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A Year After Riots, 'Lotus Land' Seeks to Shed Badlands Image

By Lou Cannon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 1993; Page A03

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 29 -- A year after deadly riots transformed Los Angeles into an urban nightmare, the City of the Angels remains socially divided and economically shattered.

As community groups observed the anniversary with rallies and vigils today, mayoral candidate Richard Riordan called Los Angeles "a dysfunctional city," and his opponent, City Councilman Michael Woo, warned that "the enormous anger of the have-nots" could produce new violence.

Meanwhile, an internal report of RLA, the organization that was formerly known as Rebuild L.A. and has taken the lead in reconstruction, delivered a pessimistic assessment. Board member Dan Garcia, its author, said people seeking to rebuild have been frustrated by an unresponsive city bureaucracy, inadequate insurance settlements and an inability to obtain loans.

But Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a prominent civil rights lawyer and an RLA board member, said more has been done in one year to rebuild Los Angeles than was done in a generation after the 1968 Newark riots. Cochran, who represents riot victim Reginald O. Denny, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that reconstruction of south-central Los Angeles would become "a model for the nation."

The worst riots in modern U.S. history erupted in Los Angeles late in the afternoon of April 29, 1992, after a suburban Simi Valley jury acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers charged by the state in the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King, a black apprehended after a high-speed pursuit. The jury had no black members.

Three days later, 54 people had died and 2,383 had been injured. About 10,000 businesses were looted or burned.

The disorders caused a political upheaval in a city ruled for two decades by a liberal, multiethnic coalition headed by Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of a U.S. city with a white majority electorate.

Bradley, whose popularity declined sharply after the riots, decided not to seek a sixth term. The police chief at the time, Daryl F. Gates, who was blamed for the Los Angeles Police Department's slow response, retired and was replaced by Willie L. Williams. District Attorney Ira Reiner, faulted for the Simi Valley prosecutions, abandoned his reelection bid.

The riots also caused a change in the self-image of a city that had prided itself on tolerance and a laid-back lifestyle. Under the headline "World Sees Lotus Land as Badlands," the Los Angeles Times today devoted a 3,500-word front-page article to the world's new image of Los Angeles as "a troubled creature harboring deep fears and hatreds."

A Times editorial praising the post-riot work of community groups opened with words of playwright Eugene O'Neill: "The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all tried to lie out of that but life won't let us."

The past was alternately celebrated and deplored citywide today.

Gov. Pete Wilson (R) honored firefighters in a ceremony at Fire Station 66, which responded to riot calls for 24 hours without police protection. Wilson said the firefighters had performed "many selfless acts of heroism . . . without protection."

One such act was by Donald Jones, an off-duty firefighter from Station 66. He watched on television as Denny was pulled from his cement truck and beaten at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues near his home and rushed out to help. Soon afterward, he rescued a pedestrian, Choi Si Choi, from a mob.

Jones is black, as are the three men accused of beating Denny. A rally was held at the intersection today on behalf of the defendants, who face trial in July.

Other events included a town hall meeting of gang leaders, an art exhibit inspired by the King beating and several candlelight vigils, including one sponsored by Korean-American activists. The Latino Coalition announced a citywide "campaign for peace."

At the town hall meeting, "Hands Across Watts," black business owners and mothers appealed to members of the Bloods and Crips gangs to take a leadership role in building economic and political power in the black community.

"You are the men we have, whether the world likes it or not, whether we like it or not," said James Shackelford, who owns a construction firm that has employed gang members. "You guys are our future; we have to depend on it."

California's persistent recession has dogged the recovery effort. RLA officials estimate that the riots caused the loss of 25,000 jobs in an area already stricken by the closure of manufacturing plants and aerospace layoffs.

RLA has accounted for $500 million of new development in the riot area, and Barry Sanders, its co-chairman, announced a program to help small businesses obtain loans. "It took them 25 years to get a grocery store into Newark after the riots," Cochran said. "Vons (a supermarket chain) alone is building 10 stores, more than than were in south-central before the riots."

But Woo warned of complacency after the verdict April 17 in the federal civil rights case on the King beating, when a racially diverse jury convicted two of the officers involved.

"We should not be lulled into a false sense of security by these verdicts," Woo said. "Many in this city feel that nothing has changed."

Author Kevin Starr observed that Los Angeles has a "spectacular infrastructure of ports, rail heads, airports and highways" and could be poised to make a "stunning" economic recovery if it can mend social differences.

"Everyone wants to get beyond the King beating and the Denny beating," he said. "Future historians may say that the riots were the beginning of a great awakening in Los Angeles."

Special correspondent Jessica Crosby contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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