A city in aftershock

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The Independent Culture
It was only when the riot came west, out of South Central and into the hills, right up to the rich folks' backyards, that the problems turned into everybody's business. Only then did the lethal combination of drug wars, gang wars racial tensions and a slump which has already bankrupted the city provoke a response. But, two months later, good intentions are not helping Los Angeles

FOR TWO WEEKS after the Los Angeles riot, local media ran a marathon of moment-to-moment commentary. The Los Angeles Times went into overdrive with a welter of pie charts, bar graphs and hefty daily supplements under the title 'Understanding the Riot'. In the initial period of disorientation, while the city government floundered and recriminated, it seemed that virtually anybody ready to offer an extended opinion on the disaster would find a forum. Talk shows proliferated. opinion pages overflowed. Television trucks and crews jammed the streets of South Central Los Angeles, where passing residents were pressed into service as community spokespersons, and lined up on the kerb to deliver 15-second sound-bites. Who, what, where, when and how were exhaustively canvassed. Less was said of why - and Los Angeles seemed hardly to ask the question. The national media made haste to define the event. It had been a 'revolt of the underclass' and not, after all, an old-fashioned race riot.

Much of the underclass, in fact, spent the entire riot period at home, terrified behind locked doors, enduring a 30-hour power cut. The poor emerged to find their neighbourhoods devastated: supermarkets and banks burned to the ground, postal and bus services suspended, schools and businesses closed. The riot had been led not by a class, but by a small cohort, the heavily armed black gangs of South Central Los Angeles.

In the inner city it had been hatred for the police specifically, rather than for whites in general, that sparked revolt. The slogan-threat 'NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE' was shouted in Los Angeles not only for Rodney King, whose brutalisation by the police had been unusual only in that it was recorded and undeniable; as the riot progressed it became a vent for a more recent anger - the shooting last autumn of a 15-year-old black girl by a Korean store owner, who was sentenced, by a white judge, to only six months' probation for the killing. For that, and for the Koreans' commercial occupation of South Central Los Angeles, for the reproach of their unsmiling entrepreneurial tenacity, reprisals would be taken.

Eight hundred and sixty-two buildings were burned - far fewer than in initial tallies. Thousands of Korean businesses were housed in those buildings; more than a quarter of the buildings were Korean-owned. In the looting that accompanied and followed the fires, a relatively small section of Los Angeles' multicultural underclass took to the streets with pent-up consumer demands.

When order was restored, more than 2,000 looters were swept off to holding cells by the busload. But since then relatively few have been arrested for more serious crimes. Sixty- five were indicted for arson, and the fire department concedes that it will never have enough evidence to charge those responsible for 90 per cent of the destruction. Of 58 people who died, at least 40 were murdered, but only five suspects are in custody. Extraordinary numbers of people, from law-abiding black residents of South Central to white residents of adjoining areas who complain that their property values have been diminished, now see themselves as victims. Koreans, given the damage they suffered, might lay claim to the most attention, but their demands for compensation and their formation of a 'Korean American Association of Victims of the Los Angeles Riot' somehow fail to focus public sympathy.

Demands come from all quarters in this fragmented metropolis, and they are more substantive than any plea for peace and justice. The issues - post-riot - are representation, money and jobs.

ON 1 MAY, three days after the riot began, Peter Ueberroth, hero of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley as chairman of an agency to be called 'Rebuild LA'. The Games of 1984 had been a time of triumph and profit for Los Angeles, when the city was clean, beautiful and organised, when everything worked.

Ueberroth had persuaded Los Angeles's big businesses to finance the Olympics, and he became famous then for his skill in shaking up and shaking down corporate executives. Two years ago, at the end of a successful tour of duty running major-league baseball, Ueberroth returned to California, reportedly with political ambitions. Varying accounts appeared of his likely candidacy for either a senatorship or the governor's office. But the requisite groundswell seemed not to develop. When Mayor Bradley turned to him, at a dreadful moment in Los Angeles' history, Ueberroth had no more pressing engagement than the management of an elite investment company. So he accepted - how could he not? - and became once again the city's Dr Feelgood. Jesse Jackson's remark that he was 'just another white male Santa Claus' seemed churlish at the time. No doubt the Great White Hope was unfamiliar with the city's badlands - but his mission, after all, was to the glittering downtown executive suites.

