Bush Denounces Rioting in L.A. as ‘Purely Criminal’ : White House: The President voices frustration at King case verdicts. He offers federal assistance.


President Bush, stunned by the Los Angeles racial violence and concerned that it will spread to other cities, Thursday expressed frustration at the verdicts in the Rodney King beating case but denounced the riots as “purely criminal” and called for the re-establishment of law and order.

At the same time, he directed the Justice Department to step up an investigation to determine whether to prosecute the policemen in federal court for violating King’s civil rights.

The President, in telephone calls to Mayor Tom Bradley and Gov. Pete Wilson, also offered federal aid to help repair the riot damage, though White House officials said that Bradley and Wilson told Bush it is too early to know what assistance will be needed.


Describing the violence, fires and looting in Los Angeles as “mob brutality” and “wanton destruction,” the President said: “We simply cannot condone violence as a way of changing the system.”

He spoke to a group of broadcasters and later attended a $1,000-a-plate reelection campaign fund-raiser in Columbus, Ohio. His departure from Washington was delayed for several hours because of developments in Los Angeles.

Bush, under intense pressure to involve the federal government in addressing the Los Angeles situation and the nation’s broader racial problems, spent part of Thursday morning consulting with advisers.

Later, aides announced that he was scheduling a White House meeting for today with black community and government leaders to discuss a course of federal action.

Although Bush could dispatch federal troops to Los Angeles to help control rioting and prevent looting, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said no such action has been considered.

Meanwhile, Arthur Fletcher, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, underscored the urgency of the racial situation not only in Los Angeles but in other parts of the country, saying that commission files are filled with reports warning that other cities also are “tinderboxes” that could explode into violence.

The reports have been filed by the commission’s state advisory committees, Fletcher disclosed in an interview. Fletcher, a black man who will attend today’s meeting with Bush, said the Los Angeles riots sprang from “a cancer of racism that’s been eating away at the nation’s moral fiber and infiltrating and infecting practically every major institution in government, education, health--and the judicial system, the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Fears that the violence could spread also were voiced by many members of Congress and civil rights leaders who expressed outrage at the outcome of the trial and demanded that the Justice Department prosecute the policemen involved in the King case for civil rights violations.

Several lawmakers said they will organize congressional hearings to examine the possibility of expanding the Civil Rights Act to address questions of police brutality more specifically.

California Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil rights, said he plans hearings on police brutality for next week, and Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the Civil Rights Act should be amended to incorporate specific statutes against police brutality.

Congressional Black Caucus members said they will discuss the King case next week with Willie Williams, the newly appointed Los Angeles police chief.

“America witnessed a terrible travesty of justice,” said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), chairman of the caucus. He called the jury verdict “a manifestation of prejudice and racism in their most virulent form.”

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) both urged Atty. Gen. William P. Barr to move quickly to bring federal charges against the policemen implicated in the King beating.

After meeting with Barr and other officials, Waters, whose district includes the area of the worst rioting, said: “We let them know that we think the situation not only in Los Angeles but across the nation is extremely volatile, and we want them to make the decision with all due haste.”

Jackson, declaring that justice must be done to protect the credibility of the judicial process, accused Bush of failing to exercise leadership and said that his “kinship” with Police Chief Darryl F. Gates “throughout all of this shows his disregard for justice and fairness.”

Jackson and other civil rights leaders also criticized Bush for reacting too slowly to the developments in Los Angeles and refusing to meet with Jackson Wednesday night after violence broke out. The President was attending a state dinner at the time, and a White House spokesman told Jackson that Bush would have to talk with him later.

The White House said Thursday night that black leaders invited to today’s meeting with Bush include Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP; Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women; John Jacob, head of the National Urban League; Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the Rev. E.V. Hill, pastor of a church in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr..

Fletcher and another black official in the Administration official--Constance B. Newman, director of the Office of Personnel Management--also will attend.

Barr, stressing the seriousness with which the Justice Department is conducting the civil rights investigation in the King case, spoke at a news conference Thursday flanked by FBI Director William S. Sessions and John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

“It’s important for people to understand that the verdicts yesterday on state charges are not the end of the process,” Barr said. “The Department of Justice is responsible for enforcing the civil rights laws of the United States, and it will do so vigorously.”

The Justice Department could seek indictments against not only the four officers accused in the beating but 17 others who stood by and did nothing while King was being beaten, according to a key federal law enforcement official.

Barr dispatched Associate Atty. Gen. Wayne Budd, a black and the department’s third-ranking official, to Los Angeles to head the continuing investigation into the King case.

Barr himself has been scheduled to travel to California Sunday for a visit that would include a speech before the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. However, there were reports Thursday that because of the extreme sensitivity of the case and the situation in Los Angeles he would postpone the trip.

Meanwhile, sources said that the federal government, clearly caught by surprise when the riots broke out, lacked adequate intelligence information about the Los Angeles situation because the Ronald Reagan Administration had gutted the Civil Rights Commission and downgraded the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service.

Fletcher said that he met with Mayor Bradley about the Los Angeles racial situation after the King beating but that the Reagan Administration had so “decimated” the commission that there were not enough resources to develop adequate intelligence about the situation.

Other sources said that the Community Relations Service, which the Reagan Administration also downgraded, has been ineffective in monitoring the nation’s racial problems.

Grace Flores Hughes, director of the service, declined to be interviewed, but Ron Tomalis, a spokesman, said that the service was “assessing the situation” in Los Angeles.

“We are looking at other cities and assessing situations as they occur,” he said. “We were in Los Angeles during the trial and we have been meeting with local officials, community groups, civic groups.” He said the service has deployed 10 conciliation specialists in the Los Angeles area to work with local officials and community leaders in an effort to deal with racial tension.

The President is scheduled to travel to Los Angeles Thursday, and White House officials said there has been no indication that he might postpone that trip.

Instead, Bush appeared to be hopeful that by using his presidential pulpit he might be able to help restore calm and order in the riot area. In his statements, aides said, he hopes “to be of any help that he could in terms of quelling the riots.”

“I will keep telling the country that we must stand up against lawlessness and crime, wherever it takes place,” Bush said.

In their comments on the case, Bush and White House officials appeared to be trying to strike a careful balance between urging respect for the legal system and expressing empathy with those angered by the outcome of the case.

“We’re asking respect and reason in terms of viewing the verdict,” Fitzwater said. “But on the other hand we have to understand the frustration people feel.”

In his comments in Columbus, Bush expressed more outrage over the rioting than he had expressed earlier in the day in Washington. White House officials said that he had become increasingly angry as the severity of the riot’s toll became apparent. They said the rougher language did not reflect a change in tactics.

In condemning the rioting, Bush made no mention of the King verdict itself. But he vowed: “I will do my level best to heal the wounds and bring people together in the aftermath of the ugliness we witnessed last night. A President should do no less.”

Times staff writers Douglas Jehl contributed to this article from Columbus, Ohio, and Ronald J. Ostrow and Michael Ross contributed from Washington.