Shop owners were sweeping up broken glass and community leaders were searching for explanations Saturday, hours after hundreds of youths rampaged through Westwood Village, some looting stores, throwing beer cans, vandalizing cars and tearing branches off of trees to smash store windows.
Police said the melee erupted when hundreds of ticket buyers at the Mann Westwood Fourplex Theater on Gayley Avenue were turned away from the just-released movie “New Jack City,” a story about the violent rise and fall of a Harlem drug lord.
Theater officials denied that the movie had been oversold. Eyewitnesses said Friday night’s violence was fueled, at least in part, by tensions created by the highly publicized beating of a black motorist by Los Angeles police officers last week.
Some youths shouted “Black Power!” and “Fight the Power!” as they roamed the streets and made angry references to the videotaped beating.
Outraged merchants said that police had been warned about the possibility of violence linked to the opening of the movie, which features the volatile rap artist Ice-T. They said police appeared reluctant to stop the looters and blamed the timid response on the public outcry over the controversial beating of Rodney G. King.
Several merchants also expressed concern that the melee was part of a disturbing trend that threatens business in the Westside shopping village, where the release of movies popular with black audiences have been linked to street violence on at least two other occasions.
All showings of “New Jack City” in Westwood were canceled Saturday and today. A theater employee said a decision would be made Monday whether to continue screening it.
By Saturday night, Westwood had nearly returned to normal. The restaurants and cafes were doing a brisk business, pedestrians were strolling the sidewalks, and traffic was at its usual crawl.
But some reminders of the previous night’s violence remained. A few windows were boarded up. A dozen Guardian Angels stood in front of the theater, arms crossed, waiting and watching for trouble. Some people who had come to see “New Jack City” were upset to find that the show had been canceled.
Friday’s disturbance began about 9:45 p.m., when 600 to 800 youths gathered outside the theater complex to buy tickets for the 10 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. showings of “New Jack City,” said Sgt. Nicholas Barbara of the Police Department’s West Los Angeles Division.
Barbara said the theater sold too many tickets for the showings, which angered the crowd. “They took over control of the streets,” Barbara said.
He and about eight officers on patrol asked the crowd to disperse, but the youths spilled out into the streets, the sergeant said.
The police formed a line and tried to move the crowd south on Gayley Avenue toward Kinross Avenue. But some youths, black and white, began picking up rocks and bricks, ripped thick branches off trees and began smashing windows and looting stores, Barbara said.
About 100 officers in riot gear swarmed into the village after a tactical alert was called at 10:40 p.m., police officials said.
“It was like a stampede of horses,” said Remy Hiramoto, an employee at the California Sports Card Exchange on Gayley Avenue, across the street from the movie house. “It was so crowded, so rowdy. One guy picked up a rubbish can and threw it into the street. Another picked up a (traffic) barricade and threw it. Then people just got braver from there.”
Hiramoto said one man ran into the street with an American flag, threw it on the ground and others stomped on it.
At the height of the disturbance, which lasted about three hours, as many as 1,500 people tore through Kinross, Gayley and Weyburn avenues, Westwood Boulevard and Lindbrook Drive in moods that eyewitnesses described as ranging from angry to jubilant.
Police booked six people for burglary, failure to disperse and throwing objects at moving vehicles with intent to injure.
One man suffered severe cuts, apparently from broken glass, but ran before paramedics could treat him, police said. Three people were treated for minor injuries and released from UCLA Medical Center.
At least two youths were knocked over by a car speeding through an intersection, but they did not appear to be badly injured.
Looters struck 17 stores in the trendy shopping village and carried away merchandise ranging from leather jackets and bicycles to compact discs and athletic gear. Shoe boxes and clothes hangers from other stores were strewn across the street. Police said no damage estimate was available.
Many shopkeepers closed early when they saw crowds filling the streets.
“I was scared,” said Taher Nasseri, who sells leather goods at a stand on Westwood Boulevard. “People were jumping on cars, breaking everything, putting trash on the street, running this way and that way.”
Abu Bashar, 23, a UCLA student who was eating dinner near the theater when the violence erupted, said he was surprised by the inaction of police. He said he observed officers standing less than 100 feet away from looters and doing nothing to stop them.
