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24 Dead, 900 Injured in L.A. Rioting

By Lou Cannon and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 1, 1992; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, APRIL 30 -- The nation's second largest city became a war zone tonight, with thousands of National Guard troops and police deployed in riot gear to stop the spread of looting and destruction. The casualty toll rose to 24 people dead and at least 900 injured.

A pall of acrid smoke from hundreds of fires hung over the Los Angeles basin, closing all but one runway at Los Angeles International Airport. Freeways came to a standstill as thousands of frightened residents fled their vast and burning city.

More than 1,700 firefighters battled the stubborn blazes. As night fell, at least 35 fires sent towering plumes of smoke into the air in a scene reminiscent of Kuwait's burning oil fields after the Iraqi invasion.

Authorities said the first 13 fatalities identified include 11 men, a woman and a boy, 15. Of these, at least nine are black, two Hispanic and two white, they said.

Mayor Tom Bradley declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the entire city and said lawbreakers would be arrested and punished. Groceries, drug stores and other businesses were looted and burned. Factories, civic buildings, schools and libraries were closed. Sports events were canceled or postponed. Sale of ammunition was banned, and gasoline sales were restricted. Postal service was canceled from 10 post offices in 14 Zip codes.

"We cannot and will not tolerate any violence as a means to express anger," Bradley said. "We are going to enforce the law, we are going to have adequate law enforcement to deal with that matter."

But law enforcement was not adequate in many parts of south-central Los Angeles, a sprawling 7-by-15-mile area south and west of downtown that is larger than the District. About 13,000 houses there were without power.

Late tonight, with the curfew in effect, arson and looting slowly spread into older residential sections, reaching Westwood, home of UCLA, and the middle-class San Fernando Valley. As fires spread to homes, people organized impromptu bucket brigades, using pails and pans.

Traffic was light. Police stopped cars but arrested few looters. Some weary officers and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block complained that the National Guard troops were being deployed too slowly.

A tired policemen at one corner said his detachment would stay until the Guard arrived. Asked whether this would happen soon, he said, "We hope so because we've lost it. As soon as we leave, they (the looters) move in."

The violence began Wednesday, with youthful attackers dragging motorists from their cars and beating them soon after jurors in suburban Simi Valley virtually exonerated four white Los Angeles police officers accused of feloniously assaulting black motorist Rodney G. King when he was stopped for traffic violations March 3, 1991.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates had said before the verdicts that his department was prepared for any eventuality, but he acknowledged today that police should have responded more quickly to the initial violence.

Deployment of the National Guard also was slowed today because many of the troops had no ammunition for their rifles. "This problem should not have occurred and will not again," Gov. Pete Wilson (R) said.

In Washington, Attorney General William P. Barr said the Justice Department will pursue aggressively a civil rights investigation of the four officers, saying "it's important for people to understand that the verdicts yesterday on state charges are not the end of the process."

Only rarely has the department charged law enforcement officers with civil rights violations after state courts have rendered verdicts on the conduct. But the number of cases has grown in the last decade.

President Bush, speaking at the White House and in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended a fund-raiser, vowed, "I will do what I can to heal the wounds . . . and to bring people together."

An overwhelming majority of Americans, black and white, believe the four officers should have been convicted, and an equally large majority say the Justice Department should file criminal civil rights charges against them, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted today.

In many U.S. cities, reaction to the verdict spawned protests and demonstrations, most of them peaceful. In Atlanta, San Francisco and Las Vegas, however, curfews were declared.

Young blacks attacked whites in downtown Atlanta after a City Hall rally. Some store and office windows were smashed. At least 26 injuries and more than 100 arrests were reported. The six-hour curfew began at 11 p.m. EDT.

San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan declared a state of emergency and set a nine-hour curfew starting at 9 p.m. PDT in response to looting, his spokesman said. More than 500 arrests were reported. Earlier, protesters had blocked a main highway into the city and temporarily shut down the Oakland Bay Bridge.

In Las Vegas, where casinos and many restaurants normally are open around the clock, a 10:30 p.m.-to-dawn PDT curfew was established after looting and gunfire, police said.

While Los Angeles police arrested about 400 people for looting and violence, most of them in the south-central area, hundreds of others walked into burned-out stores and carried out goods with impunity.

At two supermarkets in the heart of south-central Los Angeles, hundreds of men, women and children in a festive mood loaded goods into shopping carts, cardboard boxes and large plastic bags and left with them. Police made no move to stop them, saying the owner had told them to take what they wanted as long as they did not burn the place down.

The violence was the worst in this vast metropolis since the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood when 34 people died and a 150-square-block area was burned out during six days of disturbances. Bradley, who flew over the burning city by helicopter today, and City Council member Mark Ridley-Thomas compared the present crisis to the Watts riots, from which they said the city still suffers.

