The Siege Of L.A.

"We've got shooting all over the city."

"They're destroying their own neighborhoods--it's as bad as an earthquake."

"Let's bang that motherf-."

Like bulletins from a war zone, the words and images came flying out of a city going up in smoke and flames. In Los Angeles last week it was full-metal-jacket time-lock and load. Downtown, a mob of blacks, whites and Hispanics torched the guardhouse outside police headquarters, lit a fire in city hall, then trashed the criminal courts building. Across town, hammers banged down storefront security gates. Flames shot 100 feet into the night. Giddy looters lurched off with carts of groceries and cases of beer, armloads of clothes, bundles of everything from running shoes to guns. The upscale trundled away TV and stereo sets, microwave ovens and personal computers, even office furniture. Standing in the firestorm, tears streaming down his face, Charles Kim, an immigrant from Korea, looked at a burned-out shop and cried, "This is not America.. . . We are all brothers. Why are they doing this?"

After years of neglecting the pent-up misery of the inner cities, the country shuddered at the bloody wake-up call. Out of a city endlessly burning, out of the heart of Simi Valley and the soul of South-Central Los Angeles, a verdict seen as a miscarriage of justice induced a convulsion of violence that left 44 dead, 2,000 bleeding and $1 billion in charred ruins. The 56 videotaped blows administered by Los Angeles police to Rodney King last year had landed hard on everyone's mind. But they fell like feathers on a suburban jury that acquitted the cops of using excessive force. "That verdict was a message from America," said Fermin Moore, owner of an African artifacts shop near Inglewood. The reply from the inner city was a reciprocal "F- you." First South-Central blew. Then fires licked up to Hollywood, south to Long Beach, west to Culver City and north to the San Fernando Valley. The nation's second largest city began to disappear under billows of smoke.

Inevitably, the catastrophe summoned up memories of Watts; but the differences were more striking than the similarities. "All you had then was bottles and bricks," said one blood, opening his trunk to show his stash of automatic weapons. "That ain't it now-this ain't gonna be like the '60s." Despite his bravado, the incendiaries this time were a more mixed bag. Instead of enraged young black men shouting, "Kill Whitey," Hispanics and even some whites-men, women and children--mingled with African-Americans. The mob's primary lust appeared to be for property, not blood. In a fiesta mood, threadbare looters grabbed for expensive consumer goods that had suddenly become "free." Better-off black as well as white and Asian-American businesspeople all got burned. "This wasn't a race riot," said urban sociologist Joel Kotkin of the city's Center for the New West. "It was a class riot."

The elements of race and class mingled and combusted with tremendous heat, setting off secondary eruptions in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta. In New York City, stores closed and panicky whites left work early when a small protest flared up in Times Square. The conflagration surprised the authorities and singed them badly. Mayor Tom Bradley expressed his equal dismay with the verdict and determination to restore order; but he seemed tired and out of touch with the new forces surging through the streets. For a few hours President Bush wavered between offering sympathy for those who found the verdict astounding and politically safer homilies on the rule of law. Then, belatedly regrouping, he dispatched a team of Justice Department prosecutors to press federal civil-rights charges against the acquitted officers and he sent 5,000 troops to stiffen the LAPD. Once again soldiers with guns patrolled the streets of an American city. "We have seen images ... we will never forget," he told the nation. "None of this is what we wish to think of as America."

Could you trust your own eyes-that was the unsettling question. The 81 seconds of the King-beating video gave way to 72 hours of riot coverage. The combination threatened to fragment the country along its worst fault lines. Never had two worlds seemed farther apart than Simi Valley and South-Central, a microcosm of suburban and inner-city America. The King video did to the jury what freeze frames and instant replay can do to discredit a referee. But this was no game. At risk was one standard of justice for all, the fairness of the courts, the majesty of the law. The irony was that as tempers spilled over and Los Angeles toppled into anarchy, it was left to the victim to implore everyone else to come to their senses. Voice trembling, King suddenly reappeared on television. "Can we stop making it horrible?" he said. "It's just not right. We can get along-we just gotta."

