After spending two days in Los Angeles surveying the fire-gutted buildings and looted stores that are the legacy of the nation's worst riots this century, President Bush flew back to Washington on Friday as the military scaled back its presence to just 176 troops patrolling city streets.
In his final address in Los Angeles, delivered at a youth club in the heart of the inner-city riot zone, the President announced a $19-million anti-crime, anti-poverty grant as the only new long-term federal solution to the urban problems that contributed to the riot. Local officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley, praised the program but said they hope that Bush will do more.
Meanwhile, the city's street corners were clear of soldiers for the first time in nearly a week, as Army troops and Marines returned to their staging areas at Tustin and El Toro and thousands of National Guard members retreated to staging areas within the city limits. As the troops pulled back, some nervous store owners complained that the soldiers--who had restored order to grateful communities from Hollywood to Watts--were abandoning them too soon.
"Where are they going that's so important?" asked John Kuak, whose wig store on Vermont Avenue was all but destroyed last week. "People still come up to the windows. They look in to steal."
In other developments Friday:
* Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates--who has been the target of increasing criticism for his department's slow response in quelling the riots--denied that his top brass was ill-prepared and credited his department with a "beautiful" performance in containing the violence. However, Gates blamed a field lieutenant for mistakes in deploying officers at Florence and Normandie avenues. The riots began there April 29 after a Simi Valley jury returned not guilty verdicts in the case of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King.
* Seven disaster relief offices opened in hard-hit areas from Long Beach to Watts to Koreatown. Although their opening marked an important first step toward delivering help to burned-out store owners, newly unemployed workers and other victims of the riots, there was confusion and frustration over a complex application process. For many, it will be weeks before a check arrives in the mail.
* As food donations continued to pour into the riot-torn area, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter announced cancellation of free city-sponsored bus trips designed to shuttle Crenshaw district residents to grocery stores outside their neighborhood. The service, Galanter said, is no longer needed.
* As the total number of arrests climbed to more than 17,000, the presiding judge for the Los Angeles Municipal Court announced that she had requested--and received--a state judicial order lifting the normal 10-day deadline for conducting preliminary hearings in thousands of felony cases stemming from the riots. In addition, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court said he would make some of his 238 judges and 60 commissioners available to help with the crush of preliminary hearings, which are expected to begin next week.
* An annual rite of the season became a glimmer of hope in the midst of the riot-stricken area, as the University of Southern California proceeded with its 109th springtime commencement exercises for 7,800 students. As the festivities proceeded, military helicopters flew overhead and a small contingent of National Guard troops posed with graduates. In his address to the graduates, USC President Steven B. Sample urged them to involve themselves in the rebuilding of Los Angeles.
* San Francisco police arrested about 500 people Friday night during a peaceful march on Market Street called to protest the verdicts in the King trial. The march drew 600 participants who were monitored closely by police because of a looting rampage that broke out during a similar protest last week. Police said the arrests took place after officers decided the marchers violated an agreed upon route for the demonstration.
"We have an opportunity to take all that is good about Los Angeles--the creative spirit, the optimism, the essential decency--and create a community in which our children and grandchildren will be able to live together in peace and mutual prosperity," Sample said.
The President's Visit
President Bush concluded an extraordinary 40-hour visit to riot-ravaged Los Angeles on Friday by acknowledging that the urban decay and racial tension that exploded into death, fire and looting was years in the making, and that only "radical change" could bring racial harmony to America's inner cities.
But after two days of surveying the wreckage and conferring with minority groups pleading for swift and generous aid from Washington, Bush returned to the capital having presented only one new long-term solution: a $19-million anti-crime, anti-poverty grant for the city. The money is part of Operation Weed and Seed, a program unveiled by the Bush Administration earlier this year.
Ironically, federal officials in Los Angeles decided before the riots not to funnel any Weed and Seed program money to this city. Instead, the U.S. attorney's office, which administers the program, bypassed the city in favor of smaller jurisdictions, including Santa Ana.
Edward R. McGah Jr., executive assistant to the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said federal officials viewed Santa Ana as a good place to launch the program because of a higher likelihood of success.