"We have yet to fully recover in economic terms from the crisis in 1965 . . . and here we are confronted with a situation that may be more disastrous," Ridley-Thomas said.

Authorities said most of the looters roaming the streets were black, but whites, Hispanics and Asian Americans also were involved.

"They're destroying our neighborhoods," said Omar Murillo, 15, as he watched teenagers loot a pizza store in a small shopping center in central Los Angeles. "They do it because they want to send out a message, but what they're doing is burning down our community."

Korean-American stores, or those that rioters apparently believed were owned or operated by Koreans, were principal targets for the rioters. Some were burned to the ground while black-owned businesses alongside were untouched.

Korean Americans, many of whom moved to the area in the 1980s to take over businesses operated by blacks before the Watts riots, own a majority of the grocery stores in south-central Los Angeles. Blacks often complained that the stores' prices are too high.

Relations between the two groups have been especially strained since March 16, 1991, when a black student, 15, was shot to death by a Korean merchant in a dispute over a container of orange juice. The incident was filmed on a store security camera. Members of the black community expressed outrage when the merchant received only probation.

After touring the riot-torn area today, State Sen. Diane Watson (D) said, "The mood is highly charged, highly emotional. People are venting so much rage, it's hard to talk to them. They don't want talk. They want action. They're starting the action."

Watson said the disturbances have been much worse than at a similar point in the Watts riots, which began during a heat wave when a white California Highway Patrol officer arrested a black man for drunken driving.

Disturbances spilled today into Beverly Hills, where windows were broken, and into Hollywood, where stores were sacked. They also spread throughout the state in a pattern similar to the one that occurred after the Watts riots.

In San Jose, shop windows were broken, and a few stores were looted. At the University of California in San Diego about 500 students gathered for a day-long protest and burned three effigies of police officers. In Ventura, 55 miles west of Los Angeles, malls were closed because of concern that violence might spread.

The 2,000 National Guard troops ordered out by Wilson at Bradley's request were deployed in armored personnel carriers to help police in the heart of the riot area. Asked if 2,000 troops would be sufficient, Bradley replied, "If we need more, more will come." Soon afterward, Wilson ordered deployment of another 2,000.

At a news conference televised statewide, Wilson said that he had been "stunned" by the King beating verdict and that it was not an excuse for lawlessness. He condemned "racism" and quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying that "violence is not a solution to anything."

District Attorney Ira Reiner, saying he was profoundly dissatisfied with the verdict, denounced the rioters as "hoodlums" and "thugs" who had tried to murder people by dragging them out of their cars and beating them. He said those arrested would be prosecuted fully.

Gates, under withering political attack since the King beating, acknowledged that the police response to the violence was slow.

"I asked the same question: Where were the police?" Gates said at a news conference this morning. "Let me assure you, we have looked at that very, very carefully. Quite frankly, we were overwhelmed. I wish we had responded more quickly, but we could not."

Gates, a tactical police commander during the Watts riots, said he learned then that police must respond in force if they respond at all. In 1965, two-man patrols of police were forced to shoot their way out of the riot area after being surrounded.

Gates said that he had not wanted to be "provocative" in his use of police force and that it was necessary Wednesday for the police to protect firefighters, who were targets of gunfire and rock-throwing, before sending police squads into south-central Los Angeles.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city's oldest black church, was a safe haven in the war zone. Its pastor, the Rev. Cecil Murray, had tried to head off the violence with an impassioned sermon Sunday urging residents to "cool it" if the officers were acquitted.

Today, as apartment houses smoldered on one side and looters roamed on the other, the sprawling, modern church building was, by unspoken agreement, off-limits to rioters.

"This is where people know they can go to be safe," said Norman Houston, a church member and former head of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP.

Overnight, the church became a makeshift center for local activists trying to control the disturbances. A Red Cross center was established in the basement to aid those injured in the violence and provide temporary shelter for the homeless.

Here and in Sacramento, officials said they were mindful of mistakes made in the Watts riots, when Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. was out of state and Lt. Gov. Glenn Anderson took four days to deploy the National Guard.

But officials acknowledged that all had not been in readiness this time, either. Wilson said the Guard had not been deployed immediately in Los Angeles streets because of insufficient ammunition. "This problem should not have occurred and will not again," he said.

Hollywood Park, on the edge of the riot area, canceled horse racing today and Friday. A National Basketball Association playoff game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz at the Forum adjacent to Hollywood Park was postponed. Both facilities are in the city of Inglewood, which also imposed a curfew. The Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game was postponed.

A gigantic celebration of Mexico's "Cinco de Mayo" (May 5) holiday, scheduled Sunday at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was postponed until May 24.

Late into the night, fires continued to burn.

Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Al Kamen, Gary Lee, Carlos Sanchez and Avis Thomas-Lester and special correspondent Kevin E. Cullinane in Los Angeles and staff writer Don Phillips in Atlanta contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1992 The Washington Post Company

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