LA Riots As An American In Paris

Living as a student in Europe in 1992 was, I imagine, considerably different from today. It was only 20 years ago, but we have become so much more of a global society. Even in a big city like Munich, if I wanted any news from stateside, I would have to take the U-Bahn from my flat in the Olympiazentrum down to the Marienplatz kiosk where they sold something other than the Süddeutsche Zeitung or Das Bild. Then I’d have to pay DM3 (about $1.70) for a USA Today or International Herald-Tribune. I was fortunate that I could listen to NPR and some other news broadcasts on Armed Forces Network radio, but there was no internet, no texting, no Facebook, no free international phone calls. So my connection to information from home was limited at best.

As a news junkie, AFN was a lifesaver. I listened to the Twins win the World Series, heard #1 seed KU lose to UTEP in the second round in the NCAA tournament, and tuned in for major news stories like the release of hostages in Beirut, Mike Tyson’s rape trial, the presidential campaign, Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive, the Winter Olympics, and the trial of the LAPD officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King.

My parents and sister visited me in late April. We traveled by train to Rome, Salzburg, and Paris. In Paris, at the end of a long day of touring Versailles, and probably an equally long debate about where to have dinner, we sat in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter, and our animated French waiter, who didn’t speak much English, tried to tell us via a series of gestures and explosion sounds, about some event taking place back in the states. As my French, other than ordering food and exchanging pleasantries, was non-existent, we had a very difficult time trying to figure out what the hell he was talking about. But since he was implying fire and machine gunfire and exploding bombs in American cities, we thought he was completely out of his gourde. I finished my steak au poivre, and we headed back to the hotel. As I’d been following the Rodney King story, in the back of my mind I wondered if it had something to do with the impending verdict.

Seeing pictures like this from 5,000 miles away was mind-boggling. What. The. F***?

The next morning, over a continental breakfast of tea and croissants, the hotel keeper, who spoke more English than the waiter, was reading a French newspaper, and showed us pictures, and explained to us in detail what was happening. It was a surreal moment. Things like that didn’t happen in America. Riots took place in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Not in California. We talked with him for a long time about race relations and crime in France and in America and as he told us how in France martial law would have been instituted vigorously and immediately to quickly quell the uprising, we tried to explain that due process and the law were the order of the day in the United States, and we didn’t do things like sic the military on our own citizens, but it was a hard sell given the whole city of Los Angeles seemed to have devolved into anarchy.

Later that day, at the Gare du Nord, waiting to catch our train back to Munich, we bought several English language newspapers, and read with shock, about the destruction going on in Los Angeles, and nearly every major city in the U.S. There were a few other Americans in our car who weren’t aware of the situation, and we shared newspapers with them, but didn’t talk much about it. I was grateful that we were in Europe, yet frustrated by the lack of current information, and wondering if any friends were affected.

And it was probably the only time I’ve ever been embarrassed to be an American.

© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2012


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