The siege of Los Angeles began after defense lawyers turned what had looked like a clear case of police brutality into a shrewd exercise in reverse English. Pretrial publicity was relentless. The defense got a change of venue from Los Angeles to Simi Valley, a comfortable, white middle-class suburb favored by officers retiring from the LAPD. Even so, the evidence looked overwhelming. In addition to the video, prosecutors had transcripts of conversations in which Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Sgt. Stacey Koon talked about "a Big Time use of force." ("I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time.") Then the fourth defendant, Officer Theodore Briseno, testified against the others. "Everyone from the president to the dogcatcher had their necks in a noose," recalled John Barnett, Briseno's lawyer. "I thought we'd be presiding over a hanging-my biggest worry was just getting the jury's attention at all."

The jurors-six men and six women equally divided between Republicans and Democrats-fairly represented the sense and sensibility of their own communities: places like Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Ventura. There were 10 whites, one Hispanic, one Asian; they ranged in age from 38 to 65. It was the genius of the defense to neutralize the video by playing up the high-speed chase that preceded King's beating and the contempt he had shown for the police. One juror told talk-show host Larry King that the video was "ludicrous." She argued that Rodney King had "dictated all of the actions." And when asked if the use of the word "gorillas" during the trial had bothered her, she said, "Not at all." Her conscience was clear, she added: the riot would have broken out in any case because "these individuals were ... just waiting for a cause." Another juror said on "Nightline," "The only input I had was what the judicial system, the judge, the defense attorneys, the prosecutors gave me to work with-the law's the law."

The verdict suggested that the jurors believed the officers were simply doing their job, which consisted at least in part of allaying the anxieties of Simi Valley about people like Rodney King and places like South-Central. In the courtroom, the foreman stood up and called "Not guilty" to the charges of assault and falsifying police reports. The jurors couldn't agree on the brutality rap against Officer Laurence Powell, and the judge declared a mistrial on that count. The words "not guilty" shot from the jury box like Taser stun darts. Witnesses shook their heads as the defendants patted their lawyers on the back, hugged their families. Outside, on the courthouse steps, Councilwoman Patricia Moore called the result "a modern-day lynching." John Singleton, the young director of "Boyz N the Hood," wrapped his arm around her. "This is a time bomb," he said. "It's going to blow up."

The clock was already ticking. King's supporters and friends of the policemen were shoving one another when the courthouse door flew open and Koon stepped out. "Guilty. Guilty. Guilty," roared voices in the crowd. A tight smile masking his nerves, Koon hotfooted it to his car; people kicked at his doors and shook their fists at him as he sped away. Reporters flashed bulletins, and within an hour protests were tying up the phones at newspapers, radio and television stations. Saying the acquitted policemen were "not fit to wear a uniform," Mayor Bradley called the verdict "senseless" and said it could "never blind what the world saw." "It's not just. It's not right," said Steve Lerman, King's lawyer. "It may be that 12 white jurors aren't going to convict four white cops for beating a black man-it may be as simple as that."

It was not as simple as that; the more agonizing question was how far a verdict honestly rendered could miscarry and whether those who had chosen sides over the matter would go back to the courts-or settle it in the streets. The answer came soon enough. At the intersection of Normandie and Florence avenues in South-Central, black kids began throwing stones and bottles at passing cars. The mob swelled. They hauled two white motorists from their cars and stomped them. Then Reginald Oliver Denny, 36, a gravel-truck driver with long blond hair, drove into the melee. Five men grabbed him, kicked him, smashed him on the head with a fire extinguisher and stole his wallet. For nearly an hour panicked drivers drove around him. A news chopper filmed the assault, possibly even encouraged it. T. J. Murphy, 30, an aerospace engineer, saw the beating on TV and drove to the scene. He found Denny, eyes swollen shut, in the cab of his truck. With the help of three other African-Americans, Murphy shielded the critically injured trucker and got him to a hospital.

