CHRIS WOOD February 22 1993



CHRIS WOOD February 22 1993




There are few visible reminders of the unrest that erupted in southcentral Los Angeles 10 months ago and engulfed a nation. The empty lots at sites where buildings blazed in April are now neatly fenced. Grass pushes through cracks in the bare cement foundations, softening the scorch marks with hopeful displays of green. At the corner of Normandie and Florence avenues, where the convulsions began, enterprising local residents have turned the wire mesh enclosing two vacant corners into improvised billboards for roofing, drain-clearing and babysitting services. A liquor store and a gas station have reopened on other corners.

But the currently peaceful atmosphere in the working-class neighborhood of brick and stucco bungalows is haunted by a growing anxiety. With two racially charged and riot-related court cases now coming to trial, many residents clearly fear that unpopular verdicts could spark renewed, and possibly even more violent, conflict. Special education instructor Rodney Watson, young and black, paused for a moment while shopping for groceries on Florence Ave. to echo a view that is easily heard in the neighborhood: “It’s going to be worse this time. There’s going to be a lot more shooting, a lot more fighting and killing.”

Many of his fellow Angelenos say that they

profoundly hope Watson is wrong. But most acknowledge sharing at least his apprehension as the city flirts with what many see as a game of double-barreled Russian roulette. In the first of two explosive sets of court proceedings, jurors are being selected to hear evidence in the trial of four city policemen charged with violating the civil rights of black motorist Rodney King. It is the second trial for the white officers, who were captured on videotape in March, 1991, as they repeatedly struck and kicked King while arresting him after a car chase.

The officers’ acquittal last spring on charges of assaulting King was the spark that set off

four days of nationwide rioting, in which more than 50 people died. On the first day of that violence, cameras again captured a beating on videotape—black assailants attacking white truck driver Reginald Denny. On March 15, the first of six men charged in connection with that assault also goes on trial. Verdicts in both high-profile cases are likely to coincide with the first anniversary of last year’s upheaval.

The tension surrounding the two trials generates widely differing interpretations in a city still polarized over last year’s traumatic events. At least some white residents accuse blacks of using the threat of more riots to put pressure on the courts in the two cases. Remarked one white caller to host Steve Edwards’ afternoon talk show on KABC Radio: “It’s like the minority community has said, ‘We’re going to riot if these guys [the police officers] are not found guilty.’ ” That caller urged Los Angeles city officials to mobilize the National Guard in advance of any verdicts, in order to deter another outbreak of race-related violence.

But for many among Los Angeles’s black, Latino and Asian-American minorities, the two cases have become litmus tests for a judicial system that they consider to be racially biased. Like many of his neighbors in south-central Los Angeles, liquor-store manager Anthony Ephraim refers to the events of April not as a riot but as “the uprising.” Said Ephraim of the impending trials: “Everyone already knows that the brothers are going to get convicted. But the issue is, you can’t convict the brothers and let the officers off.”

Rev. Leonard Jackson, associate minister at the neighborhood’s First African Methodist

Episcopal Church, also fears the verdict may spark a racial backlash. According to Jackson, the trials may well end up sending a vivid message “that it is all right to beat up on a black American, but it is not all right to beat up on a white American.” Indeed, legal experts familiar with the circumstances of both cases say that just such outcomes are possible—and even probable—in what have come to be known locally as “Rodney King lí” and the trial of “The LA4+.” If those verdicts emerge, says Jackson, “then there goes the city up in smoke.”

Los Angeles city officials have taken steps in the past year to try to ensure that they are better prepared for violent outbreaks. Their efforts have been concentrated on the city’s heavily criticized police department: the videotape of its officers pummeling King with batons has become internationally notorious, and the department responded sluggishly to the initial outbreaks of looting and vandalism that followed the acquittals. In the wake of two reports commissioned after the violence, Mayor Tom Bradley instituted reforms beginning with the replacement, in June, of police Chief Daryl Gates, a sharp-tongued white chief executive, with the more diplomatic Willie Williams, a black.

The new chief has reorganized the troubled department, putting a new emphasis on good relations with the public—especially minorities. Indeed, Commander David Gascon of the force’s Community Affairs Group is eager to publicize the fact that officers of African, Asian, Latin American, Filipino and Indian extraction make up nearly 49 per cent of the department’s ranks—although they account for only 22 per cent of senior positions, above lieutenant. Declared Gascon: “We recognize that not everyone out there is a criminal.” In addition to standard riot-control training, members of the 7,700-member force are undergoing a special two-day instruction course on how to contain what he calls “unusual occurrences” with greater restraint. Even in the midst of riots, Gascon added, officers “have to understand that we don’t suspend the rules; there are professional standards, ethical standards.”

