In March of 2020, California became the first in the nation to impose a complete lockdown on its citizens in response to the pending arrival of the new and little understood Covid 19 virus. While many parts of the country remained open and functional Democratic states like California maintained a complete shutdown well into 2020.
Public Schools were shuttered. Colleges were evacuated. Businesses were forced to close, many permanently and all this in the midst of an election in which a pandemic was being used as a tool by certain politicians with little to no understanding of what they were dealing with.
California Governor Gavin Newsom projected that 25 million Californians would be infected with the Covid19 virus unless they shut down the economy, within 8 weeks. California still has yet to reach that number. He closed beaches. State Parks. Bike paths. He summoned a Hospital Ship that just kind of slipped away quietly one day. Mayors followed suit including LA Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Based on everything I had learned from doctors and nurses working in the front line hospitals in the spring of 2020, California had no appreciable Covid 19 problem in the spring and summer of 2020. Hospitals were largely empty. At one point in the spring, a single physician’s assistant was staffing the Covid unit at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. We were told these lockdowns were to protect the Hospitals. This was not a true statement in California in the spring and summer of 2020.
In mid May of 2020 I embarked on a 4 state road trip with my dog along desolate open American highways. The western states of Arizona, Utah and Nevada opened all their state parks and I was off, as California shuttered away. While Los Angeles hid I climbed trails and documented the world around me with my camera during this historic time. I climbed 100 miles of trail in two weeks time. I’m not one to be caged.
On May 25th, 2020 George Floyd would be murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Gruesome video of his death in which you could literally hear this man’s dying words, was now rocketing thru the press and social media. This was the fuel for the fire that was underlying an enormous amount of simmering anger, black and white, that was about to explode out onto the streets.
Americans of all races took to the street in protest over the continued disproportionate treatment of African Americans at the hands of Police. A new political movement exploded nationally and then internationally; Black Lives Matter. By the time I returned from my road trip, my City, Los Angeles, was already burning from the acts of looters who usurped this otherwise just cause to create a maximum amount of damage to the City.
I was back in locked down Los Angeles and pretty well pissed off that my favorite hiking trails were literally bolted shut along with the beaches. I was home on the evening of May 30, 2020 and the local news started to show images of the Fairfax District of Los Angeles going up in flames.
I grew up in Los Angeles and am a rare 4th generation Angeleno. My childhood home was there as were the homes of many of my friends. I was outraged. I grabbed a baseball bat and my camera and headed to Farmer’s Market . I had no intention of doing anything besides checking on my neighborhood and snapping a few opportunistic photos for the history books. Fate took me in another direction.
Business for us criminal lawyers wasn’t so hot in the spring and summer of 2020. In fact it didn’t exist at all. The day after my first foray into the looted streets of Los Angeles I found myself in the San Fernando Valley on business. Heading back to West LA from Encino I got a message that looters were all coming down Ventura Boulevard. They weren’t.
I, however, did see, over my left shoulder, a small squadron of police and press helicopters swarming over the area near the Van Nuys Courthouse. I happened to still have my camera in my trunk. I was there in minutes and just like that I became transformed into a documentarian.
I parked behind the courthouse and was met with a string of Los Angeles Sherriffs in riot gear protecting the courthouse. I knew something was up but couldn’t see where the action was. I mimed to the officers, for lack of a better word, my request to approach them. It was an emphatic no. But they mimed back, go around the corner, and there it was. A full-scale police/ protestor melee had opened up onto Van Nuys Boulevard. There was not one single media outlet present. I was shocked.
I looked up and saw all the major news outlets trying to report on what was happening on the ground, from the air. I guess that Covid thing kind of, well, freaked them out. The entire time I covered the events of May/June 2020 I saw maybe one other photographer and only one intrepid news crew from Fox 11 local news get anywhere close to the action. At one of the many events I intended I had local press trucks chasing me down to find out where they should go. I didn’t tell them.
After this first fascinating day of pandemic photojournalism I made the commitment to do this. Work wasn’t happening. I had the means. But more importantly, no one, and I mean no one was covering these important historical events from the local press, at least in those first few days. By the last day news outlets began to figure out where things were happening but the turnout was still sparse.
The National Guard was now in the streets of Los Angeles and the looter faction had left. The misinformation that was now coming out of the major media was shocking. What happened in Los Angeles was similar to what happened across the country. There were two very distinct groups out in the streets; looters and legitimate protestors. Once the Guard deployed the looters never came back. They left their wake of destruction and protestors now overtook the streets.
I would at first have to guess at where things might blow up since there were no announcements anywhere I could find to let me know how to find the protests. Finally after grilling half a dozen young protesters about how to keep up with them they showed me how to use the Citizen App, which is what they were using to end run law enforcement. You just turn on the App, which works like a kind of smartphone police scanner and follow it, which is what I did for another week every day.
That Citizen App carried me to major protests in Hollywood, West Los Angeles, UCLA, Venice Beach, Compton, Downtown Los Angeles and Watts. By the end of the second day, I had figured out how to jump fairly seamlessly between Police and Protestors encamping on each side. I used due care to announce myself to the highest-ranking Police Officer I could find before barreling in. I recall asking a row of riot cops to please not shoot the guy with the camera. They obliged.
In the 5 or 6 days I covered this I transformed into a protestor. While I saw not one single misstep from our local law enforcement I certainly understood the anger and empathized. I saw not one single act of violence by a protester or police officer the entire time I was following these events and was quite proud of our City in that moment and thankful to the officers I did encounter for their grace in those moments.
It was more than once that I observed protestors literally spraying officers with one epithet after another and at least in my presence they never flinched. Things could have gone so much worse. Something had clearly changed.
I was in Los Angeles for the Rodney King riots and remember the history of the Watts Riots in 1965. This was very different. These weren’t just angry black kids in the streets, it was angry white kids, and brown kids, and moms, and teachers, etc. Looking back on it I see the protests from two different standpoints.
I saw a lot of genuinely angry black kids there for the reason they said they were there. But to say that the Covid lockdowns didn’t play a role in the underlying anger of some of the other factions who participated would be naïve. It was clear.
High Schools and Colleges had been locked for months. Students had nothing to do. They had no contact with friends, or girlfriends or boyfriends. No sports to participate in. Lots of kids just blew and these protests were an excuse to exercise some rage. Whatever the reason the result was kind of a beautiful rainbow of people joining together to shake their fists and I am sure it was healing for a lot of people to be there.
Over the course of the week I would attend at least 7 different major protests. I would then go on to fly to Seattle and Portland to cover the chaos in those cities and had the pleasure of being gassed for the first time while in Portland. That was a learning experience.
The images here are a small number of the hundreds of captures during those tumultuous weeks. This project is meant to bring together the elements of the protests that disrupted the City and affects our lives here in Los Angeles to this day.