Three Riots

I’ve been in three riots.

Three  honest-to-goodness, capital “R” riots. Didn’t start them. Didn’t participate in them. Didn’t seek them out, like I’m some kind of war correspondent (“Have civil unrest? Will travel!”). It’s just that when I get into a sufficiently large crowd of people, there’s a higher-than-normal chance of someone shouting, “Kill the pigs!”

Really? Really. Seriously?

Let’s walk through all three.

The Palm Springs Riot

I like to think I played a small part in birthing the political career of Sonny Bono.

Before he was Congressman Bono, he was Mayor Bono of Palm Springs, Calif. Elected in 1988, as the story goes, Bono opened a restaurant in the city and got into a kerfluffle with the city council about a permit for a sign. Instead of fighting city hall, Bono decided to pull a Clint Eastwood and become city hall. Two years earlier, Eastwood became mayor of Carmel, Calif., in similar circumstances – unhappy with a city zoning practice, Eastwood got himself elected and settled his little problem.

Bono had bigger plans, though. In addition to getting his sign, one of Bono’s platforms was to erase the city’s reputation as a Spring Break destination. In the 80s, Palm Springs was just as much a party spot as Fort Lauderdale and South Padre Island, and in 1986 and 1987, the collegiate bacchanal bubbled over into full-blown rioting.

I imagine Bono, in his restaurant, sweeping up thong bikinis and rousting passed-out Sociology majors. He shakes a sequined fist. “There oughta be a law!”

A fabulous, fabulous law.

I visited Palm Springs in both 86 and 87. Now, I missed the ‘86 riot, which was the more famous one, but that trip spawned its own How Are You Not Dead story — I’ll come to that one in due time. Rather, in ‘87, I sped out to Palm Springs with a posse of fellow over-educated, under-employed Disneyland workers, and we planted ourselves at a beer garden overlooking the main drag, which had a miles-long train of cars, just cruising up and down the street. There was beer, water balloons, fire extinguishers. No girls gone wild, that I could see. Dammit.

Now here’s the main thing I’ve learned about riots: Everything is fine and then suddenly it’s not. There’s almost no transition from civil to not-civil. One minute you’re having a good time. The next minute, you’re an extra in a Mad Max sequel.

"Give me your pump, the oil, the gasoline and the whole compound, and I will let you return safely to UC Santa Barbara."

A guy got soused by water from an old-school pump fire extinguisher. He responded by dragging the shooter out of the back of the pick-up. The shooter’s friends jump to his defense. And some other guy decides it’s the perfect time to set a palm tree on fire.

And then SHAZAM there were cops in riot gear, walking down the street in a skirmish line. The beer garden emptied out. I decided to walk toward the cops, thinking, “Well, since I’m not actively rioting, they’ll let me pass, right?”

"This one says he’s a Journalism major. I’ll trade him to you for a Pre-Med."

The Huntington Beach Riot

Huntington Beach is Surf City USA. They’ve trademarked the name and everything. The south side of the pier is the key spot, with left-breaking waves that can take you perilously close to the pier pilings. You can shoot the pier and either gain instant immortality. Or serious head wounds.

In other words, it’s perfect for the annual U.S. Open of Surfing. In 1986, this event was sponsored by a surfwear brand called Ocean Pacific, which in the early 80s was like Abercrombie, Aeropostale and Hollister all rolled into one. The OP Pro was more than just a surfing contest – it was a full-blown weekend event with skateboards, MTV and a bikini contest.

I had to go. Obviously. Dude.


About 100,000 people had the same idea. I parked miles away, in nearby Newport Beach, and rode a bike into Huntington, which allowed me to maneuver around. But even then, I couldn’t really see anybody surfing. Just faraway dots in the water, and the occasional cheer from the beach. In other words, just like any other day at the beach, only with way more people.

And then they flipped over a police car and set it on fire.

I'm the one on the left. Devastatingly handsome with six-pack abs. Just kidding. I'm in the blimp.

The news stories pegged it accurately – however it got started, it started near the bikini contest. Again, everything is hunky-dory. A day at the beach. Whoo, check out the blonde. Hey, let’s burn this police car!

"I am gravely disappointed. Again you have made me unleash my dogs of war."

I rode back to Newport Beach.

The Rodney King Riot

I hadn’t quite graduated from college. I had one, last annoying class, which kept me around campus for one, last, annoying semester. In hindsight, I should’ve just blown it off. I mean, at this point, I even had a full-time job as an actual journalist (I asked for an internship, and the nice old lady offered me a job instead). And no one has ever asked for proof of my nearly useless Bachelor’s degree, but I have one.

So, at about 4 p.m., on April 29, 1992, I was walking down the hall toward the newsroom of The Daily Titan, the college newspaper. Walking in the other direction was one of my journalism professors, Jay Berman.

“Did you hear?” he said.

“Hear what?”

“They let them off.”

Jay was referring to Messrs. Koon, Powell, Wind and Briseno, the four police officers that were filmed beating Rodney King.

Courtesy of "LAPD Greatest Hits."

The idea that all four of them would walk seemed preposterous.

“You know,” I said to him, “I’d hate to be a police officer tonight.”

Jay pulled up and visibly winced at the thought. I have never, ever predicted anything with as much accuracy as I did in that moment.

Fast forward a few hours and now the riot has metastasized. The junior college volleyball game I was supposed to cover for the Daily Star-Progress is canceled, and now the Orange County Register is marshaling people for coverage. This was the Big One. The event everyone was waiting for. These reporters and editors seemed just as crazy as the rioters.

"You there, sports guy. You're Frank, right? You can take pictures, right?"

And just like that, I’m a riot correspondent, in the midst of what my own paper would classify as an “orgy of violence.”

Highlights from the next few days:

  • The National Guard was marshaling troops at the Fullerton Armory. My first reaction was, “We have an armory? For what? In case Anaheim invades?” But yeah, the city had an armory, and I met two types of guardsmen – guys eager to finally get a chance to kill someone, and … and … no, that’s pretty much every Guardsman I met that night.
  • Dominos Pizza was still delivering. Medium size pepperoni only. Twenty bucks. In cash. No change provided. And the delivery guy won’t get out of the car — you throw him the money, he throws you the pizza. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.
  • If you’ve never seen real looting, I recommend it. It’s like watching kids scrambling for piñata candy. Only instead of kids, it’s everyone. And instead of candy, it’s everything that isn’t nailed down. You all know that one guy? The one that sees a couch on the side of the highway and thinks, “I could use that. We’re taking that with us.” Now imagine that everyone you see is that guy.

Not pictured: Civilization and rule of law.

Still, even in the midst of a riot, there’s humanity. For example, I saw several cars wait patiently while an older gentleman carried a television across a street. The Boy Scout in me almost wanted to help him. And maybe score a merit badge.

But for the record, I didn’t steal anything.

Scout's honor.