An ashen-faced President Bush toured riot-ravaged sections of Los Angeles on Thursday with a message of healing, meeting with civic leaders and handpicked audiences while hundreds of residents who were kept at a distance looked on with anger and skepticism.
Speeded by motorcade from the heart of destruction in the Crenshaw district and South Los Angeles to the burned-out furniture stores of Pico-Union and looted mini-malls of Koreatown, Bush reacted with “horror and dismay” to his firsthand glimpses of the riots’ toll.
Voice quavering, he urged worshipers during a morning prayer service at a South Los Angeles Baptist church to seek hope amid their pain. “We saw the violence, we’ve seen the hatred,” Bush said in emotional remarks from the pulpit of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, “and we’ve got to heal and see the love.”
At each stop, the President decried the violence of the worst U.S. riots this century, urged residents to look forward, and tried to downplay political motivation that many critics charge is the central purpose of his whirlwind tour.
Yet as Bush spoke of reconciliation and promised Angelenos a self-sufficient recovery aided by $600 million in federal loans and grants, political leaders, black and Latino residents and Korean-American riot victims on the fringes of his tour responded to his presence with unmasked bitterness. The anger peaked late in the day during a meeting in Koreatown as owners of ruined stores angrily demanded that the government pay restitution for their lost businesses.
In other developments Thursday:
* Sniping among public officials intensified over the breakdown of authority in the first hours of the riots nine days ago. Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald O. Manning angrily reported Thursday that firefighters’ pleas for police escorts went unheeded and that he was unable to “find where (Police Chief Daryl F.) Gates was.”
* Fears among police and other officials that gang members might retaliate against them after National Guard and military units pull out were heightened by two attempted fire bombings Thursday at a county probation office. And police in the Foothill Division, the jurisdiction where Rodney G. King was beaten, were placed in a state of readiness after they received a tip that gangs planned to firebomb the station.
* Federal officials continued the troop withdrawal, pulling back another 2,000 National Guard members from the streets. An additional force of 2,000 Guard troops and soldiers from Ft. Ord, and 200 Marines from Camp Pendleton, were trucked back to bases at Los Alamitos, El Toro and Tustin--their original assembly points when they were mobilized for riot duty a week ago.
* After several days in which the accuracy of the riot death toll has come under question, Beverly Hills police on Thursday further challenged the county coroner’s unofficial figures, reporting that three deaths attributed to the disturbances resulted instead from an unrelated robbery and car chase. As of 5 p.m. Thursday, authorities reported 58 deaths, 2,383 injuries, 16,291 arrests and $785 million in damage.
‘L.A. Is Going to Recover’
In his hectic progress through Los Angeles on Thursday, President Bush told leaders of neighborhoods riven by violence that the worst was past and it was time for healing to begin.
“As Los Angeles comes back to its glory, all of us must ask ourselves what we can do to help,” Bush said during his morning sermon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. ". . . To truly help, we must understand the agony of the depressed. You can’t solve the problem if you don’t feel its heartbeat. You got to understand the hopelessness of those who literally have no opportunity.
“L.A. is going to recover,” Bush told the congregation. “It’s a great city.”
The President also tried to reassure a meeting of African-American leaders afterward that the federal government would be thorough in its civil rights inquiry into the beating of King. Not guilty verdicts issued last week by a Ventura County jury in the case of four Los Angeles police officers accused in the King beating sparked the riots in South Los Angeles. The disturbances boiled into an orgy of arson and looting that swept across the area, spreading from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley.
Bush said the Justice Department “is following through on the justice side of the equation to see . . . if civil rights of anybody have been violated--Rodney King or anybody else. There will be fair play and equity here.” His remarks came as a federal grand jury in Los Angeles renewed its year-old investigation of the King case and a flurry of subpoenas were delivered to the key figures in the incident.
Wherever Bush stopped Thursday, there were few displays in his immediate vicinity of the unbridled anger that rocked the city last week. But out of range of his security force, onlookers gathered and vented their rage.
In one telling incident near the Crenshaw Town Center, where Bush had scanned charred ruins in a parking lot that reeked of fire and smoke, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp tried to drum up support from spectators. Kemp retreated moments later, after a gathering crowd heckled him for defending the President’s urban policies.
“It’s going to boil down to what he does,” said John Mack, head of the local chapter of the Urban League. “The time is long past that this community can afford a show-and-tell.”
The President’s 31-car motorcade traveled at least 50 miles before the day ended, traversing the city in unchecked routes that took him past scenes of devastation in Koreatown, the Mid-Wilshire area, the Crenshaw district and South Los Angeles. The cars slipped silently past mounds of twisted concrete, wood and steel girders that only a week ago were thriving shopping centers, furniture stores, takeout taco stands, corner markets.