As Ueberroth rode off into the sunset in search of corporate angels for the inner city, the new Federal Emergency Management Agency - Fema - rode in to manage its first big domestic emergency. An immediate difficulty, in Latino and Asian areas affected by the riot, was an almost total lack of linguists on the agency's staff. Its subsequent dissemination, at shelters and food distribution centres, of densely printed flyers full of bureaucratic instructions on where and how to apply for aid was predictably ineffective in communities where literacy, in any language, tended, to be marginal. While churches and volunteer agencies fed and cared for the afflicted, Fema managers tried to get up to speed. Six weeks later, they finally had enough Spanish speakers aboard to open a disaster aid centre in the Pico-Union district, where recent refugees from Central America comprise the most lost and destitute of the Los Angeles poor.

Meanwhile, so few had applied for aid, relative to the apparent dimensions of the disaster, that application deadlines were extended to mid-August and baffled agencies began advertising vigorously for customers.

There are a number of not particularly obscure or mysterious reasons for the low turnout. Although the night-time videos shot from helicopters during the riot presented a ghastly panorama of fire, in the light of dawn it was evident that the arson had been carefully targeted. The Fema folk, trained to deal with natural disasters, earthquakes and floods, came prepared primarily to house the suddenly homeless. In this particular man-made disaster it was business and employment rather than housing that had been destroyed, and economic survival was the problem.

An estimated 20,000 lost their jobs in businesses destroyed by fire, but no more than 8,000 of these, at the last count, have applied for unemployment insurance. Even in normal conditions, official estimates of unemployment in Los Angeles bear little relation to reality, because large sections of the working poor - illegal aliens, unrecorded family members, the unregistered army of inner-city labour - are not eligible for the insurance payments on which such estimates are based.

As to the small businesses themselves, of 7,600 application forms taken out for loans, only 1,200 had been completed and returned eight weeks later, and of these only 306 have been approved. 'These are small businesses and the government is asking for really complicated forecasting information and balance sheets,' said a volunteer from the University of Southern California's School of Business Administration. 'I don't understand them myself.' In this context, a Filipino operator of a small family grocery store, where the working language is Tagalog, and where all records were lost in the fire that destroyed his livelihood, is likely to be out of luck. And for these businesses, which may have failed to file tax returns, pay payroll taxes, or obtain business licences, the arrival of a government official bent on giving help is a plain threat.

IN THE THIRD week after the riot, press and television embarked on an exhaustive analysis of their own recent performances. It was generally agreed that topographical reporting by newscasters had been helpful to looters, some of whom reportedly used cellular telephones to co-ordinate activity. (It was also noted that certain types of presenter do not function well in proximity to burning buildings.)

As non-riot news began to reappear, a general time-out was called for attention to the upcoming primary elections. Apart from the presidential contest, these proved to be unusually exciting, and were capped by the landslide passage of Proposition F, to reform the police and give appointment of its chief to the mayor and city council. Police Chief Daryl Gates lay low, but returned like a bad penny at the conclusion of a tour to promote his just-published autobiography. Calling a press conference, he renewed threats of non-retirement and characterised his opponents at City Hall as 'crummy little politicians'.

Cut to the quick, and bolstered by the Proposition F vote, the city council finally took something like action, threatening in turn to fire him for dereliction of duty during the riot. No such move would be likely to affect Gates's opinion of himself, but it would sharply reduce the size of his pension, not to mention his book sales. He backed off rapidly, and announced that he would not be present at the swearing-in of Chief-elect Willie Williams on 1 July. He didn't want his own popularity, he said, to steal all the applause and limelight. On the morning of his departure, Amnesty International released a 65-page report on human rights abuse in the LA police and sheriff's departments.

THE CALIFORNIA state elections had featured a healthy clearing of incumbents and the victory of two Democratic women nominees for the US Senate. In the Democratic city of Los Angeles, which is surrounded by Republican suburbs, it was the year of the non-white, non-male candidate.

In 1990, of the 18 contending city representatives to the state legislature, six were women, five were black, three Latino, and 10 white. Of this year's 17 representatives, six are black, seven Latino, and only four white. Nine are women. Locally, a black woman was elected to the once all-white-male, five-member County Board of Supervisors, adding support to the lone Latina who has been shaking up that institution since her election in 1990. Supervisor Gloria Molina watches the books. For two years she has castigated her angry fellow board members for their extravagances, most recently inquiring into their round-the-clock need for bulletproof chauffeur-driven limousines.

