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Negative Image Created by Trial Haunts Simi Valley

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They have spent five years trying to ignore it and make the rest of the world forget too.

Simi Valley folks have labored to scrub off all traces of the Rodney King beating trial, the incendiary April 29, 1992, verdict and the rioting that laid blame on their doorstep and blood on their city’s name.

They gathered food and clothing for burned-out victims of the violence.

They shouted and threw stones when a white supremacist came to town five months later looking for supporters.

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And the predominantly white residents of Simi Valley launched a series of five annual Unity Games, reaching out to the mostly black residents of South-Central Los Angeles over softball diamonds and picnic blankets.

Yet nearly five years later, mass media outlets--from newspaper columns to comedians’ late-night shows--sometimes wield Simi Valley’s name like a bludgeon. In coverage of O.J. Simpson’s trials, references showed up repeatedly: the Simi Valley trial. The Simi Valley jury. Simi Valley justice.

Council members and homemakers hasten to point out that only two Simi Valley residents were among the 12 Ventura County jurors who acquitted four white LAPD officers of beating King, a black motorist, after the trial was moved from Los Angeles.

The mayor pleads with outsiders to remember Simi Valley not as the site of a notorious borrowed courtroom, but as a city of people. As the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. As a quiet bedroom community of affordable family neighborhoods just northeast of Los Angeles. As one of the three safest cities in the United States.

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Yet as the fifth anniversary of the verdict and riots approaches, Simi Valley finds itself gunshy and resentful, wondering whether the community has been forever changed.

Some people find themselves acting overly self-conscious about even appearing improper, said former City Councilwoman Vicky Howard.

“People are aware of the unfair label we got, and perhaps we’ve become a little more careful,” said Howard, who represented Simi Valley on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and organized the food and clothing drive for riot victims.

“They question themselves more--'Could that remark I just made be racial?’ ” she said. “You become a little sensitive.”

Keith Jajko, a longtime Simi Valley resident who helped coordinate the Unity Games until they petered out last year for lack of interest, said he finds himself acting differently too.

“Walking the streets, or at the store, subconsciously I tend to smile at an African American or Latino person,” Jajko said. “I don’t want to show any slightest indication of shining them on.”

All this hypersensitivity is unneeded, said Simi Valley Building Inspector Gaddis Farmer, a seven-year resident, who is African American.

“That’s unfortunate, that this situation has caused them to make sure they are sensitive to that,” Farmer said. “If they were just being natural and normal, they would find that they were doing fine.”

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Even before the verdict and the rioting, Farmer said, “I didn’t notice any problems or any kind of negative behavior here toward me or my family or any other people of Afro-American ethnicity.”

Mayor Greg Stratton said Simi Valley remains a good city with a bum rap. “I don’t think the city’s changed,” said Stratton. “I didn’t think anything was wrong to begin with.”

But among outsiders, the stigma lingers.

Moorpark High School Principal John McIntosh announced last month that the basketball squad would move a game with Compton Dominguez High School from the Simi Valley High gym to a “neutral site” because of the city’s connection to the King verdict.

Pat Havens, Simi Valley’s historian, said her husband went on a medical mission and found the city’s reputation had traveled into the jungles of Brazil.

“The interpreters were introducing themselves, and they asked where Neil was from, and he said, ‘Simi Valley,’ ” Havens said. “And a little boy jumped up and said, ‘Rodney King! Rodney King!’ ”

People such as Simi Valley gun shop employee Jeff Jordan face the misconceptions almost every day.

“I have friends in Oxnard come into the shop and joke, ‘How’s this white town doing?’ ” said Jordan, who works at Shooters Paradise. “And I have quite a few black and Hispanic customers.”

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In fact, Simi Valley’s racial demographics are changing.

The city once boasted a strong community of Latino families--many of whom worked for white ranchers back in the 1940s and ‘50s. But as a housing boom in the ‘60s and ‘70s lured urban refugees from the San Fernando Valley, the city grew whiter.

Now the pendulum is swinging back. Real estate brokers say more Latino families are moving into Simi Valley, reflecting a larger trend of minority families settling in Ventura County.

The 1990 Census showed that 80% of Simi Valley residents were white, 13% were Latino, 5% were Asian American and 2% were African American.

In 1996, Ventura County demographers estimated that Simi Valley had a Latino population of 14.5%, with 5.8% Asian American residents and 1.5% African American residents, along with 78% white residents.

Yet as the city welcomes minorities to its neighborhoods, charges of racism still pop up.

A white Simi Valley teenager was convicted of vandalism in a 1993 incident in which “KKK” was spray-painted on a black family’s mailbox and driveway. Racist leaflets were inserted into lockers at a local high school the same year. Racist slurs still mar some public bathroom walls in the city.

Last month, the City Council took heat from Latino activists for supporting the U.S. Border Patrol’s practice of rounding up illegal immigrants discovered during probation raids on gang members’ homes. Latino activists contended that the raids targeted only Latinos and violated their 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

Such occasional incidents shouldn’t tar the entire city, said Jajko, a former reporter for local newspapers and now an aide to Supervisor Judy Mikels.

“We have the same amount of rednecks and bigots that every other community has,” Jajko said.

For their part, some jurors in the Rodney King beating case say they never considered race when they found the Los Angeles Police Department defendants not guilty of assaulting King during a traffic stop taped by a nearby resident.

“When I saw that videotape . . . first thoughts were that they were guilty. But then I had to put that out of my mind when I became a juror and try to follow the jury instructions,” said former juror Henry King of Santa Paula.

As for the smear the case left on Simi Valley, he said, “that’s too bad, really. It was an unjust accusation at their city.”

Lulu Means, a white homemaker, remembers how quickly Simi Valley was branded “a lily-white community” and how the label has stuck.

“It kind of made me mad,” Means said. “It’s just generalizing people, saying that people who live here are racist or prejudiced.”

But she added hopefully, “I think it’s going to fade.”

Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.

* DIALOGUE ON L.A.: Spokeswomen for African Americans, Korean Americans reflect on relations. B1


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