LOS ANGELES -- As Los Angeles firefighters and police spent a weary day and night battling arson blazes and looters, stunned residents and business owners grappled with the question of who is torching and pillaging their communities. The answer seemed to be: both criminals and opportunists.
The rampage, which began Wednesday hours after four white police officers were acquitted for beating Rodney G. King, continued yesterday with scenes reminiscent of a war zone -- smoke billowing from dozens of fires, looters hustling out of stores with merchandise and the periodic sound of gunfire.
But amid the pall, there also was a carnival-like atmosphere among some participants and onlookers who raced to stricken neighborhoods to watch, join the looting or record events with video cameras. And there was the bizarre picture of gleeful teen-agers and families, as if on a weekend outing, ignoring outnumbered police and loading up on looted goods.
Although most rioters and looters were young black men, they included some whites, Asians and Latinos. Some were as young as 7, while others were in their 60s. Mothers brought their children. Although gang members were clearly evident, entire families took part.
"You had 7- and 8-year-olds all the way up to 60-year-olds -- it's not just gang members," said Dorothy, a woman who watched the rioting in the Crenshaw neighborhood on Los Angeles. "You had everyday citizens. . . . I thought about participating myself."
At intersection after intersection, cars crept along jammed streets in stricken areas, and motorists leaned out of windows and flashed "black power" signs and shouted greetings to each other. Many honked their horns and shouted slogans vilifying police.
In some South Central neighborhoods, looters could be seen carting away armloads of stolen merchandise while others made multiple trips from their homes using shopping carts to carry the heavy items. Motorists backed up their cars to a store to load and then drove away.
At one auto parts store, flocks of young men could be seen carrying boxes out of the front door while police entered the back way. And as the store was looted, skateboarders and bicyclists whizzed by on the sidewalk. If the police arrived, looters merely waited until they left to continue.
At a pawn shop, men and some boys as young as 9 were carting off weapons and guns. Although some apparent gang members were milling around the store, many of the looters seemed to be motorists who stopped their cars to get in on the action.
Two teen-agers had two large duffel bags, each stuffed full of clothes stolen from a nearby store. When asked why he was looting, one of the youths said: "Just for fun, you know."
At John's Market, people flocked to the store after several youngsters broke in. A young mother with three children sent in her 9-year-olddaughter to get some diapers for her baby.
A 43-year-old man who had already purchased groceries earlier said he had come back because the merchandise was now free. "I'm getting some food to put on the table," he said.
In some places, entire families participated in the looting.
"I'm really not like this," said Karen Ederington, a 24-year-oldmother who sat in her car at a minimall on Crenshaw Boulevard as her daughter and two nieces filled the back seat with video movies and beauty-care supplies stolen from a nearby store.
She laughed when she heard gunfire and sirens in the distance. "Everybody else is grabbing and taking what they can take," she said. "Why not me? This ain't stealing. Ain't nobody in the store. It's free now."