From the epicenter of Normandie and Florence, the violence rippled outward. Drivers jumped from cars and fled. Shouting kids smashed windows, tromped on hoods and roofs, torched the abandoned vehicles. Then they turned to a liquor store, small shops, a gas station. Before long, flames and black smoke engulfed the neighborhood. And the LAPD was nowhere in sight. White journalists became targets. Jeff Kramer, a freelance reporter for The Boston Globe, played dead when a gang smashed his windows and tried to tear him from his driver's seat. His seat belt held him in. One kid pulled out a gun and shot him three times. An African-American family found him and called paramedics. After waiting vainly for 30 minutes, the good Samaritans hid him under a blanket and smuggled him to the hospital.

As the violence swelled, most of the dead were men: all but 15 were AfricanAmericans; there were 9 Hispanics, 5 whites and one Asian. Arturo Miranda, 20, was driving home from soccer practice with his family when a bullet tore through his car, hit him in the head and killed him. Scott Coleman, 26, and Matthew Haines, 32, were knocked from a motorcycle. Coleman was shot three times, but lived; Haines died instantly with a bullet in his brain. Los Angeles patrolmen got into a fire fight with snipers at the Nickerson Gardens housing project; a V-100 armored car rescued them, and Dennis Jackson, 38, was later found dead at the scene. But the police have not had time to separate out what may be ordinary accidents and homicides from riot dead. In one case, two men and a woman in a stolen 1982 Datsun died when their car flipped after a high-speed chase with cops in Beverly Hills. The emergency situation will make it hard to determine precisely the sum and complexion of the body count.

The riot did not play out in neatly drawn ranks of black against white. As dusk approached, more than 1,500 peaceful demonstrators assembled at South-Central's First African Methodist Episcopal Church. The group sang gospel songs, prayed that there would be no bloodshed. Mayor Bradley acknowledged that many felt outraged over the verdict, but he stressed that the anger was shared by whites as well as African-Americans. Blacks themselves appeared to split along generation lines. While parents called for peace, one young woman stood up and said, "We can no longer afford to listen to pretty speeches." Outside, gang leaders brandishing pipes, sticks and baseball bats whipped up hotheads, urging them not to trash their own neighborhoods but to attack richer turf to the west. "You have a car-then get your white ass out of here," one friendly elder advised a NEWSWEEK reporter. As the church service came to an end, the sound of gunfire rattled through the darkness. A band of kids chased the reporter as he gunned his car across a front lawn and wheeled away.

In the days of raw nerves before the verdict, Police Chief Daryl Gates-whose style of L.A. law had started the trouble in the first place-boasted of having a special, $1 million contingency plan to cope with any trouble; but it turned out that the secret weapon was nothing more than a longstanding design for handling earthquakes and riots. At 2:30, about an hour before the jury rendered the verdict, bean counters worried about overtime let 1,000 officers go off duty. At South-Central's 77th Division, there were fewer than three dozen cops. At 6:30 Gates was nowhere to be found. He had gone to Brentwood to raise money to defeat an initiative aimed at police reform. "I asked him where he was going," says Police Commission president Stanley Sheinbaum. "He didn't tell me."

The city's nerve center, such as it was, was four floors below the lobby of city hall east in downtown Los Angeles. The first few hours after the verdict were near chaos. The speed of the riots startled the police and the fire department. "With the Watts riots in 1965 it built and built and on the third day the city went mad," says Police Commander Robert Gil. "This was completely different-the city went wild in just an hour and a half." The danger should have been clear. There were fierce protests at the Parker Center; a fire-rescue unit was missing in South-Central; the Foothill Station in the San Fernando Valley had come under fire.

Even so, no one ordered a "mobilization" until about 7:30. Gates did not get back until about 9 p.m. Only then did the LAPD lurch into action. A command post in South-Central did pull the city's 18 divisions together, and 600 heavily armed officers poured in. But the first results were mixed at best. It took a lot of time to get off-duty cops back, and the blue line was spread so thin it frightened no one. Many men with experience in South-Central were sent to the perimeter of the riot; many without it wound up in the thick of things. By 10 p.m., 25 square blocks of central Los Angeles were ablaze. Fans emerging from a Lakers game wandered into a combat zone. Shortly before midnight, Gov. Pete Wilson announced that he was sending 750 highway patrolmen and 2,000 National Guardsmen. "The situation," Chief Gates said lamely, "is not under control."

