Thursday morning. I'm riding my bike into work. I've just started out - slightly chilled in my shrink wrap bike dork outfit: fatigue shorts, jersey, wind vest, arm warmers. I make tracks down the hill, blowing off the stop signs and running the bike around 40 miles an hour.
Something is off. A police helicopter is passing overhead, no, wait, it's actually in a low station-keeping over the bottom of the hill, where the gas station and art punk galleries are. In Los Angeles, this means one of two things:
- The police have concluded a high speed pursuit, and are now searching for the suspect on foot.
- The police are involved in a barricade situation.
As the hill is leveling out, I find myself rolling up on the roadblock. There are at least 50 uniformed police there, cruisers parked up and down the street. The bike cops are manning the roadblock. Inside the perimeter, I can see the blue-black box of the LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics Incident Command Center. The SWAT team and their toys are here. This means it's serious. If it was a no-knock warrant this whole thing would have been over by 7 am.
"So, I guess I'm not going to be riding through there today?" I ask the bike cop.
"No sir. We've got the area sealed off."
"So what's going on in there?" I ask just to fish. Usually they don't tell you anything.
"Barricade situation. The guy's holed up in there with a high-powered rifle. He's been taking potshots all morning."
"Ok then. I will be riding around."
And that was the last I thought of it for the rest of the day. But talking with my friend in the neighborhood later that night, he said he had seen a fire burning at the bottom of the hill towards nightfall. LA County firefighting helicopters were dropping fire retardant chemicals on the fire. He said one of the old hippy couples up the street were screaming like Jeremiah to anyone that would listen that the police had set the fire, that it was police brutality at work in our backyard. I thought that the couple in question was flaky, and didn't give it any further thought.
The next morning, the lead story in the Los Angeles Times Metro section is "Echo Park Man Dies in Fire." The details were simultaneously fascinating because of my proximity to the action, and boring because of their mass media familiarity. The man on Lucretia avenue had called 911 to report that burglars were trying to enter his home and kill him. When the community officers arrived on scene, the man inside the house began shooting at the police officers with a combination of rifles and pistols. The police cordon off the area, then the SWAT team arrives. The man is screaming out the windows, "Help me, somebody help me! The FBI is trying to kill me!".
SWAT starts firing cannisters of CS tear gas inside the house, standard rounds through the windows and ferreting rounds through the doors and walls. They fire over 100 rounds of CS gas into the house. The man would occasionally come outside for a breath of fresh air, a gun in each hand. This went on all afternoon. The sun was beginning to set. The police decided to escalate. The fired flashbang grenades in through the windows. A flashbang is a combination concussion grenade and flash bomb. It doesn't produce any shrapnel, but creates a huge shockwave and flash of light. It is a pyrotechnic device. The house immediately caught fire. Either the man began to shoot into the street, or more likely, the ammunition he had stored inside began to bake off. The firefighters fell back, refusing to approach under the gunfire. The house burned while a firefighting helicopter came on station to contain the fire.
The man, of course, burned to death inside the house. Was he knocked unconscious by the concussion grenades, only to be burned to death? Did he refuse to leave, his irrationality driving him to believe he would be captured and killed if he left the building?
It was a one man Waco in miniature. One unbalanced man makes the wrong call, and the dominos begin to fall towards the inevitable conclusion. Were the cops wrong to try and dislodge him? He was a clear and present danger to the people around him. How did a clearly schizophrenic man get 8 registered guns, registered in his name? Had he somehow slipped under the very spotty radar of our mental health infrastructure?
Three months ago, a three story apartment building spontaneously collapsed just two blocks further down. It looked like scene from Bosnia or Beirut, complete with an exposed bedroom hanging over the street, pictures still on the walls. Now the micro-Waco a little further up. Is something making its way up the street? I need to be honest with myself, this is the kind of thing I moved here for. I get excited watching those police choppers skim by - level with my living room windows. I like the street kids chasing me on their BMX bikes. Why am I gratified by this crazy man burning to death? I'm saddened, but gratified. It's like I told my mother on the phone, in an attempt to explain the accelerated pace of life here: "In Los Angeles, something is always burning."