have seen way too many war movies. Seriously.
As we cruise through the chaotic streets, we spot fires burning all over the city. A canopy of red and orange spreads through the velvety darkness. It’s kind of beautiful, like a romantic J.M. W. Turner canvas.
Small businesses are deliberately torched.
Orange streaks of fire inscribe themselves against the velvety sky. It takes me a moment to recognize the distinctive signature of Molotov cocktails.
Los Angeles has turned into Fatah Land.
“Where’s the fire department?” Karen asks.
Looters help themselves to everything from television sets and stereos to diapers and liquor.
Every so often we hear the distinctive flat crack of gun fire.
Nowhere do we see any police.
Trying to avoid a massive traffic jam, I turn down a side-street. Karen leans forward, spots something and cries:
Thirty yards separate us from a group of thugs who are chilling in the street. They watch us with flinty eyes. All wicked and street-savvy, they shuffle in our direction.
They’re all: yo, yo, yo.
And I’m all: oy, oy, oy.
Call me crazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion they’re not looking to discuss the cinema of Oscar Micheaux.
“Let’s get out of here,” Karen says.
Who am I to disagree with the love of my life?
I shift into reverse. Back up a few feet, shift into drive, angling for a sharp U turn, but the thugs are coming up awfully fast in my rear-view mirror.
I’m pretty sure one of the locals is toting a Tec 9. Or maybe it’s just a chunk of lumber.
And I’ve got a Swiss Army knife.
Talk about being out-gunned.
Do not mess with Gloria Grahame.
“Robert…” says Karen says through clenched teeth.
No time for a neat, driver’s-ed three-point turn.
I blast forward, squeak through a gap between two parked cars, hurtle right up onto the sidewalk, and then, ca-runch! yet another bone rattling move down the high curb, back into the street and:
“Some move,” says Karen.
She touches my shoulder. And to this very day I still feel the cool imprint of her hand.
It’s Karen’s way of saying, “My hero.”
Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Entry in Robert’s Official Screenwriting Notebook: Write this extremely scary, axle-cracking maneuver into your next script—no matter what the subject matter.
“I really, really, really have to pee,” Ariel reminds us.
I hand him an empty Styrofoam coffee cup.
Twenty Minutes to Get Anywhere in Los Angeles—Except During, Ahem, Civil Unrest
It takes us over an hour and a half to get home. Normally, this drive would take maybetwenty minutes.
But we have to circle round and double back countless times in order to avoid choked arteries, major intersections where madness reigns—traffic lights are ignored—and then there are unknown side streets that cause Karen to observe:
“We’ll never get out of there alive.”
Listening to the radio, we hear about the Rodney King verdict. So that’s the grievance du jour.
The fire department, we learn, is not being deployed because their men have come under intense gunfire.
We hear—and I have trouble believing this report—that the Los Angeles Police Department has been “pulled back for their own safety.”
I thought that was part of the job description.
Casa Avrech: I carry Offspring #2 to bed, where she recites the Sh’ma and then promptly falls asleep. We tell Ariel how proud of him we are. He shrugs. No big deal. Five minutes later, he’s fast asleep.
Karen, crisp and efficient, pins a bed sheet over the large picture window in the living room. We cannot be too careful. I search the house for a weapon, settle on an old ice ax from my mountain-climbing days. It’s an elegant tool with wicked potential in hand-to-hand combat, but obviously useless against firearms or a hail of Molotov cocktails.
Abruptly, I feel a burning pain—a white-hot spike—shooting through both my arms. Did I get hit by a stray bullet?
I examine my hands and gosh, my fingers are curled into claws. It takes me a moment to realize that it’s from gripping the steering wheel so hard. Painful muscle cramps travel from my knuckles into my shoulders. It takes at least an hour for the pain to subside.
On the TV, Karen and I watch as Reginald Denny gets his brains bashed in. We gaze in horror and disbelief as the barbarians dance over his broken body. With tears in our eyes, we see pious citizens, G-d bless them, step in and halt this atrocity, rescuing the tragic truck driver.
There’s a video of Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant. He, like Denny, is pulled from his truck and robbed. But theft is almost beside the point. The rioters-slash-torturers smash open his head, then slice off an ear. The mob graffiti his chest, torso and genitals.
Take my word for it, graffiti is not an art form.
Between fifty and fifty-six citizens are murdered in the riots; two thousand are seriously injured.
At last, the LAPD is deployed. Its officers make approximately 10,000 arrests.
Estimates of between 800 million and a billion dollars in property damage have been reported. Approximately 3,600 fires were deliberately set, destroying 1,100 buildings.
Korean shopkeepers were specifically targeted by black rioters. But the Koreans owned guns and heroically defended their property and lives through force of arms, frequently using AR-15s against heavily-armed looters. So anyone who tells you that private citizens don’t need assault weapons are just plain ignorant. Besides, it is the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Needs.
It was a lesson that should have reverberated nationally, but some commentators labeled the Koreans vigilantes. Just another case of the mainstream media getting it wrong.
Liberal totalitarians demand increased gun control, if not the outright banning of gun sales to citizens.
Second Amendment — what’s that?
And then, of course, the race hustlers — Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Maxine Waters, the usual vulgar demagogues — parade across TV screens informing the good citizens of Los Angeles that the riots were really “an uprising.”
As in: The Warsaw Ghetto uprising?
Gazing from our bedroom window, we watch orange flames lick at the darkness, pillars of black smoke climbing into the sky. We can actually smell the acrid odor of burning rubber.
“Look how close they are,” says Karen.
“Just past La Cienega. Maybe eight blocks away.”
Karen gives me a long penetrating gaze:
“What do we do if they come here?”
“After this is all over,” I vow, “I’m going to buy a pistol.”
Karen says: “How about a shotgun?”
My Springfield .45 ASP.
If the Los Angeles riots taught us anything, it’s that you’re a fool if you count on the authorities to protect you in times of civil chaos — in fact, at any time. In the end, only I can protect my family.
I’m never, ever going to allow myself to be outgunned by the bad guys. All the gun laws that are on the books—and there are thousands of them—just make it that much easier for the barbarians to amass weapons and for law-abiding people like you and me to be at their mercy.
If you outlaw weapons, as so many squishy liberals yearn to do — well then, only the state and the outlaws will be armed. Which leaves ordinary citizens at the mercy of an all-powerful government and a variety of merciless criminal subcultures.
When Hitler and Stalin snatched power, one of their first moves was to outlaw private gun ownership. They understood that armed citizens are a mortal threat to totalitarian rule.
Imagine: several million Jews owning firearms between 1938 and 1945.
Is the mind capable of such a leap of faith or is it too painful?
One week after the riots I legally purchased a pistol: a 1911 Springfield .45. It’s the pistol I trained with in Israel. Yes, it’s heavy, and yes, the recoil kicks like a Rockette; but this is the weapon I know best and on good days I can shoot the wings off a fly at twenty-five yards. I cordially invite any mugger, rioter, criminal, gun-hating progressive, anarchist, or Jew-hating Islamist to come at me or my family, because now I am a Jew with a gun.
FADE TO BLACK
Note: I’m frequently asked how I’m able to remember incidents in such detail, including dialogue, from so many years ago. It’s simple. I do not rely on my memory. I have been keeping a detailed diary for over 30 years. This post, as so many others, is based on my diaries. If there are gaps in my entries, I check with Karen. She also kept a diary.