LA fails to dispel the nightmare: Locked in recession, America's dream capital has yet to cure the ills that triggered race riots in April. Phil Reeves reports

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The Independent Online
The scene was familiar - grafitti-scrawled buildings at a road junction in South-Central Los Angeles. And the mood was the same. Angry people were throwing rocks and hurling abuse.

Onlookers had gathered to watch a protest at the fate of a group of black youths being held in maximum-security prison. There was a clash with the police. Bottles were thrown. A petrol station was stormed and looted. Before long, eight television news helicopters were circling overhead. It seemed the LA riots, part two, had begun.

This time, however, the police intervened in force. More than 350 baton-wielding officers in riot gear, some firing plastic bullets, swarmed into the area, blocking traffic and making dozens of arrests. Los Angeles was served with a fresh reminder that anger and frustration simmers within the inner city.

The incident, at the now notorious junction of Florence and Normandie avenues, occurred more than seven months after Los Angeles erupted into violence when a suburban, mostly white jury acquitted four white police officers of brutality charges - even though the world saw a videotape of them administering a violent baton-whipping to a black man, Rodney King. It was a reminder, too, that this huge multi- racial megalopolis on the western edge of America is a long way from solving the internal strife that spilled into view in April, with the loss of more than 50 lives.

Its problems extend beyond racism and brutality, the issues raised by the Rodney King affair. While the rest of America is showing signs of economic revival, the region is experiencing its deepest recession since the Great Depression. For the first time in decades, 20,000 more Americans left southern California this year than arrived (although the population continued to grow because of immigration from overseas).

The city is rebuilding the hundreds of businesses wrecked by the riots, but slowly. Parts of Los Angeles still look like war zones. One of the badly hit areas was Koreatown, a bustling business district almost exclusively occupied by Korean immigrants. A survey last week of nearly half the 2,340 Koreans listed as riot victims found that 55 per cent have not yet reopened their businesses. Some say the government has been reluctant to produce, or has refused, loans. Others are almost certainly waiting until they are sure the city is safe.

In particular, they are waiting for the resolution of two issues that threaten the immediate future of Los Angeles. The first concerns the officers involved in the King beating. After their acquittal, the Bush administration, anxious to damp down public outrage, launched a federal inquiry into their conduct. As a result, the men will appear before a federal court, this time to answer charges that they violated Mr King's civil rights.

The case will be tough to prove, because the prosecution must show that the officers intended to use excessive force; that they planned the assault. No evidence has emerged so far to suggest that this happened. Far from putting the public mind at rest, the hearing is certain to generate further acrimony. There are already signs of nastiness: somehow a detailed memo of prosecution's strategy was sent to the home address of one of the officer's lawyers.

If the officers are again declared innocent, even more moderate community leaders have warned that another backlash is likely. Whether this would produce a full-scale riot is a different matter. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which was hopelessly unprepared for this year's unrest, has since been conducting intensive riot training.

The second issue is the trial of three black men who are accused of dragging a white lorry driver from his truck and attacking him at the start of the riots. Like the Rodney King beating, the incident was broadcast worldwide, providing some of the most haunting and repellent images of racial conflict witnessed in America. Like Mr King, the driver, Reginald Denny, was badly injured. The case is now widely seen as a parallel to the King beating case, a means of measuring the discrepancy between justice meted out to blacks and whites.

This comparison became inevitable because of the extraordinary behaviour of the then chief of police, Daryl Gates. Evidently desperate to snuff out claims that he mishandled the riots, Mr Gates put on his bullet-proof vest and combat jumpsuit and, accompanied by more than 100 policemen and FBI agents, led raids on the young men's homes in South- Central LA, personally arresting one of them. This ensured that the case became headline news. It quickly became a cause celebre among elements of the black community, and a rallying point for left-wing groups opposed to the police.

The contrast between the cases has done nothing to ease racial tensions. The officers who pounded Mr King while he lay on the ground, were charged only with assault and filing false police reports. None has spent a day in jail. Recently several have embarked on publicity campaigns, appearing as star guests on television and radio talk shows to argue their innocence. The black youths, known as the 'LA Four' (although one is being tried separately) have been locked up in a maximum security prison for seven months, on bonds ranging from dollars 250,000 to dollars 580,000.