The $19-million Weed and Seed money comes in addition to $600 million in federal grants and loans that Bush offered last week to help rebuild area businesses. Although Mayor Tom Bradley praised both initiatives, he and another prominent black leader--state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles)--called upon the President to do more to help the city recover.
"I feel that the President came and made a very nice speech which was heartwarming," Watson said Friday. "But he gave no specifics and no timetable. Without any specifics, it was just a nice trip out to California. . . . I heard nothing new. He could have made those comments from Washington."
Watson added: "I did feel he was touched by what he saw. . . . Now let's see if he was touched enough to come up with a plan for the urban core."
While the President spent Thursday touring areas torched and trashed by arson and looting, Friday was devoted in part to honoring those called on to serve in a chaotic emergency.
Bush went to the hospital bedside of a Fire Department driver felled by a bullet and gave a pep talk and offered thanks to military troops.
The President told an estimated 750 police, California National Guard members, Army soldiers and Marines collected in front of the ivy-draped south wall of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that they symbolized to the nation a united stand "to defend decency and honor . . . to defend and protect the honest men and women."
The setting resembled an overseas USO troop show from World War II as the public address system played 1940s classics by Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman while the soldiers and Marines waited for the President to appear.
Clad in the olive and brown camouflage of their fatigue uniforms, the troops--some of them veterans of Operation Desert Storm--cheered their commander-in-chief and chanted approvingly when he said: "You did what's right and you did what's demanded of you."
Later, in his address in the crowded gym of a youth club in the heart of the riot zone, Bush sought to imbue Angelenos with optimism in spite of the scenes of domestic tragedy, turmoil and fear he witnessed.
Los Angeles will bounce back--is already bouncing back, Bush said repeatedly both days. The nation's families, churches and communities, he said, have the strength and spirit "to transform America into the nation that we have dreamed of for generations."
In spite of his efforts to be upbeat, Bush's speech contained his bleakest acknowledgment yet of the problems facing America's cities. But the answer he put forward was little more than a new plea for his dormant 3-year-old urban agenda.
"I know some will say, well, you've proposed all this before; and that's true, they're right," Bush told about 300 invited guests at the Challenger Boys' and Girls' Club on devastated South Vermont Avenue at 50th Street. "And I'm proposing it again."
Bush was received warmly by the largely black audience at the boys and girls club. But the crowd was more vigorous in applauding Bradley, who accompanied the presidential party but did not speak. There was even more enthusiasm upon the introduction of L.E. Dantzler, who founded the club in 1968.
Outside the club, about 30 angry protesters were not nearly as receptive to the President's message. "Bush, Bush, a Day Late, a Dollar Short," they chanted as his motorcade arrived.
"He should have come in here with a plan. I don't want any feel-good speeches," said Karen Banks, 29, who was among those who held a vigil outside the youth club in front of a gutted building. "Read my lips. Put your money where your mouth is."
Another protester, Ronald Lee Jones, 37, urged Bush to prove his commitment to helping improve conditions by providing federal assistance for education and job training.
Bush, meanwhile, said he had tried during his visit here to "imagine the fear and the anger that people must feel to terrorize one another and burn each other's property." But he added: "I saw remarkable signs of hope right next to the tragic signs of hatred."
At the same time, the President offered a barely muted version of an Administration argument that suggested that the riots point up the failure of the Great Society programs of the '60s and '70s. He said he intended to meet next week with congressional leaders and others to discuss what ought now to be done for America's inner cities.
"If we had set out to devise a system that would perpetuate dependency, a system that would strip away dignity and personal responsibility, I guess we could hardly have done better than the system that exists today," Bush said. "Every American knows that is time for a fresh approach, a radical change in the way we look at welfare and the inner-city economy."
After an initial reaction that stressed calls for law and order, Bush spoke for the first time Friday about "what went wrong in L.A." and the "underlying causes" of the violence.
"Things weren't right before a week ago Wednesday," the President acknowledged in his remarks. "Things aren't right in too many cities across our country. And we must not return to the status quo."
As he took leave of the riot zone, Bush spoke about what he called "very emotional, very moving" visits with Angelenos from a wide range of communities.
