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15 years after L.A. riots, tension still high

Times Staff Writers

Although a 15th anniversary typically does not carry the emotional cachet of, say, a 10- or 25-year milestone, hundreds of residents gathered Saturday at two South Los Angeles events to call attention to a community still racked by the poverty and violence that fueled the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The message from both gatherings on the eve of today’s anniversary was stern and angry: The city’s southern neighborhoods are still largely ignored.

A standing-room-only crowd at the Community Coalition lambasted city officials for failing to close nuisance liquor stores and motels that the nonprofit group has pinpointed as hot spots of illegal drinking, drug dealing, prostitution and violence.

Six months ago, coalition members gave city Planning Director Gail Goldberg a list of the 21 “most egregious” businesses and pleaded for their closure or improvements within six months. They learned Saturday that public hearings have been held or set for only eight stores, frustrating many who said they expected more from the city.

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“We have heard this so many times,” an angry Manya Anderson, 58, told Goldberg as nearly 200 people looked on at the coalition’s offices on South Vermont Avenue.

“We are dying. This community is dying. The bottom line is, this never would have been allowed in any other community.”

Resident Jackie Garrett, 60, was equally discouraged.

“I feel like we’re living in Iraq,” she said. “Tell me we lost the war in Iraq -- we lost the war in L.A.”

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Across town at First AME Church on Harvard Boulevard, civic leaders warned 70 to 100 listeners that the conditions that sparked the riots still fester, despite the myriad post-riot promises of better jobs, schools and supermarkets. Many promises never materialized, leaving some residents embittered and resigned.

Without a massive effort to undertake these underlying issues, “We’re going to be right here after the next riots,” said veteran civil rights attorney Connie Rice.

“You don’t have racial tensions when there’s enough prosperity.”

The nation’s worst rioting in more than a century began April 29, 1992, lasted three days and took at least 53 lives, injured 2,300 people and damaged more than 1,100 buildings.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said he felt a sense of desperation at the forum.

“The key to our public officials is to go out, learn and listen to voices and offer solutions,” he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spoke briefly at the event, cast a more optimistic view of race relations.

“Make no mistake, every single day you see people working together,” he said. “People love to focus on the negative, on the conflicts.”

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Villaraigosa left the forum after his remarks to attend a tree-planting for Big Sunday, a citywide volunteer effort, missing most of the discussion. One of the panelists, actor and author Hill Harper, suggested the mayor should have stayed.

“It’s wonderful to plant trees,” he said, “but I believe the discussion we’re having here is more important than going to plant trees.”

Around 5 p.m. 15 years ago today, after a Simi Valley jury acquitted five LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney G. King, looters spilled into Tom’s Liquor at Florence and Normandie avenues, yanking beer cartons off shelves and igniting the Los Angeles riots.

Four days ago, George Graham, a Community Coalition employee, drove up to Tom’s Liquor on one of his regular “liquor store patrols,” intending to snap photos and take notes to give to Goldberg on Saturday.

He encountered an overhead helicopter, ambulances, police cruisers and yellow “caution” tape -- a scene that he said felt like “a reincarnation” of the riots.

Just minutes before, a shooting at the corner critically injured a man, who stumbled into the store and collapsed.

“I was appalled,” said Graham, 58, who has worked for the coalition since 1993. “This goes on and on. It’s a cycle.”

Speakers at Saturday’s events said they are paying close attention to how the 22-month-old Villaraigosa administration grapples with problems in South Los Angeles. Adding to their angst over the anniversary is that many of the new retail centers and manufacturing plants promised after the riots have not materialized.

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At the meeting, Rice referred to a 1992 consultant’s analysis for Rebuild LA, the private post-riot recovery agency. The study said that an infusion of $6 billion was needed to reverse decades of stagnation in South Los Angeles. When the agency shut down in 1997, corporate investment totaled only $389 million.

State records show that the area has 517 stores selling liquor. That is 150 fewer than the 667 stores in business when the riots began, but about 200 liquor stores burned down during the unrest.

Residents say that they are increasingly frustrated that the Villaraigosa administration’s planning and zoning officials appear to be treating their pleas as a low priority.

“How long do we have to wait? How many murders do we have to go through? How much do our children have to see before they take some action?” said Joanne Kim, chief operating officer of the coalition, which responded to the 1992 riots with a campaign to rebuild South Los Angeles without liquor stores.

Goldberg, hired by Villaraigosa, met with coalition members six months ago and promised to address their list of 21 trouble spots.

Coalition leaders who reviewed the status of those sites Saturday gave the city a failing grade, although some said they believe that Goldberg has good intentions and deserves praise for meeting with them.

Goldberg said that her department is only one player in a process that also involves the city attorney’s office and other agencies.

“I wish I could do it alone,” she said, adding that evidence of wrongdoing is needed to reprimand or close a liquor store.

Residents countered that they have provided the city with evidence on some stores for 10 or 15 years.

“They’re asking us all over again. What other community has to do it all over again?” Kim said.

Some moments Saturday were more upbeat.

Residents released 53 butterflies outside the Community Coalition offices to signify hope that South Los Angeles can be rejuvenated.

At the forum, Rice praised efforts by law enforcement leaders to launch community-based policing and seek the trust of the neighborhood and church leaders.

“It’s been stunning to see the sea change at the top. They’re trying to change the culture,” Rice said.

Some residents expressed frustration as they left the First AME meeting.

“If you have a 40 to 50% dropout rate in high school, there is no hope for you to have a meaningful life,” said the Rev. Brenda Lamonthe, an executive assistant at First AME Church. “It’s like there’s a psychological and emotional imprisonment of our kids because our community does not equip them to get beyond poverty, gangs or drugs.”

Karen Robinson, 46, of Inglewood said she felt little was accomplished at the forum.

“There are still no jobs. Our youth are still turning to gangs, and not education,” she said.

“I can’t say I’m walking out of here feeling that we know what we’re going to do. Talk is cheap.”

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

ron.lin@latimes.com


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