Among them, they face an array of more than 20 charges, including attempted murder, aggravated mayhem and torture. When the mother of one defendant managed to raise bail, using her home as security, prosecutors successfully filed a motion requiring her to prove that the money did not come from drugs proceeds.

By unfortunate coincidence, the two trials look likely to be held in Los Angeles at the same time, across the street from one another. The King case is at present due to start in February and is likely to last for weeks; the LA Four hearing is due to begin in March. One can already imagine the television images: the three black youths arrive in handcuffs and prison clothes; over the road, four white police officers, in smart suits and ties, sweep into court accompanied by their lawyers. Those who believe the US judicial system discriminates against minorities could not have contrived a better way of illustrating their point.

There are other possible flashpoints. Two months after the riots, John Daniels, a 36-year-old black, was refuelling his tow-truck when two white LAPD motorcycle cops pulled up. There was an exchange about the state of his vehicle.

Mr Daniels, who had been in trouble with the authorities several times, was never fond of the police. They had shot and killed his father some years earlier. After an argument, he got into his van and began to pull away, despite orders to stop. At this point, one of the officers shot him dead. The officer explained that he thought Mr Daniels's truck was about to run over pedestrians, although witnesses denied this.

It took Los Angeles police five months to release the results of its inquiry, which last week concluded that the shooting was 'against department policy' and the officer needed tactical training. The authorities have yet to decide whether to discipline him, let alone prosecute.

And it was by no means the only evidence that the bad habits of the police die hard. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the number of complaints about police brutality in Los Angeles has remained at the same level as before the riots - three or four a week - despite considerable reforms implemented after an inquiry into the LAPD led by Warren Christopher, Secretary of State-designate.

Other nasty incidents surface intermittently. Several days ago, a white officer from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was suspended from duty, accused of defecating on a book about Malcolm X, the assassinated black nationalist regarded by some African-Americans as a hero. It appears that the officer on duty in a county jail, saw a black colleague with a copy of the book, and warned him that if he brought it to work again, he would defecate on it. When the book reappeared, the deputy allegedly carried out the threat.

For those trying to eradicate the memory of the riots, such accounts are further setbacks in the long battle to restore Los Angeles to respectability. Tourism, which caters for 25 million visitors to Los Angeles annually, lost hundreds of millions of dollars of business in the days after the riots. After eight months of relative calm, visitors have returned, although more now choose hotels on the outskirts, for fear of the violence that may be brewing in the inner-city ghettos. The dozen sparkling luxury hotels in downtown Los Angeles are half-empty. Overall, occupancy rates in LA's 1,100 hotels are 10 per cent lower than they were five years ago, at about 63 per cent.

The city is not without hope. It is planning to spend dollars 20m to dollars 30m on an international advertising campaign next year. Next autumn, a huge new convention centre on the southern edge of the downtown area, costing dollars 500m, is due to open, amid optimistic predictions that it will inject life into the city's ailing heart. The centre, the largest on the US West Coast, is booked solid for at least a year.

Although California is lagging behind the apparent national recovery, many economists predict a turn-around in 1994. It will not be before time. In the past 29 months, more than 800,000 jobs have been lost. Statewide unemployment is running at just over 10 per cent - nearly three points above the national rate - partly because of the loss of high-paying jobs in defence and aerospace, resulting from post-Cold War Pentagon spending cuts.

Willie Williams, the city's first black police chief, is one cause for optimism. He has already acquired a reputation for being sympathetic to minority concerns, as well as tough on civil unrest. This will help to ease tensions cranked up by his provocative predecessor, Mr Gates (now a local radio presenter), who was loathed by the majority of blacks and Latinos and seemed to revel in taunting the outside world.

The project Rebuild LA, run by the millionaire Peter Ueberroth, has made some progress in attracting investment to the inner city. But the organisation, set up to help revive the inner city, often seems to be drowning in its efforts to be politically correct. It submitted an article to the Los Angeles Times newspaper in an effort to answer the many critics who accuse it of being ineffectual. Even then, it carried four bylines: one Latino, one black and two white.

(Photograph omitted)

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