'92 riots

Shelby Coffey, LA Times editor then, on the night the riots erupted

shelby-coffey-mug.jpgI was an editor on the Metro staff at the Los Angeles Times during the 1992 riots. It was an intense few nights in the third floor newsroom, but none quite like the first night when crowds moved over to the Times building from Parker Center and some began trying to throw street debris through the windows. One of the milestones of Times lore from Shelby Coffey's era as editor of the paper was his brandishing of scissors to repel rioters trying to climb through a smashed window in the LAT Magazine's first-floor suite. He got crucial backup, if I recall correctly, from a copy clerk. Coffey writes about the episode at the Daily Beast:

The rocks smashed my office windows just after dark--broken glass all over the carpets of the Los Angeles Times’s proud fortress on Spring Street. Down the block, two buildings were on fire. I remember how red the flames looked against the black sky. Chemical fire?, I wondered. Way too close to us, in any case, as were the sirens.


What was not up for debate that opening night was that we at the Times needed police help. As editor, I called Parker Center (police headquarters), hoping the title might get a little notice on what was looking like a bad night for the fabled LAPD. (Worst ever, it turned out.) The phone rang endlessly, without answer.

Next call was to our own uniformed security guards across the street. In the afternoon, the usual couple-of-hundred protestors had marched at Parker Center, two blocks away. By night, the crowd (multihued, it should be noted) had become a broiling mass. More than a few ripped up pavement from a street project unluckily right beside the Times and were hurling away.

“We're pinned in,” said our security guard. An unarguable but disheartening reply.

Then I got a call that looters were inside on the street floor. With one of our bravest newsroom administrators, I headed down to defend our…what? Our computers? Our sense of order? Our flammable mass of paper?

One intruder was coming through the broken windows. I grabbed a pair of scissors and shouted, “Get out!” Luckily for me, he did.

So I went out and walked though the crowds, looking for why they were attacking us. On my tour, this particular crowd was in carnival spirits—though destruction, not sex, was the delight of the evening. It’s catching, as crowd psychologists will tell you.

He adds: "Today the scissors sit, among my souvenirs, with a window-smashing boulder from the street. My very own Rock, Paper, Scissors from the night Los Angeles exploded." He goes on to discuss the paper's coverage of the riots and aftermath. The LA Times won a Pultizer Prize in public service for its coverage of the riots.

Daily Beast riots package: Stories, photos, video

More by Kevin Roderick:
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The Media
LA Times gets a top editor with nothing but questions
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Recent '92 riots stories on LA Observed:
Steve Lopez catches up with the riot victim we don't know
Best evidence yet of the LA Weekly's riots effort in '92 *
Beck on how the riots changed him and LA
LA Times writers revisit their '92 riots observations
LA Weekly's executive editor in '92 details riot coverage
Los Angeles more worldly since '92, LA Times 'more insular'
A new generation steps up
Police union's take on what we've learned from the riots


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