At the same time, public as well as private groups have responded to the economic frustrations that helped feed the rage of a year ago. Within days of the rioting, which caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, Bradley and California Gov. Pete Wilson appeared together to announce the creation of a nonprofit corporation intended “to restore the health and vitality of Los Angeles.” Under the high-profile chairmanship of former major-league baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, Rebuild LA has flourished, quickly assembling a staff of 50, with 11 different Action Task Forces. Listing investments that it says are planned by more than 20 large companies and organizations, Rebuild LA claims that it has attracted “more than $300 million in innercity commitments.” Still, critics say that those commitments have produced few visible results in high-unemployment areas like south-central Los Angeles. Liquorstore manager Ephraim described the efforts to resolve chronic black unemployment in his community with a dismissive “I ain’t seen none of the homies working.”

Even some supporters of Ueberroth’s organization express doubts about its effectiveness.

“We can see things that are happening, but it’s just too slow,” declared Jackson. In an effort to get more help for the unemployed in its neighborhood, his church launched its own rebuilding project in August, called LA Renaissance.

Last month, the organization, funded largely by a $1-million donation from Walt Disney Corp., granted the first of what it hopes will become a flood of §o-called micro-loans of $2,000 to $20,000 to local entrepreneurs. The initial response has gratified the church’s members, says Jackson, although he quickly acknowledges that “it’s not going to be enough.”

For Bradley, a veteran politician whose office proudly displays a silver-tipped “Master Magician’s wand” presented to him by Canadian entertainer Doug Henning, there are few tricks left to try. After more than two decades in office, Bradley is scheduled to retire in November. A crowded field of mostly little-known candidates (locally nicknamed the LA 52+) is jostling to replace him. With his remaining political capital, Bradley has enlisted 24 “peace envoys,” as he describes them, culled from the city’s diverse minority groups. Their task: to encourage tolerance among the city’s three-and-a-half million tense and apprehensive people.

In the south-central area, Bradley has an ally

in the city’s oldest black-owned radio station. Like many other minority-owned businesses, station KGFJ has its own reasons for trying to prevent renewed violence. The station, which follows a Motown and rhythm and blues format, has lost a fifth of its commercial revenues since rioters looted many of the black-owned neighborhood retail stores that advertised on its airwaves. KGFJ community affairs director Martha Jackson argues that black residents are

Violence on videotape

Tapings of the beatings of Rodney King (top) and Reginald Denny have drawn attention to a system that many among Los Angeles minorities consider to be racially biased

aware that they are the ones who will suffer the most should there be renewed violence after the trials. She added: “They realize that the people in south-central, who actually live there, are the real victims.”

At the same time, police Chief Williams has made it plain that his revitalized force will be better prepared to contain the anger. In addition to what police representatives claim is improved training in crowd-control tactics, the force has acquired new, nonlethal armaments for riot control, including pepper spray and

rubber bullets of the type the British army has used in Northern Ireland. Despite a commitment to better public relations, asserted Gascon, “You can’t tolerate people throwing Molotov cocktails; you can’t tolerate people shooting; you can’t tolerate people looting. And we won’t tolerate it.”

That tough attitude leaves many members of the community bracing for police violence. Store manager Ephraim, for one, says that

he still expects the police to invade his neighborhood at the end of the trials—with too much force and too little patience. “The police,” he predicts, “are going to come out with the attitude, ‘We’re going to stomp these niggers—now!’ ” And whatever police attitudes may be, the force has clearly not yet established that its new tactics can contain violence peacefully. A mid-December confrontation between police and black demonstrators in support of the LA4+ degenerated into a street brawl at the corner of Florence and Normandie.

In neighborhoods far removed from that troubled intersection, last year’s unrest casts a shadow over the weeks ahead for other minorities as well. Although April’s turmoil erupted first in black neighborhoods, it quickly spread to Latino, Korean and other areas. Although many races were represented among the looters, the largest number of those arrested were Latinos, the city’s most numerous minority. For them, economic frustration played a larger role in spawning the % violence than did racial injus1 tice, says Gloria Romero, a psych| ology professor at California State University-Los Angeles and an

I adviser to the city police commission on Latino concerns. But Romero says that Latinos share black residents’ anger at pervasive racial inequalities. She added: “It is almost impossible to see the racial injustice in Los Angeles and not get angry.”

Reluctantly, Romero acknowledges that despite the cost in lives and property, last year’s convul-

sive upheaval was not entirely a civic disaster. Instead, she says, it may have been overdue. Noting the shakeup in the police department and new efforts to bring prosperity to poor neighborhoods, Rev. Jackson describes the riots as “a wake-up call” to his fellow citizens. He says they were a reminder “that we do have a dual system in the United States.” He and his neighbors are living in hope that a second alarm will not be necessary.

CHRIS WOOD in Los Angeles