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Remembering the riots, 20 years later

It was 20 years ago. Los Angeles was burning. I could smell the smoke. There were reports that a camera store a few blocks away was on fire. I called my friend who lived in the hills and had a police car in front of her house because her husband was an elected official.

I put my daughter in the car seat, a case of wine in the trunk and all the diapers I had in the back seat, and I crawled across a paralyzed and terrified city.

I had lived in the city for three years. I remembered the "problems" in Boston when I was a kid and the schools were being integrated. I remembered the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I had seen pictures of the riots in 1968. I had never smelled smoke like this.

In retrospect, it seems like everyone but the Los Angeles police knew that there could be trouble. No Internet, but the tape of Rodney King being beaten by police officers must have been played a thousand times.

Years before, I'd met Daryl Gates, the legendary and notorious police chief, at a conference on policing at Harvard. New data was being discussed that showed that a small percentage of all criminals commit a large percentage of all violent crimes. The question was how you identify the most dangerous offenders early enough in their careers to make a dent in crime, without infringing on the civil liberties of those who might be wrongly identified. The statistics guys were evaluating various criteria that could be applied to those already in prison to determine who should be incapacitated for longer. The room was full of police chiefs, many of them part of the new wave of African-American chiefs. The attorney general was there, along with top Justice Department officials. The discussion was serious.

Then Gates, the chief of the LAPD, walked in -- tanned, sporting sunglasses, casually dressed. He almost laughed at the serious discussion. In Los Angeles, he said, we know who they are. "How do you know?" one of the statistics guys asked, since the conclusion was that there was really no way to know for certain.

He laughed, for real. "We know."

Maybe not.

On the night of the L.A. riots, Gates went to a fundraiser being held to oppose Prop F, a measure put on the ballot in the wake of the Rodney King beating to give civilians more control over the department. Gates was reportedly reluctant to leave the fundraiser, which was held in one of the city's richest neighborhoods, far from the riots.

There were many memorable things about those days and nights. Learning that the police chief and the mayor were not on speaking terms was one. Realizing that the LAPD had no plan to deal with the possible reaction should the all-white jury in Simi Valley (home to many retired police officers) acquit the officers shown on tape beating King -- which they did -- was another. Accounts of patrol officers who had been warning for months that a plan was needed and higher officers returning to work to find that no one was in charge were pretty stunning in light of the department's reputation for almost militaristic discipline and control. Many people, to this day, believe that the absence of a plan was intentional.

When he finally left the party, Gates commented that there would be some people who would be unprotected. There were. Ironically, most of them were among the city's poorest.

I went home with my diapers and wine after two nights. Even then, there were dusk-to-dawn curfews. My longtime housekeeper's apartment had burned down. She and her family had been camping at my house even while my daughter and I headed for the hills. We all got pizza before the curfew. We drew the shades. You could hear the sirens, but they were some distance away. There was all kinds of talk about how the rioters might come to Beverly Hills; there were pictures of SWAT teams outside the posh stores.

But it never happened. It was not the 1 percent at the top who suffered; it was those at the very bottom.

Much has changed since then. Prop F passed. The LAPD is different, and so are the demographics of the city. Barack Obama is president. Even so, the furor surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the flood of suspicion and distrust it unleashed and the prospect of a racially polarized trial make clear that many things have not changed in 20 years.

Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.