There was a rustle of nervously fidgeting bodies as a recent meeting of the Franklin Hills Residents Assn. wound to a close.
A private consultant had come to talk about what neighbors could do to better prepare their homes and families during a "disaster." Under the category of defense measures, makeshift barricades bearing "Do Not Enter" signs was suggested as a way to deter potential looters, as was "pre-graffiteed" plywood coverings for windows.
But few seemed satisfied as raised hands began to fly into the air.
"I know as little now as I did when I came in about how to protect myself and family if the riots break out again," said one frustrated man who sat in the front row. "I'm not suggesting we become policemen but I am sufficiently trained to know that red cone barricades are not going to stop looters from coming up my drive."
Across the width and breath of Los Angeles, residents such as those in Franklin Hills are beginning to steel themselves for an event that all of them hope will not happen.
Last year, dozens of people were killed and injured, hundreds of businesses were looted and burned and thousands were arrested in a cataclysmic outburst of anger and opportunism that--despite warning signs--caught everyone off guard.
This year, as the federal civil rights trial of four police officers accused in the Rodney G. King case moves forward, authorities and residents say they believe it is foolish not to prepare for another round.
But dealing with the threat of more violence has become a delicate matter for most Angelenos. No one wants to be thought of as predicting something as racially charged and divisive as a riot, and even to raise the issue is to be accused of inflaming tensions.
Yet nearly everyone has been forced to acknowledge that the unthinkable could happen again and that realization, for many, has focused attention on the practical necessities of preparedness more forcefully than even the threat of a major earthquake.
Institutions and individuals have dusted off emergency manuals--or updated them to include the distinctive features of civil strife.
At the ABC Television Center, where mayhem is often simulated for entertainment purposes, security officials are preparing for the real thing. The center is building an emergency operations center, is stockpiling enough food and water to supply three days of provisions for 1,000 people, has purchased search and rescue and fire equipment and arranged to hire up to 30 retired police officers to provide security for its lot and escort news crews. The center is even inviting neighbors to seek shelter on its lot in the event of renewed civil unrest, said John Combs, director of security.
"Last year we lost a camera at gunpoint and had a reporter beat up pretty badly," Combs said. "It caught us by surprise and we lost a lot of equipment."
On the other side of town, administrators at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center are mapping out plans to establish a shuttle service along designated safe routes to get staff to and from work and to set up a day-care center at the hospital in case workers' child care arrangements are disrupted.
"What we learned from last spring's civil unrest are the things we need to do for our employees," hospital spokeswoman Julia Richmond said.
They also learned that some suppliers were reluctant to enter their strife-torn South Los Angeles neighborhood, forcing the hospital to send security escorts to retrieve essential items such as blood and medicine. Administrators are revising contracts to stipulate that supplies will be delivered during all emergencies, including civil unrest, Richmond said.
The Los Angeles Community College District has developed an emergency communications network using ham radios at each of its nine campuses to maintain contact among administrators and faculty if violence erupts, spokesman Fausto Capobianco said.
Campus security forces have bought protective helmets and cellular phones and the district has established direct lines with radio and television stations to ensure that the public is informed about campus closures and class cancellations.
Last time, the campuses, including City College and Trade Technical, were left relatively unscathed, Capobianco said.
"I believe people in the communities regard our institutions with some value, and I believe that was the realization last time. I hope that mentality maintains," he said.
The behavior of residents also reveals a city harboring a welter of conflicting emotions about how to best respond to the threat of renewed unrest. Fear and apprehension were clearly at the forefront for many of the 50 or so Franklin Hills homeowners called to organize by an alarmist flyer insisting that "gang leaders . . . will hit again if the verdicts do not go their way."
"The police, the Fire Department and the National Guard have all asked us to be prepared to take care of ourselves. There simply are not enough of them to cover all areas," the notice warned.
LAPD Officer Paul Afdahl, who attended the meeting, admitted as much.
"We have 18 officers in the Northeast Division to hold the line in case anything happens and that is not a lot to cover an area of roughly 30 miles," he told the hushed assembly. "If something does happen over a wide area there will be an even thinner blue line. That is why you have to depend on yourselves to come up with contingency plans. You can't be vigilantes running around but you must be prepared."
But one woman asked, "If we are in our homes and gangs are coming up the steps what is the best tactic we can take?"
Before Afdahl could respond, homeowner Jack Lieberman asked the question more pointedly. "If I shoot someone on my steps during a riot and he's armed what are the consequences?"
Many residents were made uneasy by such talk.
"If people start shooting at looters, you are going to be the ones who end up endangering your neighbors," one young man said angrily.
Personal safety has recently been on the mind of El Monte Fire Chief Leslie George but it was tinged with the regret of a veteran firefighter who is pained that some in the community no longer view him and his associates as saviors.
The El Monte Fire Department sent two engines to South Los Angeles to assist city crews during last year's upheaval and both were fired upon. George decided that he must accede to the concerns of his crews about more violence, and agreed to ask the City Council for $11,000 to buy protective gear. But the action seemed to symbolize the passage of an era for the 38-year veteran of the El Monte force.
"I didn't want to take this action at all, not just because of the cost, but it's a horrible thing to look at this kind of situation, to see the need now for firefighters to have to protect themselves," George said.
The El Monte crews were part of a strike force that included engines from Pomona, La Verne, Covina and other cities.
"They went from one location to another, wherever they were needed," George said. "In one situation they pulled out because there was gunfire. They were wearing no protection and had no police protection."
George said bulletproof vests are not particularly heavy, but they make the task of battling heat, smoke and cracking buildings all the more unwieldy.
"Firefighters have always been the good guys you know and people always treated us like we were really helpful, but now it's different," he said.
Shannon F. Reeves spends his lunch hours pacing the concrete steps of the Edward R. Roybal federal building, which, for many, has become the locus from which a host of complex issues about the city's future will be decided.
Reeves, western regional director of the NAACP, began fasting at the outset of the trial and plans to continue until verdicts are returned. He believes his is just as fundamental an approach to dealing with the threat of civil unrest as any other.
"People in the community are tired of hearing leaders talk about what they need to do and want to know what you are prepared to do," Reeves said. "This is something they can touch, feel and see. Everyone wants to know why you are fasting and the message gets out.
"I thought it was important to symbolize the fact that Los Angeles is hungry for justice. People in the African-American community are sick and tired of not having a justice system that works for them and they are sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Reeves said his message is also one of peace. "Violence begets violence. The (police beating) of Rodney King led to the beating of (trucker Reginald O.) Denny, which led to riots, which led to violence against the Korean-American community. But peace without justice is tyranny."
Reeves says he understands the fears of residents whose first thought is to protect home and family, but "I blame them for their ignorance."
"Middle-class white America is going to have to stop being so concerned about its personal wealth and more concerned about how the majority of this city lives. I've seen polls that say majorities of white folks believe the officers are guilty. Why aren't those people at the courthouse demanding justice every day?"
A GUILTY PLEA: A defendant in the Denny beating case pleads guilty. B1
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