A further improvement in representation of the city's minority groups may occur in 1994, when a new city council and mayor are elected - if enough people actually register to vote in the interim. Latinos now account for more than 40 per cent of the population - as far as anyone knows, since they notoriously did not respond to the 1990 census - but only 13 per cent are registered to vote.

After the riot, when black and Asian groups issued a blizzard of statements, there was no united Latino response. Over half of those arrested for looting were Hispanic, but the inhabitants of the huge barrio of East Los Angeles did not erupt. Leaders there now have grasped the fact that Latino passivity and parochial squabbles may result in their being 'ignored or missing out on the funds that are funnelling into the communities'. After a month of sharp struggle, when dozens of small groups with common interests and goals became acquainted for the first time, the date for a Latino Unity Forum has been set.

Bad though Latino representation is, the situation of more than a million Asian Angelenos is worse. There are now as many Asians as blacks in the city, but they have no single ethnic identity and no political power. The 'Asian' category is a catch-all for at least 15 national groups, with Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese making up 80 per cent, and the remainder comprised of smaller contingents such as Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Pacific islanders. Unlike the Latinos, they have no common language, and are deeply divided by both culture and economic status.

During the riot the Korean population felt, with justification, that it had been abandoned by the police, and afterwards that it was ignored by the media. Politically inactive in the past - and so habitually insulated that in Koreatown virtually all signs on buildings and storefronts are written only in the Korean alphabet - Koreans have been inclined to form their own immigrant and trade associations. Now they plan to make common cause with other groups in yet another association, 'Asian Pacific Americans for a New LA'. This, as one Korean businessman said, was created primarily 'to give us more clout with Mr Ueberroth'.

HAVING CLOUT with Peter Ueberroth has seemed an illusory goal. After the elections, when attention turned to the progress of his mission, telephone calls to 'Rebuild LA' were often answered by a recorded message asking for volunteers to answer the telephone. Ueberroth himself, who had at first announced that he welcomed 'the chance to dramatically impact a major inner city positively', was now refusing interviews.

Subsequently, when large private-sector benefactions were announced, such as Disney's promise to build a toy factory in South Central Los Angeles, and Southern California Edison's dollars 35m offer to establish and finance two large training centres, no mention was made of 'Rebuild LA'. Businesses tied to Southern California real estate, who are not about to move out in a hurry, were promptly and independently generous, as were also some corporations doing heavy business in South Central Los Angeles. The parent company for a dozen burnt-out supermarkets there has shipped truckloads of free food into the area since the riot. Pepsico, proprietor of hundreds of fast- food outlets in the inner city, recently staged an excellent stunt to promote swift rebuilding. In a spectacular 'barn-raising', hundreds of workers completely reconstructed a burnt-out Taco Bell restaurant and reopened it for business 24 hours later. Ueberroth was not in the queue for the first burrito off the hotplate. Instead, he chose to show up at the Hollywood Bowl for the recording, with massed inner-city school choirs, of an appalling post-riot anthem, 'Stand and Be Proud'.

He also appeared on the scene after the worst outbreak of trouble in South Central Los Angeles since the riot. This had centred on the awarding of contracts to demolish and reconstruct burnt buildings in the riot area, 70 per cent of which reportedly have absentee landlords. (More than half of the blackened ruins carried no insurance whatever, and no clearance of these is to be expected any time soon.) Where coverage existed, the insurance companies followed their usual procedure in handling rebuilding arrangements on behalf of their clients. Typically they awarded contracts to a limited number of white-owned companies with which they had established relations. Unemployed black contractors were incensed by the sight of non-black workers busy all over the demolition sites, and moved in a threatening group from block to block, immobilising heavy machinery, ordering out startled labourers - most of whom proved to be Latino - and padlocking the emptied work sites.

Peace was restored when Mayor Bradley awarded a contract for the demolition of the city's burnt buildings to a consortium of black companies. Standing somewhat apart, in the victory photograph of a group of burly black contractors inside a gutted wig store, was the strikingly Anglo and seemingly irrelevant figure of Peter Ueberroth.

WHEN HE undertook his mission impossible, Ueberroth began with more than 6,000 offers of help from individuals and corporations, stored in a database contributed by a leading accountancy company, and a list of 400 suggested names for the board of 'Rebuild LA'. Six weeks later, on Friday 12 June, he announced the first 20 members, noting that more would be named on the Monday.