But the cultural gulf that sometimes seems to divide the President from urban America remained apparent even as he sought to sought to show empathy with the family of a firefighter left gravely wounded by an assailant Bush referred to as "some hoodlum."
In a 6:45 a.m. visit to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center room of injured fireman Scott Miller, 33, Bush told Miller's wife--Miller is unable to talk--he was sorry his own spouse, Barbara, could not join him in touring the riot-scarred city.
"She's out repairing what's left of our house," he said, referring to his family's $2.2 million, 26-room estate in Kennebunkport, Me., which was damaged by an ocean-borne gale last October. '
The Military Pullout
As Bush departed, so too did the troops from city streets. By day's end Friday, only 176 National Guard members were left patrolling Los Angeles streets--a significant reduction from the more than 5,000 Guard members and federal troops who, at any given time, stood watch over street corners and businesses earlier in the week.
Nearly 5,000 Army soldiers and Marines went back to their staging centers in Orange County on Friday, where they stayed on alert and can be recalled if needed. But thousands of National Guard members remained inside the city and ready to respond to emergencies. "This city is quieter now, with less violence. And the civil disturbance has ended," said Maj. Gen. Marvin Covault, the commanding officer for more than 13,000 troops sent to quell the riots. "Earlier in the week, we were getting a lot of calls saying: 'Gosh, don't leave' . . . but we are not in the law enforcement business."
However, the withdrawal made many people nervous.
Michael Yamaki, a member of the Police Commission, said it was "a little nerve-racking" to lose the troop protection. "We have 3,000 stolen guns out there right now," he said. "That's intimidating."
And to store owners who have seen their businesses burned and looted, the troop staging areas of Orange County seem far away. As shopkeepers returned to work Friday and found their stores unguarded for the first time in days, some complained that the military was pulling out too soon.
In Watts, where 500 Army soldiers had patrolled the parking lot of the Martin Luther King Jr. Shopping Center on Wednesday, only a handful of security guards oversaw the cleanup. And in Koreatown, sales of bulletproof vests were up, store owners were setting up camp inside their shops and residents were preparing to defend themselves now that the military won't be there.
"Yes, I feel fear for this weekend," said Paul Lee, an administrator in a Koreatown law office. David Joo, manager of the Western Gun Shop in Koreatown, agreed. He said he had sold 10 bulletproof vests during the last two days. "We will be here during the weekend time," Joo said. "We have armed ourselves and we will protect ourselves because we cannot trust police anymore."
Troop commanders were sympathetic, but stressed that they cannot stay indefinitely. The longer the troops remain in the city, the greater the chance that some people will grow tired of the military presence and irritated by it, Covault said.
"We'll start hearing: 'This is America. We don't need armed soldiers on our streets,' " he said.
Indeed, not everyone was sorry to see the troops go--some residents considered the military presence an invasion and wanted it ended almost as soon as it began. Outside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where thousands of Guard troops still are based, one small sign said: "U.S. Army, Go Home."
But in interview after interview, store owners and residents said the troops had brought peace to their communities, thwarting not only the riot but the daily violence that many in South Los Angeles and Watts live through even during the best of times.
They were grateful for the protection troops had given them, but many remain concerned about rumors of new violence, of gang members lying low until the troops withdraw and then kicking into action again.
"I'd feel a lot better if they were here for a couple days more at least," said Husaniddine Sharrieff, a Watts resident who was sweeping up his store.
Although others agreed, some residents--even those who had welcomed the troops--said they believe their neighborhoods are returning to normal. That return cannot be completed, they said, until the last military unit goes home.
"You can't ask the Guard to hang around forever," said Clara Cotton, who was selling musical Mother's Day cards near Crenshaw Boulevard and Rodeo Road. "You gotta keep going. It is up to us to clean up, get up, and get your thoughts on something else. Like buying a Mother's Day card."
Cotton added: "I think the worst is over. Like any storm, it passes."
This story was written by Times staff writer Sheryl Stolberg.
Also contributing to today's coverage were Greg Braxton, Miles Corwin, Tammerlin Drummond, Jim Newton, Gebe Martinez, James Rainey, Anne Roark, Richard Simon and Amy Wallace.
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