Running sores halt riot city's healing process: Wounds left by the Rodney King case are festering in a scramble to protect individual interests, writes Phil Reeves in Los Angeles

As Americans become engulfed by a cloud of election puffs and promises, a few plaintive voices are struggling to be heard above the din. They belong to the Los Angeles policemen who were videotaped beating up Rodney King, the officers whose acquittal in April ignited the United States' worst urban riots this century.

Far from shrinking from a largely disapproving public, several of the officers have embarked on a campaign to win support for their cause. Among their targets are the men and women who will form the jury when they are tried for a second time next year, on federal charges of allegedly violating Mr King's civil rights.

Dressed in carefully selected soft-toned clothes, they have appeared on air to 'educate' people about their case. They are seeking to show that they were not - as the video suggests - burly white policemen beating the living daylights out of an unarmed black man sprawled across a pavement, but subduing a dangerous maniac who was resisting arrest.

Laurence Powell, the officer who led the beating, appeared recently on local radio with Sir Mix- A-Lot, a popular black rapper from Seattle. It was an unhappy, but telling, pairing. Sir Mix-A-Lot attributed the riots to popular frustration, and felt the rioters should have gone on to attack Beverly Hills. Mr Powell dismissed all the rioters as 'nothing but a bunch of criminals'. A second officer, Theodore Briseno, has also been doing a round of media interviews and a third, Sergeant Stacey Koon, is about to publish a book which attempts to clear his name.

Such blatant attempts to manipulate the course of justice are clearly in the officers' interests, but are doing little to heal Los Angeles' long-standing racial conflicts. These are coming under additional strain from a separate legal issue, which is fast becoming a cause celebre among some inner- city blacks: the case of the so- called LA Four.

These are the four young black men arrested for allegedly attacking a white lorry driver at the start of the riots, a brutal assault which was also videotaped and became one of the abiding images of the unrest. Like the King beating, it has been played hundreds of times on television.

Although there are many differences between the two cases, many inner-city blacks see the treatment of the LA Four as an explicit example of the difference in justice administered to whites and blacks. The four officers were released on dollars 5,000 ( pounds 2,680) bail but the youths' bonds were set at between dollars 500,000 and dollars 580,000, towering sums which have ensured that they remain in custody. The policemen faced assault charges; among the array of charges against one or more of the four is attempted murder, torture and aggravated mayhem. With astonishing insensitivity, the Los Angeles District Attorney heightened the tension still further by exercising his right to challenge the first judge assigned to the case, who was black.

Supporters of the four also have a publicity machine. T-shirts have been printed calling for an amnesty, and a defence fund has been set up. One source of funds is a telephone recording, in which callers can listen to the mother of one of the four giving her views of the case for dollars 2 a minute. Few expect them to escape conviction, but the sentencing will be critical. Some black leaders have warned that if the youths get lengthy sentences, more trouble could erupt.

The two camps have added to growing evidence that Los Angeles' much-trumpeted 'healing process' is fragmenting into a scramble to protect individual interests. Even Rodney King will be seen by some to have joined the fray. Yesterday his lawyers rejected dollars 1.75m offered by Los Angeles City Council to settle a dollars 56m civil lawsuit he filed seeking damages for police brutality.

The rebuilding of Los Angeles is proceeding with limited successes, but amid growing bitterness about the response of the US government. Some merchants who were burned out in the riots have complained that they are being denied assistance, or that their applications for funds are being buried in a pile of red tape. Matters worsened this week when it became clear that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was overburdened by the recent US disasters, especially Hurricane Andrew in Florida. It announced that some public assistance to riot victims would be suspended, until Congress agreed to provide more funds.

(Photograph omitted)

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