Some observers said they wondered whether police were under orders to hold back in light of the King beating. West Los Angeles Division Capt. Willie Pannell said no such instructions were given. He noted that it took 45 minutes for all 100 officers to reach the scene and that by then “obviously a lot of people that committed crimes got away.”
Gene Stratton, a board member of the Westwood Village Merchants Assn. and owner of Stratton’s Grill, said merchants last week warned police that there would be trouble if “New Jack City” were shown so soon after the videotaped beating of the black motorist.
“The only problem we have in Westwood is when they show a black film,” said Stratton. “What happens is the black film brings in black gangs. These films (incite violence). I know it sounds crazy, but we’re not talking Sidney Poitier-type films.”
Last December, merchants also sent a letter to Mayor Tom Bradley listing their concerns about “certain types of black films,” Stratton said. Bradley spokesman Bill Chandler said Saturday: “To the best of my knowledge, no one is aware of such a letter.”
Last August, nine people were arrested in Westwood when a series of fights broke out after the premiere of the Spike Lee film “Mo’ Better Blues.” The incident prompted the city to close off several streets in the village on weekend nights.
Three years ago, 1,500 people were involved in a post-midnight fracas at another Westwood theater midway through a screening of Eddie Murphy’s “Raw.”
Los Angeles was not the only city to experience violence at a theater showing “New Jack City.” In Las Vegas, police said that 15 people were arrested Friday night after a fight broke out among 60 youths in a theater showing the film. Police said a number of those arrested were gang members, and one person was carrying a machine gun.
Pannell said concern over “New Jack City” prompted him to double the number of patrol officers on duty Friday night from four to eight. He said that after the “Mo’ Better Blues” disturbance, Westwood movie theaters agreed to warn police when films are shown that could pose problems.
The suggestion that films geared to black audiences cause disruptions angered many black moviegoers Saturday.
“They closed the movie because they don’t want black people in Westwood,” said Ava DuVernay, 18, an African-American student at UCLA who watched the melee Friday night. “It’s the same thing that happened with ‘Mo’ Better Blues.’ They’re using (the movie) as an excuse. (They’re afraid) this place is attracting too many black people, basically.”
DuVernay said she believed that much of the violence was spurred by anger surrounding the King beating. She said that if police had used a heavier hand in Westwood on Friday, the disturbance “would have been a Watts revolution. It would have been real nasty.”
Merchants were upset at the apparent passivity of some police officers.
The police “didn’t do anything,” said Drew Feldman, 42, a salesman at Century Electronics on Westwood, where a window was smashed. He said looters stole $100,000 worth of cameras, shortwave radios, keyboards and other equipment. “They just stood here and watched. I’ve never watched so much law breaking in front of officers.”
“I think it is a spinoff of the violence from the Police Department and that fellow they hassled,” said Larry Oakley, owner of Oakley’s Hairstyling, across the street from the Mann theater. “They were just (angry) and had to take their meanness out on something. It was bound to erupt. It was a time bomb.”
“It’s getting to the point where no one wants to come to Westwood anymore,” Oakley said.
Black community leaders hesitated to blame this weekend’s violence on racial tensions.
Jarone W. Johnson, Western regional director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said he hoped the disturbance was not racially based, “but I believe it may have been.”
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said that whether the melee was sparked by anger over the King beating is “the kind of thing we can’t tell.” She added: “We are in a very, very tense environment and there is so much anger about the beating.”
Times staff writers John Lee, Anthony Millican and John L. Mitchell contributed to this story.
“New Jack City,” directed by Mario Van Peebles, depicts the rise and fall of a ruthless Harlem drug lord and the crusade of two undercover detectives to break up his crack-dealing business. Ice-T, whose career has been marked by criticism that his songs incite violence, plays one of the detectives who chase down the drug kingpin. Ice-T’s raps have been described by critics as profane, angry and bitter. He said in a recent interview that one of his singles, “Dog in the Wax,” was excessively violent. But Ice-T, who began rapping while a student at Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High School, also said that he does not favor violence, and that his raps deal with street violence and other realities of urban life.