At each stop, the men who traveled with Bush for much of the day--Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.), Kemp, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, and, at other times, California Gov. Pete Wilson and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley--appeared stunned by the gaping ruins.
“It’s just a tragedy, a tragedy,” gasped Kemp at one point.
Bush’s motorcade began shortly after dawn, whisking away from the Bonaventure Hotel past vacant stores shuttered with plywood, then headed through Koreatown, site of some of the worst of last week’s rioting.
Slowing to speeds of 10 or 15 m.p.h., apparently to allow the Washington contingent to study the damage, the caravan wheeled past scattered spectators along 3rd Street. Clusters of children on the way to school gathered on street corners as the limousines passed. A few raised hands in a tentative wave and flashed smiles. Many looked puzzled.
Older spectators recognized the motorcade instantly. Some erupted in scorn. “Go to hell, you hypocritical liar,” one man jeered from a street corner.
A Wrecked Shopping Center
The President’s first stop was the Crenshaw Town Center, where he and his disaster team strode past gutted, blackened hulks that had been a Boys’ Market, a Thrifty drugstore and other shops. The morning air was sharp with the acrid smell of week-old smoke.
The site bristled with security, heavy even by Secret Service standards. Federal agents and police roamed rooftops, armed with long-range rifles and automatic weapons. Soldiers flooded Slauson and Crenshaw boulevards. Before Bush arrived, cars of Secret Service agents, police officers and handlers with bomb-sniffing dogs streamed into the parking lot.
As armed police officers stood guard on one of the few roofs left intact, Dereke Carr, the 30-year-old general manager of the burned-out Boys’ supermarket, joined with Urban League President Mack and dentist William Faulkner in leading Bush on the tour.
Carr, whose eyes grew teary as he narrated the mayhem of last week, said later that Bush described the destruction as “unbelievable.” Carr said the President urged him to “send a note” if his attempts to rebuild became mired in federal red tape.
Mack said he had used his time with Bush to urge the President to take concrete steps to improve living conditions for African-Americans and city dwellers. Mack said Bush seemed receptive to a suggestion that the Administration do more to encourage business ownership by blacks. But the President was less responsive, Mack said, to his plea for the government to create more jobs in the black community.
“He clearly agreed with me that we need to have more jobs for our youth,” Mack said, “but he didn’t say what he would do about it.”
During the tour, Bush said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would make an estimated $300 million in assistance available to the city, with personal grants of up to $11,500 “to meet urgent needs like food, clothing and medicine” and temporary housing.
As members of the President’s entourage continued their tour, Kemp broke away and trotted across the street to talk directly to spectators milling there. As he started to speak, he was shouted down by Geno McKinney, a 35-year-old father of three who has been laid off for nearly a year from his aircraft construction job at McDonnell Douglas.
“We need better education, more jobs, a stake in the community,” McKinney shouted as his wife, Jan, and his 5-year-old son, Glen, looked on.
Stunned by the man’s anger, Kemp tried to interject. “Do you want an answer or do you want to make a statement?” Kemp said. Finally, Kemp turned his attention to McKinney’s son, bending down and saying: “My, you’re a handsome young man. You look just like your mother.”
When McKinney launched into the details of a job-training idea of his, Kemp said, “As soon as you get it on paper, you can call Jack Kemp.” He hurried back across the street.
On their way to the morning church service, Bush and the other officials made a surprise stop at the LAPD’s Southwest Division station. The presidential motorcade pulled up by the back entrance of the station on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and within moments, Capt. Garrett Zimmon escorted Bush through the station’s dingy corridors.
Adopting a sterner posture as he toured the Southwest station, Bush took pains to proclaim his support for police officers, for whom he said, “It’s not easy times.”
“I’ll support them, and I will continue to do it,” Bush said of the police. He said he regarded the violence as “wanton lawlessness,” and in fragments of conversation overheard as he spoke with the officers, he could be heard saying that he respected “what you do” and supported them.
And at one point, seeking an accounting from a group of officers who confronted rioters last week, Bush asked: “Were these young hoodlum guys or were they gang guys?”
Zimmon said “the President felt that we were receiving a lot of negative press and not being recognized for the good work that we did. He wanted to let the officers know that they needed to recognized and really appreciated the hard work that they did.”
Later, at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Bush wiped tears away after religious leaders delivered impassioned orations, and he had a catch in his throat as he addressed the audience of local pastors and other leaders.
“We are embarrassed by interracial violence,” he said. “We are ashamed. We take nothing but sorrow from it.”
A convoy of six giant tractor-trailers, their sides emblazoned with the words “Feed the Children,” sat parked on one side of the church as a shield for Bush and his entourage. The trucks had driven into Los Angeles from the Oklahoma City-based Larry Jones Ministries, a Christian relief organization, laden with 200,000 pounds of food and 40,000 pounds of clothing.
