This weekend, the local news will be filled with stories about the long-awaited opening of the Metro Expo Line Phase I running from downtown to La Cienega Boulevard.
But another event this week in Los Angeles history is worth noting as well: the 20th anniversary of the 1992 riots that rocked the city for six consecutive days, and the impact on and reaction from one of our predecessor agencies — the Southern California Rapid Transit District.
The riots were triggered by the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers in the videotaped beating of African-American motorist Rodney King more than a year earlier.
Fifty-three people died during the riots and as many as 2,000 were injured.
While details of the civil unrest will surely be recounted elsewhere, the legacy of the Southern California Rapid Transit District’s crisis management response should be remembered and make all transit employees proud.
In the early hours after the disturbances broke out, transit operators in South Los Angeles were the first to feel the impact.
Rocks, bricks and eggs started flying at their vehicles, but operators kept the buses running until central dispatch pulled them from the streets.
When another transit agency was not able to retrieve its passengers at the El Monte Transit Station, SCRTD rolled out extra buses to take them from El Monte to downtown.
In addition to transit operators serving heroically, employees in other parts of the agency worked wonders in addressing and responding to rapidly developing issues.
Dispatchers rose to the occasion under tremendous pressure.
Division 5 in South Los Angeles was turned into a command post for up to 4,500 military personnel, police officers and firefighters.
Maintenance workers repeatedly fueled 170 fire engines stationed there, along with scores of police cars and motorcycles and National Guard vehicles.
SCRTD’s 200-member police force stood side-by-side on the front lines with Los Angeles City and County law enforcement officials to help reestablish order.
The took 12-hour watches at the District’s facilities in troubled area as well.
The cutback or cancellation of service on 28 bus lines in South Los Angeles impacted SCRTD customer service who handled a daily average of 35,246 phone calls during the riots.
The District’s five-person News Bureau staff worked six-hour shifts around the clock to provide dozens of interviews which kept television, radio and print journalists apprised of the latest news to in turn inform the public.
At the height of the disturbances, 140 SCRTD buses were helping to transport men and women who were able to enforce curfews and regain control of the affected region.
Calls rolled in from police and military personnel requesting emergency service.
Southern California Rapid Transit General Manager Alan Pegg lauded what he called “a courageous response to the crisis“:
I have never been prouder of the men and women of the Southern California Rapid Transit District than I was during the civil disturbances that wracked Los Angeles beginning the evening of April 29…
It brought home to me in the most graphic manner possible the intense dedication of RTD professionals who worked long hours under the most adverse conditions to provide transit service.
We provided that service not only to patrons in as many neighborhoods as we could reach, but also transported hundreds of police officers, Sheriff’s deputies, National Guardsmen, Marines, Red Cross evacuees and even prisoners.
In his statement to employees, Pegg wrote about two very important issues: the social justice implications of transportation, and the flexibility of buses in a transit system.
He noted that:
As we look back on the civil crisis of 1992, it is well to remember the findings of the McCone Commission following the Watts riots in 1965.
The Commission reported that lack of public transportation before the disturbances had trapped residents in a ghetto, denying them access to public service, jobs and many other necessities of life.
And went on to observe that:
At a time when the County is planning to spend millions of dollars to build fixed rail transportation systems, this example of the importance of maintaining a flexible — and responsive — bus system could not be more striking.
Only buses could have achieved what the RTD managed to accomplish.
Just three months before the civil unrest, SCRTD had to cut bus service by 100,000 hours to stay within budget and was preparing for a second 100,000-hour service cutback a few weeks later in June.
Pegg concluded that:
In light of the emergency the City has just come through — and will contend with for some time to come — continued shrinking of RTD bus service can only create additional hardships for our transit-dependent patrons.
By the third day, President George H.W. Bush had spoken with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and California Governor Pete Wilson before addressing the nation, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness.”
In addition to Southern California Rapid Transit District suspending all bus service throughout the Los Angeles area, some major freeways were closed down.
Amtrak suspended train service into and out of Los Angeles.
The Federal Aviation Administration shut down Los Angeles International Airport for 6 days, disrupting air travel nationwide.
When all was said and done, scores of government, public and police agencies, from the National Guard to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Los Angeles Police Department, heaped praise on the District for its employees’ extraordinary performance during the riots.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a proclamation lauding the RTD management and employees for their critical help coping with the violence, calling them “the backbone” of the important operation.
At least one transit operations supervisor was back on the job one day after being assaulted and robbed.
Following the disturbances, the District offered crisis counseling to employees and ten days of special shuttle service in South Los Angeles which included 25-cent service along a special route designed to serve five food distribution points in the community.
Several employee testimonials and thank you letters can be found in the May, 1992 issue of Headways, the SCRTD’s employee newsmagazine.
When Los Angeles erupted into its worst violence in decades, the region’s leading transit provider shined brightest — with all aspects of the agency playing their part in restoring calm to the City.
Perhaps Matthew Hunt, Deputy Chief of LAPD, summed it up best when he told the SCRTD Board:
If we could only bottle up what your employees gave to us, and use it across the City, then this would truly be a City of Angels.