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|| News Item: Posted 2000-06-28

There's a Riot Going On!
After The Game - Getting Back To Those Spot News Roots

By Sam Mircovich, Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
So a bunch of us are sitting around the Staples Center during game 5 while the Lakers are getting hammered in Indiana. Not much to shoot, other than disappointed fans. The talk turns to the next Laker victory and the threat of rioting fans. I was adamant that Los Angeles doesn't riot in celebration, only when bad things happen. My colleagues may have thought I was shortsighted, citing Denver's post super bowl riot.

True, Westwood did get rowdy when UCLA won the NCCA basketball championships, but they were just drunken rowdy students-right? Some had noted a heavy police presence outside Staples during game 5.

Fellow Reuters photog Mike Blake and I decided that he would try to get into the locker room (a whole other story) and I would go outside to shoot jubilating fans. Little did I know that the Staples Center broke its own rules and decided to show the game live on their jumbo screen outside the Staples Center.

Mid way through the fourth quarter of Game 6, the big screen inside flashed on the crowd outside. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the 10,000 people outside cheering and going crazy. All the speculation of a fan riot heard the previous week crystallized and dropped like a lump in my stomach.

My floor position yielded no decent jubo shots when the Lakers finally won the game. Credit the NBAE for covering all THEIR bases, which means they are the first to swarm the team after the victory. All the other photogs were kept outside ropes as the trophies were awarded to Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the team. Those ropes did come in handy to help prevent the crazy fans from running on the court, and several fans were pushed back. After the team had left the court- I handed my long glass to a runner and headed outside.

The first few minutes were relatively peaceful, if you could call it that. Fans had climbed atop anything available outside the arena. The signs and sculptures became vantage posts for the revelers. A group of drummers broke into tribal rhythms, and people danced to the hypnotic beat. Several bonfires had been lit, and the crazy fans were dancing around, and through the flames. There was allot of pushing and shoving near this circle, someone forgot to tell me that this really was going to be a 10,000 person mosh pit.

I made my way toward the largest bonfire, where rowdy fans were pushing others into the circle. I photographed a man running through the flames, and then saw a man hold an American flag above the fire. The crowd roared as the flag caught fire. It was then that I realized that this could get real ugly.

At that point the LAPD were no where to be seen. Had they been a presence throughout the evening, perhaps things might no have gotten out of hand. I worked my way to the corner of 11th and Figueroa, where fans were throwing barricades and traffic cones indiscriminately. The crowd took over the intersection, roaring in the Lakers victory.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
A limo tried to make its way out of the intersection. The crowd responded by throwing the barricades at the limo, and then kicking and jumping atop of it. The driver screeched out of the intersection and stopped about 200 feet away, behind a line of LAPD officers.

When the police arrived, the crowd scattered down Figueroa and west along 11th street. Rocks and bottles were hurled, glass shattering at my feet. Their presence seemed to key the bad element out there, sparking the crowd to start destroying the vehicles parked along 11th street. Another limo had its windows broken out, and people danced atop its roof. It too left in a squeal of tires. A television truck was also vandalized and rocked, its windows shattered. A third vehicle, an SUV, was vandalized and looted.

I shot pictures of the cars being vandalized then headed back to the Staples Center to drop of my disks to my editors. AP photographer Kevork Djansezian was at the door, arguing with a security guard that did not want to let him back in. Another door opened and we pushed inside, Kevork laying some choice words in the guard's face. I grabbed him and we went downstairs.

I dropped off my disks, grabbed some batteries and headed back out. At the doors, another photog was watching from the inside. When asked why he didn't go out, he replied that the guard said he wouldn't be let back in. I told him that was a risk he would have to take and pushed my way out. He followed.

The SUV that had been vandalized was now on fire. Rioters were uprooting trees and tossing them into the burning wreckage. Had I been a more frequent reader of Rob I would have had better knowledge of exposing digital for fire. But instead I blasted away; hoping that unreliable canon flash would give me enough (but not too much) fill.

Behind us, the police were mobilizing. A squad car pulled up and its officers got out to join their group. Big Mistake! The car was an instant target to the rioters, who broke its windows, and lit it afire. Rioters danced around the burning car, one leaping off the hood.

The police took action and used their clubs to disperse the crowd. They retreated up Georgia Street, lighting another smaller bonfire. They moved north to Pico Blvd, which was jammed with revelers hanging out of their cars celebrating their win.

I followed the crowd north to the pantry, then doubled back and then east to Flower St where another large bonfire was burning. About 300 people were dancing around the fire, which was being fueled by a porta-pottie stall. The police arrived and used rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, who moved further south along Flower.

At this point, AFP photog Scott Nelson and I decided to head back in. Scott had been one of those predicting mayhem just days before. Hate to admit it but he was right. We had to talk our way back into the Staples Center, entering through the underground loading dock where the players were being held until things quieted down.

Television reported that the SUV that burned belonged to a Reuters TV cameraman. Speaking to him later, he said that he was not allowed to park in the lots after the game started. He parked on the street to shoot the fans on the street, and became part of the news. He stood by and taped those that destroyed his vehicle, then retreated to the Staples Center when people took notice.

At no time did I feel I was threatened by the unruly mob. They weren't really angry-they were happy their team was the NBA champion. If someone got in my face, screaming LAKERS! I just screamed it back. I think it's important to try to blend in with the mob. Most were too busy to care they were being photographed committing a crime. Those that did covered their faces with bandanas and shirts.

Rioters continued south on Figueroa to loot and vandalize businesses south of the arena. It was about another hour before the police had control of the situation.

A few photographers suffered minor injuries in the melee. The LA Times' Wally Skalij and a San Bernardino Sun photog were hit by a plastic barricade being thrown into a bonfire; Inland Empire's Stan Lim received a burn from flying embers, and AP photog Nick Ut was struck in the back by the LAPD.

Today's news says that the LAPD did not follow their post-game plan of a swift and bold presence. The police protective league blames management for the failure to secure the streets early.

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters

Photo by Sam Mircovich/Reuters
Certainly, the Staples Center must share some of the blame for breaking protocol and showing the game live outside. Questions and doubts are being raised that the LAPD will be in control during the upcoming Democratic National Convention at Staples. Regardless of blame, this riot was not so much about anger as it was of jubilation. Still wrong, but after the Rodney King Riots, hadn't the police learned anything?

Two days later, after the Lakers victory parade, several rowdies again went on a rampage. The police response was swift. As I walked back to Staples I was flagged down by a carload of LAPD officers waiting at the command post. They asked me how the LAPD looked that day.

I flashed back to a scene earlier in the day of LAPD officers carrying children to the first aid tent, after being pulled front he crush of fans behind barricades. I told them they had lookedgood today and that overall things went well.

One officer commented that a local gang, who was looking for a confrontation, started the trouble. We both agreed it only takes a few to ruin the party. It is sad people have to risk the safety of others to get attention. It happens way too frequently, with little justification. Perhaps professional sports ought to look into these post-championship melees and work closer with local police to ensure everyone has a good, safe time.

(Sam Mircovich, a frequent contributor to Sports Shooter, is a Reuters contract photographer based in Los Angeles.)

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