The sun came up on a city that had lost its center of gravity and was spinning out of orbit. Buses and trains stopped running. Schools closed. In a panicky rush to get out of town, drivers clogged the freeways; some bumped up onto cross-country bike paths to beat the hopeless roads. Stores and offices shut their doors. The smoke from 1,000 fires grew so dense that air-traffic controllers could keep open only one runway at Los Angeles International Airport. Instead of a saccharine "Have a nice day," flight attendants looked anxiously at the arriving passengers and said, "Be careful."

Looters of all races owned the streets, storefronts and malls. Blond kids loaded their Volkswagen with stereo gear; a Yuppie jumped out of his BMW and scrounged through a gutted Radio Shack near Hancock Park. Filipinos in a banged-up old clunker stocked up on baseball mitts and sneakers. Hispanic mothers with children browsed the gaping chain drug marts and clothing stores. A few Asians were spotted as well. Where the looting at Watts had been desperate, angry, mean, the mood this time was closer to a manic fiesta, a TV game show with every looter a winner. Toting a Hefty bag full of electronic calculators, a 13-year-old black kid looked up dizzily and said, "My mom's not gonna believe the stuff I got today."

With the looters such a wild rainbow of races, it seemed more plausible to look elsewhere for what had possessed them. Richard Cunningham, 19, a clerk with a neat goatee, ran 10 blocks from his home to defend the Wherehouse from looters who were swiping CDs and videos. "Get out. Get out," he yelled, and they left. Standing by the cash register, he said, "They don't care for justice, they don't care for anything. Right now they're just on a spree." Three men lurched down the street toting a couch from a furniture store up the block. Cunningham shook his head. "They want to live the lifestyle they see people on TV living," he said. "They see people with big old houses, nice cars, all the stereo equipment they want, and now that it's free, they're gonna get it."

Throughout the city black merchants spray-painted their doors and awnings or put signs in their windows to distinguish them from white and Asian shops. Sometimes it worked; mostly it didn't. When Hispanic looters mined the JUSTICE FOR KING sign in the window of the Land of the Little Ones-a children's furniture store--and started to bang down the door, two blacks in Malcolm X baseball caps ran up and yelled, "Hey, motherf--. Don't hit that." Other black stores went up with all the rest. Looking on in disgust, Hector Ybarra said, "Where we gonna shop tomorrow? Where those people gonna live? Who's gonna be able to hold their heads up? This just ain't right." Nearby an African-American filmed the looters on his camcorder. He said he wanted the tape to show kids so they could see how the community was tearing itself apart, the same mistake it had made in the '60s.

Perhaps the most immediate racial tension in the city divided blacks and Koreans, not blacks and whites. A year ago a Korean grocer shot and killed Latasha Harlins, a black 15-year-old, after a fight in a market; the black and Korean communities have been at each other's throats ever since then. Well over 100 Asian-owned stores went up in flames last week. "We've been here 400 years. Our blood is here, in the land. You don't shoot our children," said one middle-aged African-American studying the fires on Pico Street. "F-k them." Among many hardworking Koreans, the feeling was mutual.

With the police in disarray, some Koreans formed their own vigilante groups for self-defense. They strapped metal grocery carts together in a line across the parking lot at the Korean Supermarket on Olympic. Then they drew their Volvos, Mercedeses and other high-end cars into a Maginot line. Behind the cars crouched a dozen men with shotguns and pistols. Some had cellular phones strapped to their belts; others set up fields of fire from a supermarket roof. "No trouble," said one of the defenders with a wave. "Come back tomorrow."

The people whose job it was to protect Los Angeles took a little longer to pull together. After their initial fuddlement,. Mayor Bradley, Governor Wilson and Chief Gates regained their equilibrium. They imposed a dawn-to-dusk curfew; they mustered more National Guardsmen. President Bush put the U.S. Army at Ford Ord at their disposal, along with 1,000 federal officers trained in riot control, and declared the city a disaster area. "We will take back our streets," the mayor vowed-and they did.

