What I Saw at the Lakers Riots

I don’t know when this peculiar custom began, but it is one I hope -- in vain, surely -- to see ended someday.

I refer to the bizarre practice of some sporting fans who, on the occasion of their favored team having achieved some triumph on the court, field, or ice rink, choose to celebrate the event by running amok in the streets, looting businesses, breaking windows, tipping over automobiles, and setting fire to garbage cans, cars, and, occasionally, the unfortunate passerby.

Perhaps you were watching on television as the most recent manifestation of this odd ritual took shape on the streets outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles Thursday evening, just after the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics for the NBA championship. It was my misfortune to have a far more intimate experience of the proceedings than was offered on television.

As the game neared its end and a Laker victory seemed imminent, you might have assumed that the Los Angeles Police Department, having weathered this exact scenario only a year ago, would have been fully prepared to quell any destructively boisterous behavior and avoid a repeat of last year’s embarrassment. And for a brief while at the game’s conclusion such an assumption might have appeared correct. Though most of the crowd inside the Staples Center remained in their seats for some time after the game so as to witness the presentation of the championship trophy, the clientele of the nearby restaurants and taverns, having fortified themselves for their post-game exertions, soon spilled out onto the streets. For many of these people, the Laker victory was merely the second reason for celebration that day: they had already been inspired to new heights of exuberance by Mexico’s win over France in the day’s World Cup soccer action. Indeed, Mexican flags were much in evidence among the revelers.

But what these celebrants encountered once out in the fresh air, no doubt to their great disappointment, was phalanx upon phalanx of helmeted LAPD officers stretching in every direction. There are few sights more demoralizing to the aspiring rioter than that of a few hundred cops ready and eager to have a good whack at you at your first toss of a brick.

And so it was that for those first few minutes after the game the atmosphere on the streets was one of jubilation, not destruction.  But what those aspiring rioters soon discovered, as they ventured out from the immediate area of the Staples Center, was that those phalanxes of police officers that had at first glance seemed to stretch for miles, in truth extended only for a block or two, or perhaps three depending on which route they took. And beyond that suffocatingly secure perimeter: blissful freedom, with abundant supplies of large windows just begging to be shattered and a wide assortment of other property at their disposal to be stolen, broken, marked with graffiti, or set ablaze to suit their whims.