Vowing unity, seeking to heal

Times Staff Writer

Facing mounting tensions as a controversial trial continues for 10 black youths accused of beating three white women Halloween night, about 100 civic leaders led by Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster gathered at City Hall on Tuesday and clasped hands in a show of unity.

Wearing purple and white plastic wrist bands embossed with the motto "Long Beach One City," the leaders called on residents not to be swayed by people from outside the city who might try to rally opinion in favor of the victims or the defendants.

"All of us in Long Beach," the mayor said, "seek to foster a great city that is safe, harmonious and creates opportunity for all our citizens."

"No it's not!" shouted a dissenting woman in the audience.

"We are here today to remind those that would seek to divide," Foster continued, "that we are all unified in our belief that violence has no place in a civilized society -- and an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us."

Gene Lentzner, a board member of the National Conference for Community and Justice, agreed. His group, founded in 1927 and based in Long Beach, is dedicated to fighting bias and racism.

"What happened?" he asked. "Some kids got out of hand and a tragic event occurred in a good city of good people who are working together every day to make the community better."

Some Long Beach residents welcomed the show of unity while others questioned why city leaders waited until mid-December to speak out on the issue.

Reaction within the city to the trial remains a complex mix of emotions. Some people say it reflects simmering tensions while others say the city is far from being a powder keg ready to blow. Still other residents admit they're not sure how to react or feel.

The ethnically diverse port city of more than 50 distinct neighborhoods and a population of 475,000 people -- 36% of them Latino, 33% white, 14% black and 12% Asian -- has been reeling from relentless negative publicity generated by the racially charged incident that has become grist for talk-show hosts across the political spectrum.

After all, Long Beach has for decades taken pride in how it, as one city official put, "does diversity better." Like San Francisco, it's a message touted in Long Beach marketing strategies and economic development brochures.

Beyond that, the city, which lost 50,000 Navy and aerospace industry jobs in the 1990s, has been on a roll lately. Property tax revenue rose more than 8% in the last fiscal year. Shoreline development is booming, with city coffers free of appreciable debt for the first time in years.

Long Beach, the fifth-largest city in the state, has reported 23 hate crimes so far this year, three more than in the previous year. As of Tuesday, principals in the sprawling Long Beach school district's middle schools and high schools were reporting reasonably peaceful campuses and few tussles.

The brutal Halloween night beatings, followed by the gang-related trashing of a witness' car, rocked the city's newfound feeling of accomplishment and left residents clamoring for leadership.

"We do not want this incident to undo all that work," said Rene Castro of the National Conference for Community and Justice, whose hate crimes response teams have been trying to calm nerves and provide guidance.

"We have communities in need of healing and regardless of what happens in court, there will be different interpretations of what went down that night," Castro said. "So we're keeping the discussion going in forums and living rooms and schools, and through the dialogue we can sustain peace."

To that end, the Long Beach council Tuesday night voted 8 to 0 to launch a series of workshops around the city to help young people and families deal with the tensions.

Ginny Baxter, executive director of the Long Beach City College Foundation, has collected $15,000 in donations from throughout Los Angeles County on behalf of the victims.

Najee Ali, executive director of Los Angeles-based Project Islamic HOPE, said Tuesday that if the city grants permission, his group will hold a march in Long Beach on Saturday in support of the victims. "We came to condemn the barbaric acts of violence these women experienced," Ali said.

Others in the city have questioned the motivations of prosecutors.

Take Richard Love, the African American publisher of the local weekly newspaper, the Long Beach Times. To hear Love tell it, Los Angeles County prosecutors were wrong to have added hate crime enhancements to charges against eight of the defendants who allegedly yelled racial slurs during the attacks.

"The prosecutor is using hate crimes in this case because racial names were used as references in the heated argument that night," Love said. "But the white person struck first."

Not surprisingly, that kind of talk raises hackles along Linden Avenue in Bixby Knolls, the upscale and mostly white west-central Long Beach neighborhood where the attack occurred. Bixby Knolls -- where the median age is 36 and the average household income is $93,000 -- has for 50 years built a reputation for going all-out with decorations and candy on Halloween.

Whether that tradition continues remains to be seen. Some Linden Avenue residents said they had already grown wary of older and often rude trick-or-treaters from outside the area who have been joining the festivities in recent years.

The attacks, which left one victim seriously injured, only confirmed suspicions for residents such as Traci Ortiz, 45, who stopped giving out candy a year ago.

Walking her young daughter down a shady lane Tuesday, Ortiz said: "People around here are outraged over the incident and wondering aloud how things would have turned out had the races been reversed."

"Personally, I'm not sure whom to be mad at anymore," she said.

"I'm frustrated at the lack of protection. I'm angry that the local councilwoman didn't hand out fliers about a neighborhood meeting over all this. And I'm mad at the suspects; they're children, which is scary, and sad," she said.

Over at Long Beach City Hall, Anitra Dempsey, coordinator of the city human dignity program's youth and gang task force, was laboring to keep outsiders -- regardless of their designs for the city -- at arm's length.

"We've been taken aback," she said, "by the level of the derogatory comments about us being posted on websites, by the questions raised about whether we are a safe city and the generally nasty stuff being said about minorities in general.

"Yes, what happened was an awful incident," she added. "But as we heal, we do not want to be defined by anyone else."

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