On the Fahrenheit scale, the auditorium registered about 80 degrees.
On the political scale, maybe 212. The boiling point. When rage and frustration simmer and overflow. When momentous things can happen.
Inside the Parker Center auditorium, 3 1/2 hours’ worth of anger and invective and dismay, reaching from the suburbs to the inner city, from March of 1991 back to May of 1958, were parceled out five minutes at a time, to men and women who sought the two microphones.
In response to the outcry after the March 3 videotaped beating of Rodney G. King, the Los Angeles Police Commission had called this public hearing for Thursday; anybody with a gripe against the LAPD, they said, was welcome to air it.
Invitation accepted. Several hundred times over.
They spoke variously of God, of Martin Luther King Jr. and of Richard Nixon; “he too said he wouldn’t resign.”
‘Gates must go!” the audience called, chorus-like, with almost every speaker. “Get rid of the bum!”
Outside, the overflow could listen to the proceedings on loudspeaker. Mostly, they unfurled banners on the lawn, circulated petitions, massed on the traffic median along Los Angeles Street, their signs soliciting drivers, “Honk if you want Gates out .”
If that was too complicated, then passersby could deal with this placard, an unsettling reissue from the 1960s: “Off the Pork.”
The object of all this vituperation, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, sat inside, onstage, second from the right at a green-skirted conference table. Two blocks away, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury was taking testimony about the conduct of some of his officers. Before him, two long aisles of people waited to excoriate him, as another 400 cheered them on.
An anti-abortion demonstrator named Debbie Grumbine, introduced by her companion as “a Republican, with white skin, as white as yours,” would weep into the microphone that she had miscarried a pregnancy from a beating at the hands of LAPD officers making arrests at an Operation Rescue blockade.
Under the melting lights of television, their remarks were broadcast live on CNN. The timing was not lost on Gates. A month ago, TV news was consumed by the Persian Gulf War.
Now, “the war’s over, see,” Gates said. “If the war had just lasted a few more days. . . .”
But what dozens of men and women, most of them black, got up to say were things that spoke of a war closer to home. Some had waited years to say these things. Some had just thought of them the day they saw King being pounded before the glass eye of a home video camera.
In language that was by turns ornate or Biblical or crude, it all came down to the same thing: Something is wrong with the Police Department and let’s start with Gates.
The city’s rhetoricians were in evidence: Ted Hayes, the politico-homeless man; anti-war activist Jerry Rubin, and former cop Don Jackson, due back in Long Beach that afternoon to testify in the trial of two officers accused of falsifying a police report about him.
Others were new to the spotlight.
* Manuel Brule, now 68, holding up in front of the commission something he had dug way back into his closet to find: a 1958 issue of the now-defunct black newspaper California Eagle. Later, he splayed it out on a glass case next to a bronze bust of the late Police Chief William Parker. The front-page picture was Brule, his face swollen, stitches below his left eye. “Policeman’s Handiwork,” it was captioned. A motorcycle officer had pulled over his 1956 Mercury station wagon, Brule said, then beat him when he wouldn’t sign the speeding ticket. “This thing that just happened"--the March 3 videotape--"brought it all back to me.”
* Ron Harmon, an apparatus operator for the city Fire Department who took time off to be here, to make the point from 11 years working alongside police, that the King incident is “not an aberration,” that police are “often rude, inconsiderate to the public.” Some of his friends told him he ought not to come, that it would betray the special links between firefighters and police, but “my loyalty is to the citizens of this community,” he said before testifying. “I can’t, in good conscience, not speak out.”
* Francisco Ortega, from the North San Fernando Valley, invited to step to the microphone to “tell the folks what they did to you,” waved a pair of white pants with what looked like bloodstains, and said, “They beat the (expletive) out of me.”
To each speaker, the crowd cheered; some gave the same arm-whirling, approving whoops they had seen on the Arsenio Hall Show. A small Latino man with a dandelion-puff of white hair like conductor Leopold Stokowski’s led his own verbal orchestra with two forefingers, cheerfully directing the chant “Gates Must Go!”
Two people, both from Van Nuys, stood up for the LAPD.
Into a hailstorm of boos, Lynne Exe said: “I support the Police Department.”
“I wish you had some black grandchildren--you wouldn’t even be saying that!” yelled a woman behind her.
Afterward, out in the lobby, Exe was still shaking. “I have to lean up against something,” she said wanly. The other pro-police speaker, Mark Isler, led her to a pillar.
In one of those codas of great events, Cheryl Wossenau had just finished her remarks and gone to the lobby for some fresh air.
On her chest, she wore button-photos of her children, Angela and Michael Baker, one in the Air Force, the other aboard the battleship Missouri. On a three-by-five card she had printed, GATES OUT, and pinned that on too.
And there, in the Parker Center lobby, she had seen him, her first boyfriend, a man she had not seen for nearly 20 years. He did not want his name used.
They grew up together in the 77th Street Division. He had taught her how to drive. Their first date was at his father’s church.
And here he was--on duty in a civilian job for the Police Department.
“If you had told me back in high school I was going to be in the Police Department, I’d have slapped your face,” he said, laughing.
“And if you’d told me I’d be an advocate . . .,” said Wossenau, just as cheerily.
For half an hour, as the speeches flared and roared inside, they stood and talked. They talked about the old days, the old neighborhood. And they talked about the way each had chosen to make changes.
“It’s interesting,” he said finally. “You’ve chosen to be visible. I’ve chosen to be invisible, and as effective as I can.”