James Churchill was struck by a sense of unease as soon as he scanned the first paragraph of the flyer sent by his neighborhood association advising him of "urgent meetings."
The missive from the Franklin Hills Residents Assn. read: "We are concerned, in light of the civil unrest last May, about the possibility of another violent revolt when the Rodney King and Reginald Denny verdicts are announced. The trials are starting in March. The gang leaders held a Boston summit meeting in January and have said they will hit again if the verdicts do not go their way. They have also stated they will not burn their own communities this time."
Other residents were concerned about the content of the flyer, for it drew a throng of Los Feliz-area homeowners to a community meeting with questions about what to do if bands of gang members descend on the neighborhood.
The flyer--which Churchill thought alarmist but other residents took at face value--is an example of the kind of coarse emotions being produced in a city bookended by the most destructive social disorder of the century on one side and the frightening prospect of further civil unrest on the other.
Over the course of a few weeks the flyer was distributed to several communities by facsimile machines and word of mouth. It not only heightened tensions, in the view of many, but also produced a discomforting dilemma for some residents who had considered themselves social activists but were forced to admit concerns for the safety of homes and families.
As it turns out, the flyer was in large part inaccurate, the result of unchecked rumor and misunderstanding, as Churchill found out.
After receiving the flyer, he asked its author, Donald Waldrop, president of the neighborhood association, for documentation of the alleged gang summit. Waldrop said he got his information from Linda Lockwood, a private disaster consultant listed on the flyer as the featured speaker at the urgent meeting it called for.
At the meeting, Churchill confronted Lockwood about the flyer. She contended that the television news program "60 Minutes" had run a piece about the summit but admitted that she had only seen a teaser for the piece and not the actual segment itself. Churchill had already called the news program and received word that it had run no stories about a Boston gang summit.
"What I didn't think we needed is further divisive talk," Churchill said. "Having a disaster-preparedness plan is a good thing for everybody but we don't need to appeal to race fears."
By the end of the meeting, Waldrop had apologized for the flyer and any unease it had caused residents.
"It was a screwed-up meeting," he admitted later.
Meanwhile, Churchill learned that there was a summit of sorts, attended by so-called gang leaders from several cities, in Washington, D.C., last month, which may have been the source of the confusion. According to news accounts, instead of plotting destruction, the organizers met to map out a gang peace summit to be held in Kansas City, Mo., in April on the anniversary of the verdicts in the first Rodney G. King beating trial.