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Los Angeles riots: Community reflects during Day of Dialogue discussion

April 27, 2012 |  3:34 pm

Day of Dialogue
How Los Angeles exploded into rioting -- and how to keep it from happening again -- were the questions being asked at a community gathering Friday morning at First AME Church.

Nearly 200 people gathered for a three-hour discussion on the civil unrest that tore through the city 20 years ago.

Opening comments were provided by John Hunter, pastor of the church. Citing the circumstances that led to the violence -- the Rodney King beating, the high rate of unemployment and the LAPD’s callous approach to policing -- Hunter wondered if the city is in a better place now than it was then.

“We took the election of Barack Obama as a signal that things had changed,” he said. “But today we see the African American unemployment rate two to three times the national average. We see the response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin.”

How do we build our community, he asked. “How do we build our city?”

The event was held in the church's Renaissance building, a block from the one of the major flash points of the riots -- the intersection of South Western Avenue and West Adams Boulevard -- and was sponsored by the nonprofit Days of Dialogue.

The organization was founded in 1995 by then-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas as an opportunity to bring people together to talk about race and to provide a “collective form of relief” for a polarized city.

Remembering the riots, Ridley-Thomas, now a county supervisor, reflected on how intense and overwhelming the circumstances were that spring day in 1992.

Friday's discussion, he said, was “an effort for us to acknowledge that differences still exist and still get together in a neutral space to talk with one another with candor and sincerity -- to have a civic engagement in real time and promote greater understanding of our neighbors and neighborhoods.”

While reflecting on what he believes is a better Police Department today than in 1992, Ridley-Thomas expressed concern about the economic disparities that exist within the city.

The economy was of equal concern for Fred Escobar, an L.A. city firefighter.

“If we had a riot today,” Escobar said, “I would wonder how our department would respond -- with fewer stations, nearly 150 fewer firefighters and the proposed changes to our dispatch center. The dispatch center got us through the riots.”

Escobar, who was on duty in 1992, was joined by other firefighters from Station No. 26 in West Adams.

After introductory comments, the gathering broke into small groups to specifically address what has gotten better, what has gotten worse and what can be done to improve life in Los Angeles.

“Racism and intolerance is very deep-set,” said Cesar Portillo of the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic on South Vermont Avenue. “Unfortunately, that was present then, and it continues to be present now.”

Portillo remembers working in Hollywood at the time of the riots, climbing to the roof of his building and seeing smoke from the fires hanging over the city. Walking down the street, he recalled the feeling of relief that his building hadn’t been burned down. In the days that followed, he said, there was lots of sweeping as residents tried to clean up.

Cheryl Collins lived in the neighborhood around First AME during the riots and remembers how the electricity was cut and that because everyone was worried about their refrigerated food going bad, neighbors organized cookouts in the yard.

“The party’s on Gates,” was a common line, she said, referring to the then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, who was criticized for his handling of the riots and resigned two months after the unrest.  

Collins attended the Dialogue event with her husband, Baxter Gerard. When asked about the Los Angeles Police Department today, Gerard, a real estate agent in Hawthorne, expressed concern over what he believes continues to be excessive use of force.

Why is it, he asked, that the police have to fire so many shots?

“I don’t see them being trained to shoot in the legs, either,” he said.

Portillo cited the May Day rally of 2007, which resulted in scores of protesters and police being injured in what was described by the then-police chief as “a command and control breakdown.”

Toward the end of the event, the discussion shifted to what can be done in the future.

“It depends on the load that each of us chooses to carry,” said Eric Boyd, deputy district director for Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro). Boyd, who grew up in southeastern Los Angeles, now lives in Carson.

“I keep my boys out of gangs, and I sing in my church," he said. "The question is how much is each of us willing to do?”


Front pages from 1992

Photos from the Los Angeles riots

Reader stories from the L.A. riots

-- Thomas Curwen

Photo: Baxter Gerard, a real estate agent from Hawthorne, right, participates in the Day of Dialogue discussion about the Los Angeles riots. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times