The trucks served their purpose. A sullen crowd gathered near the church as Bush spoke inside. “Lip service, that’s all they are going to do!” shouted Rodney White, 38, a carpenter who lives near the Florence-Normandie neighborhood where the riots started.
“Go ask (Bush) how he caused the gang-banging for all the young black men with no jobs and no hope and no future,” White bellowed at reporters. “That’s why they sell dope. That’s why they rob.”
After the church service, Bush and his entourage met with the Rev. Edward V. Hill, pastor of the E. 50th Street church. Flanked by Hill and Gov. Wilson, Bush listened quietly as a dozen black community leaders talked of the social causes of riot and the steps needed to ease tensions and rebuild the devastation of South Los Angeles and other parts of the city.
Bush nodded his head in agreement as Dr. Clyde Oden, president of the Watts Health Foundation, said that South Los Angeles residents must be involved in the reconstruction of their community. “The people of L.A. want to own their own community,” he said. “People want to protect what is theirs.”
Minutes later, Bush met with federal, state and city officials, among them Bradley, Peter Ueberroth, County Supervisor Deane Dana and the mayors of Compton, Inglewood, Lynwood, Hawthorne and Long Beach--communities all torn by civil unrest last week.
Bradley said Bush “seemed to get information that he was not aware of.” And the mayor said that he came away with the belief that Bush had “a total commitment to come in to help us, to use the resources of the federal agencies to do just that.”
Talking With Korean-Americans
Other local Democratic leaders, miffed at not being invited to the meeting, later blasted Bush for failing to come to grips with the causes of the riots and being unprepared to deal with those causes in the future.
“Even though I’m a member of Congress he won’t talk to me and others . . . who represent this area,” said a visibly furious Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), in whose district much of the worst rioting occurred.
Waters said Bush’s tour was “a day late and a dollar short,” adding: “How many more rebellions is it going to take, George Bush? You have to stop playing politics. You have to have domestic programs. Where is the peace dividend?”
Bush found himself confronted by prickly questions of a different nature on Thursday afternoon, as he tried to reassure two dozen Korean-American leaders and businessmen during a meeting in a sound studio inside Radio Korea on Olympic Boulevard near Alvarado Street.
Outside the two-story brick building, 500 Korean-American merchants and their relatives stood behind a police line, demonstrating against what they described as the LAPD’s failure to stem the riot and the government’s slowness in sending in troops to restore order.
Brandishing banners that read “Anarchy Doesn’t Work in America,” and “We Are Victims,” they chanted “We Need Compensation,” an awkward slogan that picked up in rapid cadence as the President’s entourage left the meeting.
Inside, Bush told the Korean-American leaders that the riots caused “turmoil that every American regrets.” He went out of his way to respond to complaints by the Korean government that merchants were left unprotected, saying he would “do everything to show our friends abroad, as well as here, that this is not the American way.”
But the tone of the meeting grew more testy as one young Korean-American lawyer, John S. C. Lim, told Bush that his Administration had failed to deal with social problems adequately.
“The federal government’s failure and inability to address the oppression felt by African-Americans must be viewed as the cause of the disaster,” Lim said.
Bush did not respond to requests for special compensation. But in the hourlong session, which was extraordinary for a President usually insulated from such concerns, other Korean-American leaders used their time to voice anger and pain--and to call for faster federal action.
“Ten years or 20 years of hard work went down the drain overnight,” said Helen Kim, a grocery store owner. “Talk doesn’t do anything. We need action.”
Returning to the Bonaventure, Bush met with 15 Latino leaders, who emerged 1 1/2 hours later and called the session as “very frank.” Several of those present emerged satisfied that Bush had agreed to look into a series of post-riot U.S. Immigration and Naturalization sweeps that have deported 300 Mexican citizens to Tijuana.
The President plans this morning to visit with firefighters at a South Los Angeles fire station and with law enforcement officers and federal troops at a staging area outside the Coliseum. He is to speak later to the Challenger Boys and Girls Club, delivering what aides described as the most formal of his addresses on the three-day visit.
As Bush’s limousine emerged from a tent in the Radio Korea parking lot after the early afternoon meeting, hundreds of demonstrators shouted, “Compensation! Compensation!”
Behind tinted glass, the President leaned forward and offered a cramped wave and a smile.
“We are victims!” one woman shouted. The limousine accelerated and, in seconds, was gone.
Chest heaving, the woman’s voice began to crack.
“Help us,” she cried.
This story was written by Times staff writer Stephen Braun.
Also contributing to today’s coverage were Leslie Berger, Greg Braxton, Stephanie Chavez, Miles Corwin, Paul Dean, David Ferrell, John H. Lee, Patrick J. McDonnell, Frederick M. Muir, Lisa Omphroy, Louis Sahagun and Henry Weinstein.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday authorities reported the following:
Fires: 5,383 structure fire calls.
Damage estimate: $785 million, including Long Beach.