It was a victory with no parades. There was nothing to celebrate. The smoking rubble gave off a sour smell that drifted over entire neighborhoods. Mayor Bradley named Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner, to head a committee to rebuild neighborhoods damaged in the rioting. One city official estimated that even before the riots most of South-Central's businesses were just getting by, that perhaps 30 percent were not insured. Even those that had insurance will probably not recover full damages. "I'm black, I'm proud. I love my people," says Thomas Hill, owner of a shop on Western Avenue. "But I'm a businessman and I've got a family to support. I'll never come back here again." Watts never recovered from the 1965 riots. Now, predicts sociologist Kotkin, "South-Central L.A. will become an economic Mojave Desert."

If the economic wreckage was awful, the damage to institutions and human trust was far worse. And no one was going to get a breather. King has brought an $83 million civil suit against the city. The city must now decide whether to retry Powell. The Justice Department investigation seemed likely to produce federal indictments against the four cops, and who knew how many reruns of the video. It was hard to see how relations between the community and the police could get much worse. "You take the aggression out of a stud and see what happens," muttered one cop. "We were a bull. We feel we've been castrated." "I've been worried for my life since this whole thing began," added Richard Sanchez, a nine-year veteran of the force. "A lot of guys are talking about retirement."

Community trust, race relations, the delicate arrangements of class were all in tatters. Not since the 1960s had so many people talked so furiously about "the system" and the way it ran down the powerless. Talk, of course, meant little. After the verdict, a Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed that three quarters of the whites questioned agreed with the all-but-unanimous feeling of African-Americans that the system of justice was loaded against them. But the riots have probably wrecked whatever chance there might have been for a reconciliation. "It will be much harder to push through any meaningful reform of the LAPD," predicted Ramona Ripston of the American Civil Liberties Union. The more likely outcome was a backlash that will lend itself to the hot rhetoric and manipulations of politicians.

Over the past century there have been four cycles of major riots involving race, and now class, and each time things seem to cut to the same pattern: a long accumulation of grievances at the bottom, a studied indifference at the top, finally a catalyst--then an explosion. How awful, everyone says. Then the rush to scapegoats instead of solutions begins. It has been more than 20 years since the Kerner Commission said the United States was drawing itself up into two societies, separate and unequal. It took the combined eruptions of Watts, Detroit, Newark and Washington, D.C., just to get that on the record. There has been progress since then, but nowhere near enough. Now the Big One has hit Los Angeles-not an earthquake as everyone feared, but a tectonic jolt in the nation's soul. It will take nerve and new ideas to ride through the aftershocks.

From what you know of the Rodney King beating case, do you think the verdict finding the policemen not guilty was justified or not?

WHITES BLACKS Justified 12% 4% Not justified 73% 92%

The federal government may be able to take action against the policemen involved in the case under U.S. civil-lights laws. Would you favor such action?

WHITES BLACKS Yes, would favor 77% 91% No, would not favor 17% 6% From the Newsweek Poll of April 30-May 1, 1992

Compared with whites charged with crimes, are black people charged with crimes treated more harshly or more leniently, or are blacks and whites treated about the same in this country's justice system?

WHITES BLACKS More harshly 46% 75% More leniently 5% 3% The same 38% 16% For this special NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization interviewed a national sample of 242 black adults and 350 white adults by telephone April 30-May 1. The margin of error: plus or minus 5 percentage points (6 for whites, 7 for blacks), Some "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The NEWS. WEEK Poll

Simi Valley: Site of trial

Los Angeles: Site of Rodney King beating March 3, 1991

Beverly Hills, Hollywood, Westwood: Fires, looting and robberies in predominately white areas

Koreatown: Korean-owned businesses hit by rioting

Downtown: Violent demonstrations at city hall and police headquarters

Santa Monica: Looting, beaches closed

South-central Los Angeles: Epicenter of rioting, looting and fires

Los Angeles International Airport: Long delays as flights are rerouted to avoid smoke and gunfire

Long Beach: Motorcyclist shot and killed

The Siege Of L.A. | News