At Tolliver’s barbershop, pondering what 20 years have wrought

It’s history they were talking about.

The verdict that landed like a slap in the face. The smoke that rose over the city in columns of protest. The rampant looting and savage beatings.

They were talking about nothing less than the evolution of a city and their place in it, of their crushed hopes and surviving dreams. Twenty years have been wiped off the calendar, but for a dozen regular customers who gathered in L.T.'s Barber Shop to hold forth on the riots Thursday, there is no separating today — or what may come tomorrow — from those epic days in April of 1992.

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“When the verdict came down, my phone rang off the hook,” said Lawrence Tolliver, whose shop on Florence Avenue wasn’t far from where Reginald Denny had his skull crushed by hooligans.

Like so many others, Tolliver was enraged by the exoneration of cops who had pummeled Rodney King. It was the latest, most graphic evidence that there were two kinds of justice in Los Angeles — one for the white man and one for everyone else. But as a hard-working citizen who had built a business and raised a family, and was proud of home and community, the physical violence against innocents and the destruction of South Los Angeles by rioters was as crushing to Tolliver as the blows to King’s head and body.

“We were all angry,” Tolliver said, “but not angry enough to burn our neighborhood down.”

And so it goes with Mr. Tolliver, who presides over his shop with judicial fair-mindedness and ministerial grace, searching always for a thread of hope. I spent a few hours with him and his cohorts Thursday. Preacher, teacher, truck driver — they all had something to say while Tolliver snipped away in a tonsorial parlor adorned with images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and Jackie Robinson sliding home safely.

Against a back wall sat Si Youngblood, grandson of a Louisiana slave, with an Obama poster draped behind him. Nearby was 18-year-old Arthur Gomez, mouth agape, as if he were in college and had never heard history come alive like this. His father is Latino, and his African American mother split when he was young, so he took it upon himself to begin hanging around the shop last summer to get to know the part of him that’s black.

If there was a consensus in the room, it was this:

The year 2012 isn’t what they hoped it would be.

Twenty years ago, with all the promise of change and economic investment, nobody would have predicted that the future would end up looking so much like the past. With obvious exceptions and some generalization, the Santa Monica Freeway still divides the city into two distinct hemispheres, one that climbs the hills and one that never rose up.

“You’d think that after all this time you could walk down some of these commercial corridors and see big changes,” said Alvin Jenkins, who retired from the city redevelopment agency. But where “some of the businesses were burned out 20 years ago,” he still sees empty lots.

What’s worse, said physician James Peace, who posted “Black-Owned Business” on his Diabetic Eye Medical Clinic in 1992 to keep it from being torched or looted, is that “people who didn’t even have much to begin with have gotten worse.”

A lot of that can be attributed, I suggested, to two things:

First, you can’t have an A-plus recovery with C-minus schools. And second, you can’t have a turnaround when thousands more good-paying jobs — in aerospace and industry — have become but a memory. Target and Starbucks do what they do just fine, but they don’t send your kids to college the way Firestone and Hughes Aerospace did.

These observations got nods of approval and agreement, but in true barbershop style, the challenges were swift and many.

Certainly you have to consider the macro, said the Rev. James McKnight, but we shouldn’t forget that better parenting and more leadership from clergy is something that can happen today (he called on black clergy to do a better job of rebuilding relations with the Korean American community too). McKnight and his disciples began pointing out those in the room who, despite great obstacles when they were children, have risen above them as adults because of hard work and parental insistence.

As Exhibit A, they offered the case of Carter Paysinger. He and his siblings grew up near the barbershop, but their working parents made an effort to get them into Westside schools, and they prospered. Paysinger is now principal of Beverly Hills High.

It’s a terrific success story and a tribute to Paysinger and his parents (his dad, Carter Sr., a Northrop Grumann retiree, was in the shop). But not everyone can go to a Westside school. And when I asked Paysinger to compare per-pupil funding, he conceded that Beverly Hills spends nearly twice what’s spent on a student in his old neighborhood.

Then mobilize, said Paysinger. Form more charters, get mad, get involved.

Several clients said it was obvious that the disparities are many, and that racial discrimination didn’t die when the Obamas moved into the White House. But that’s all the more reason, said Drew Palmer, for people to do what they can on their own to make a difference. His college fraternity began a youth leadership program right after the riots, he said, and they’ve since mentored 4,000 kids, trying to teach them character, self-respect, gumption and a belief that “if you have no enemy within, no enemy external can harm you.”

“It’s about community taking care of community,” Palmer said. “You can talk about not having resources, but what would it cost to teach our kids how to conjugate verbs on a Saturday morning at a church or conference center?”

When I steered the conversation back to race, and the relationship between the LAPD and the black community, one customer said little had changed, particularly with the police.

Mr. Tolliver is never slow to denounce social and racial injustice, but on this point he begged to differ.

In 1992, he said, he didn’t trust the police and didn’t expect that ever to change. Today, his son has been an LAPD officer for three years, and on the wall at L.T.'s are photos of the last two chiefs — Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck.

You have to believe this LAPD is different than the one that ran into Rodney King, said Tolliver. He called Bratton a friend who did a good job of making the force look more like the city, and Beck attended the funeral of another Tolliver son, who died of cancer last year after the illness forced him out of the Houston police academy.

“There’s been a remarkable difference,” Tolliver said, speaking of more than the Police Department. “When I drive to Downey, the foursome I play golf with has two white gentlemen and one Hispanic, and sometimes Rev. McKnight. Now why would I drive all the way down to Downey? Because they’re very nice people, and we enjoy talking to each other. During my time playing in Downey I’ve met a lot of white Republicans, but I’ve learned they want many of the same things I do. They want their families to be successful, and they want their country to be successful.”

OK, he admitted. They may not agree on everything.

But to help make his point, and wrap up the conversation, Mr. Tolliver turned to retrieve a printout of some King quotations he’d been going over. With his shears and quotations in hand, he read to the shop.

“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

And one more.

“People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. And they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

Amen, Brother Tolliver.