The uproar that ensued over the weekend endorsed his judgement in leaving empty seats. Where were the environmentalists? Where were the labour leaders, who had just offered dollars 75m in union pension funds for rebuilding loans? Where were the neighborhood priests and ministers, the grassroots activists, and the unsung heroes who worked to reclaim gang members? And where, most of all, were the Latino leaders, whom Ueberroth had omitted altogether rather than chose the wrong ones?

His intention had been to form a 'tripod' of residents, government officials, and corporation executives. 'It's a new, unique approach to governance,' he said, 'a new, unique approach to including people in the rebuilding effort, with a diversity that's going to match the city.' His list was absolutely unexceptionable - chief executives from companies that had already contributed, Mayor Bradley, Governor Pete Wilson, Archbishop Roger Mahony, a university president, a few heads of government agencies, a few foundation chairmen, and so on. 'Most of these people wouldn't know South Central Los Angeles if they saw it at high noon,' said the California chairman of the Congress on Racial Equality.

On the following Monday, Ueberroth announced that the list of his full board would be delayed until Wednesday. But Wednesday came and went with no further announcements. Cornered by a reporter, an exasperated Ueberroth said, 'This is not a horse race. We're not looking to please the media but to find real jobs for people.' The Times observed that 'the membership of the 'Rebuild LA' board is largely symbolic, and must not be the be-all and end-all of the effort to improve the community.' Symbolism might be enhanced, Mayor Bradley suggested, by the inclusion of something more than a token female presence.

Over the next few days Ueberroth added another 30 names, including those of eight women and a useful posse of minority business leaders. He announced that room remained for another 10 to 20 members. What this very large and finally very diverse board will actually do, apart from meet, becomes the province of Bernard Kinsey, a black corporate executive of distinguished career and impeccably disadvantaged background, appointed by Ueberroth on 28 June as administrator and operations chief of 'Rebuild LA'. It is rumoured that two board meetings have already occurred, but the fact that 'RLA' - or, as its members call it phonetically, 'Our LA' - is not obliged to report publicly on its activities has led to outsider anxiety and a proposal for an unfunded watchdog, 'alternative Rebuild LA'.

On 26 June, Ueberroth brought home his first bit of bacon - a dollars 11.3m package of jobs and grants from the US Department of Agriculture. Of this amount, dollars 5.8m will pay for 550 summer jobs with the Forest Service in Southern California. The rest will be spent on the establishment of an unspecified number of 'urban gardens'. Applause was muted. Having failed to make clear progress with California corporations, Ueberroth had travelled to Washington DC, where he met President George Bush's Task Force on Los Angeles Recovery - and evidently fell in with some federal tree-huggers. Standing in a private garden, lush with corn, squash, tomatoes and bell peppers in the heart of the riot area, a deputy Secretary of Agriculture explained to those assembled that Ueberroth had told her that he 'didn't just want to rebuild LA, he wanted to bring beauty and greenery to neighbourhoods where that has been lacking'.

The real news came last. Ueberroth had told officials that he could create a lot of jobs in the private sector in Los Angeles if the federal government would provide tax incentives, and if state government would ease some of its more onerous costs of doing business. The feds stood ready to 'tailor aid packages' for suitable businesses. What Ueberroth was pushing for, in fact, was a customised version of Mr Bush's own 'enterprise zones' proposal, which Congress has repeatedly rejected.

California has had its own such zones in sections of the LA inner city for the past four years, with an almost total lack of success. Industry and light manufacturing began moving out of South LA 30 years ago. Federal policy now not only makes it easy for American factory owners to set up shop in the maquiladoras, the Mexican border manufacturing region, where wages average 50 cents an hour, but in many cases makes it essential that they do so to remain competitive. Rock-bottom wages, with no benefits and no prospects, are an obvious source of poverty and unrest in Los Angeles. Disney says it will build a factory in South Central; will it pay the California minimum wage of dollars 4.25 an hour, which instantly places a full-time worker at a level 25 per cent below the official poverty line?

Ueberroth's gardening funds, taken from an inactive Forestry Service account, will no doubt arrive in Los Angeles long before any real federal money. Much of the dollars 192m promised so far is either for emergency aid - in amounts that would have been provided anyway in case of a natural disaster - or was already in the pipeline for other purposes. The largest single chunk of money - dollars 137m - was promised by Jack Kemp, Bush's chief of Housing and Urban Development, on a flying visit to a huge, squalid public housing development in Watts. Reportedly, as he stepped from his car he asked an aide how much HUD funding the whole city would be receiving this year. To a hostile audience of 250 project residents, he promised the entire dollars 137m due to the city for 'modernisation' of slum apartments at Nickerson Gardens. Stressing President Bush's interest in in privatisation, he hoped that all those present would wish to become 'home- owners' at the project. 'Who'd buy one of these dumps?' was the mass response.

