From the city’s corporate suites to City Hall and police headquarters, a sense of powerlessness permeated the responses of the Los Angeles Establishment to the unfolding horror.
At times Thursday, it was as if they were talking about Beirut.
The sick feeling started with an uncharacteristic admission by Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, a man who does not like to sound weak.
“Quite frankly, we were clearly overwhelmed,” Gates said, referring to the multiple explosions of violence that rent the night. Beside him, the city’s fire chief, Donald Manning, might as well have been talking about the impact of a major earthquake, of the Big One. From midnight to near dawn, Manning said, there were three new fires being reported every minute. By 10 a.m., the department was 31 fires behind.
Then the fire chief spoke of the calamity’s human face. “They tried to kill us with axes. They tried to kill us with gunshots,” he said.
Early in the day, Mayor Tom Bradley did his best to allay the public’s fears. He talked tough about how the city would not put up with any more of the trouble. “We cannot and will not tolerate any further violence,” he said. But that was before reports that the trouble was moving into some of the city’s plusher shopping districts along Beverly Boulevard.
Westside Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky spoke of what was happening to the city in almost apocalyptic tones.
“We have had a failure of democracy in the last 24 hours,” he said. “The kind of lawlessness here is what you have in Third World societies in the midst of collapsing juntas.”
Yaroslavsky added: “I think it’s a turning point in the city’s history. It sets the city back two decades in terms of race relations.”
“I don’t think anyone knows what we ought to be doing,” said Councilwoman Joy Picus during an emergency council meeting Thursday.
Echoing the sentiment, Councilman Michael Woo said that the city’s power structure is powerless to act because there is no bridge to the community that is engaged in the rioting.
“A lot of the people out on the streets are young people who have no connection with anybody, whether it is with their families or established community organizations, like the Urban League or the NAACP,” Woo said.
During a midday tour of her district, City Councilwoman Rita Walters helplessly watched as “entire neighborhoods were leaving their homes to loot local stores,” said Howard Gantman, spokesman for Walters.
Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores took to the sky in a helicopter to survey damage to the Martin Luther King Shopping Mall on 103rd Street and Compton Avenue, which was built six years ago over ashes of the Watts riot 27 years ago.
Looted and trashed, the shopping center was not burning when she saw it. “Chief Gates assured me the mall will be the highest priority for the National Guard, once they are deployed,” Flores said.
But the rioters did not spare the newly built $200,000 field offices of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, one of the two African-American council members representing the regions hit hardest so far.
In all, the damage citywide was estimated by the city’s Department of Building Safety at $200 million to $250 million, city officials said Thursday afternoon. That figure, did not include the contents of more than 300 buildings that had burned to the ground citywide.
Mike Hernandez, one of the council’s Latino members, fretted that the emergency response strategy had overlooked the need for communicating with thousands of immigrants who do not speak English.
“It’s critical that we have a better network in place,” said Hernandez, who made himself available to Spanish-language media throughout the day to communicate emergency information. “It’s just not there.”
Meanwhile, he said, “they are looting all over my district,” evidence that the rioting had spread to predominantly Latino neighborhoods near the city’s Pico Union district, just south of downtown. “It’s the same pattern--broken windows, then looting, then fires, then people calling for help.”
Later in the day, one of the city’s most prominent and ethnically diverse groups of citizens, including the heads of the Urban League and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, gathered atop a downtown skyscraper to try to fashion a message of hope. As the group assembled behind Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and lawyer Warren Christopher, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from virtually every point of the compass.
One by one, members of the group arose to condemn the violence, to pledge financial support for ravaged businesses and to call for more housing and educational assistance for the communities most affected.
In a written statement, Mahony said turmoil could be avoided only if the Police Department “cultivates appreciation and respect for peoples of many races, nationalities, languages, religions and customs.”
But the statements merely tended to provoke impatient questions about what the group could do now.
“You have a very large group of people here, and you are talking about things in the future,” said one woman in the audience. “Does anyone here, looking out that window right now, have a suggestion about how we can get things under control right now?”
Christopher, whose commission spent much of the past year preparing the most far-reaching critique of police abuse in the history of the department, put his faith in law enforcement.
“It’s a law enforcement issue, and they have experience in dealing with these kind of conditions and I just feel that the Los Angeles Police Department is looking back into its history to decide best what to do,” Christopher said.
Urban League President John Mack glumly conceded that a well-organized effort by civil rights leaders and clergymen to restrain rioters had not had the desired effect.
“We did not succeed to the extent we had hoped to,” Mack said. “It’s one of the realities we are having to contend with.”
Mack said he felt that the nearly wholesale acquittal of all four defendants in the King case had fanned a fury that his preparations could not begin to cope with.
“In all candor, I did not expect a complete acquittal,” he said. “Minimally, we thought at least one or two of the officers would be found guilty of something.”
Mack was not the only one taken by surprise. Unaware that all hell was beginning to break loose Wednesday evening, Gates had gone to a political fund-raising event in West Los Angeles to speak against a proposed ballot measure that would place the police chief under stricter City Hall control. The proposal grew out of the Christopher Commission’s investigation of racism and brutality on the force and would strengthen disciplinary procedures and give civilians greater say in the investigation of cases of excessive force.
“I did not expect it (the violence) to break out that quickly,” Gates said, explaining why he had gone to the fund-raiser.
Proponents of the ballot measure, including Christopher, continued to hold it up as the one legitimate way people could express their rage over the King verdict and was joined in that view by Mahony and the other community leaders gathered for the news conference Thursday morning.