MEANWHILE Los Angeles's underclass maintains itself, as before, on its two most dependable sources of income - welfare and drugs. The extent of welfare dependency was made memorably obvious 48 hours after the riot began, on 1 May, when thousands of mothers, and their children, lined up all day in a parking lot to cash their cheques at mobile banking units. The extent of drug-income dependency is unknown. Police communiques since the riot note, with a kind of stock-market update brevity, that murder is down, street robbery up, and drug sales continue heavy. Sixty per cent of black teenage boys in South Central are unemployed, as are 50 per cent of black adult males. What are they living on?

On a recent talk show, featuring an articulate former gang member, the moderator was so far lulled by apparently rational discourse as to inquire if drug dealing was likely to be phased out any time soon. The OG (Original Gangster), attired in a non-threatening fluffy sweater, smiled evenly. No, he said, it wouldn't be - not until its income could be replaced. There is, of course, a movement in Los Angeles to make the sale of drugs legal. It's an idea that has been examined many times, in great detail, but always with one important consideration ignored - the real inner-city chaos that would result from such a move. But the leadership of black and Latino gangs is ageing, and many of those who have survived horrendous slaughter now have children and the desire for some sort of decent future.

The obsessive question is gang unity - or, as one exhausted city councillor put it, 'whether one big gang is necessarily more desirable than two smaller ones'. A tenuous peace has been preserved since the riot, in part through the efforts of a Watts high school drop-out who spent hours in USC's law library in search of a model treaty. Deciding on the 1949 ceasefire agreement between Israel and Egypt, 'because most people in the gangs know those countries', he copied the whole text out in block capitals and set about editing and translating it 'into language that our people can understand'. But the prospect of merged Crips and Bloods, now fostered every Saturday night in South Central Los Angeles at gigantic, fully-amplified barbecues, has alarmed police.

Daryl Gates's retirement day was marked by a long, rolling earthquake in the Southland, and he left office pursued by Mayor Bradley's judgement that he had 'brought Los Angeles to the brink of disaster just to satisfy his own ego'. The new Chief, Willie Williams, a very large, quiet and imperturbable man, was sworn in at a hurried private ceremony prior to Gates's departure - to pre-empt any attempted coups at the police department. Nevertheless, Gates left a legacy of trouble, in the form of an unannounced 40-man LAPD Gang Task Force already deployed in South Central. In primitive terms, the police lost the riot, and are in a mood, as one put it, to 'kick butt'. Chief Williams, with a copy of Amnesty International's report on his desk, has work to do.

LOS ANGELES is a huge, horizontal, international city of 4 million souls, set in a sprawling county of 9 million. In the past, sheer space - the ability to spread out and ignore neighbours - has helped to keep the peace, and made the need for strong and resourceful government seem minimal. But now the spaces are almost full, and undersized, undercapable, and unrepresentative government makes LA turn to instant heroes to solve its problems.

California is dollars 11bn in the red this year. Its Republican Governor and Democrat-dominated legislature have been unable to agree on the savage details of next year's budget. Without one, the state cannot borrow. And since it has no cash, it is now technically bankrupt. On 1 July, at the start of the fiscal year, California began paying its bills with IOUs, something it has not done since the Great Depression. State banks will not be able to honour them for long, because they will remove as much as dollars 1.6m a month from the banking system. Meanwhile, California's credit rating is damaged and its bonds have already been downgraded. One of the probable requirements of next year's deep budget cuts is a 1,000-man reduction in the Los Angeles police force.

California's legislature seems undisposed to help the city of Los Angeles, which in its past prosperity provided a third of the state's tax base. As the city's economy staggers, the defence industry lays off employees by the thousand and one business after another leaves the area. Every day the ordinary news is bad enough to distract attention and weaken resolutions made after the riot. The destruction done in the inner city cannot be seen by commuters on the freeways, or by tourists who keep to the beaten track. In the skyscrapers of downtown, where office vacancy rates are at bankrupting levels, the city seems more overbuilt than in need of reconstruction. But Los Angeles, in three cataclysmic days followed by weeks of tumult, has seen the pain, neglect and despair in its inner city, and must begin now to rebuild lives, hope and a future there.

(Photographs omitted)

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