City awakes from nightmare, ready to tend its wounds

May 03, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- This city, a struggling, wounded giant, woke up yesterday determined to heal.

In the South Central section -- where soldiers carrying M-16s stood guard over businesses that were gutted or burned to the ground -- 58-year-old Eddie Rand, like others, didn't pull the blanket over his head as sunlight peeked through his window.

"My community needs rebuilding, and we're the only ones who can do it," he said. "We can't sit around waiting for others to get religion and help us out of this mess."

In Los Angeles' more affluent northern suburbs, Rainey Smith and others were up before dawn preparing to make their first trip to Mr. Rand's neighborhood.

"The problems and poverty seemed so overwhelming that you just ignored it," said Ms. Smith. "But when I saw the riots on television and I heard how angry and desperate the people are here, I decided I had to do something to help them -- even if it was only to pick up a broom and help them clean their streets."

People of all colors and all walks of life came to the South Central district -- ravaged by its own residents after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of motorist Rodney King. Wearing masks and work gloves as they swept away the ashes and garbage, the volunteers proclaimed that they would hold on to the tragic images of the riots to fuel a new spirit of unity and determination.

In the aftermath of one of the country's most devastating riots, people throughout Los Angeles said they felt remorse for the lives lost and the businesses burned. But at the same time they hoped that the brutality and fires would shake this city -- and others across the country -- out of ignorance and complacency.

"Something good can come from all this," said the Rev. Edgar E. Boyd of Bethel A.M.E. Church in the South Central section. "For too long, this community has been lulled into complacency and inactivity, especially when it comes to self-development.

"We have taken so many repeated hardships that we almost became numb to it," he added. "But we couldn't take any more and we exploded. People realize now it's time for action. We have the ability and the strength to pull ourselves together."

Suffering is nothing new to the residents of South Central Los Angeles -- a sprawling area of mini-malls and quaint, flat houses that is larger in area than the District of Columbia.

The sounds of gunfire, police sirens and mourning relatives are common in the area, home to the city's most violent gangs.

There are no major industries in the area to provide decent-paying jobs. And there are only a few major grocery stores, banks, restaurants and other services.

And with the loss of so many businesses in last week's riots -- more than 3,000 buildings were set ablaze -- life will only be tougher.

About 24,000 homes, most in South Central, have no electricity. Street lights and traffic signals are out. Most businesses and government offices that still stand are closed. Mail delivery was stopped, forcing many people to wait in frustrating lines at post offices to pick up welfare checks.

To help keep control of the streets, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley has set a dusk-to-dawn curfew and President Bush has sent National Guardsmen with orders to shoot if they are shot at.

"This doesn't look like the United States," said 34-year-old LaDonna McMillan, a lifelong South Central resident, as she watched a group of guardsmen drive by in a military vehicle. "This looks like something out of a war movie. It's really scary."

An elderly woman, Dorothy Murray, stood near the smoldering rubble of what used to be a library in Figueroa avenue.

"I had to ride all over the city to find a loaf of bread," she said. "I don't think people were using their senses. Why burn down our neighborhood? We have to live here?"

A young man, rummaging through the rubble, looked up to answer her: "I don't own anything in this neighborhood. I don't own my house. I don't own a car. I don't own any of these businesses. Why should I claim this neighborhood as mine?"

Mr. Rand understands this rage.

He moved to South Central from Mississippi 30 years ago with a 9th-grade education. Unable to find a job, he began selling drugs several years ago but was forced out of business by police.

He had forgotten about the day he was arrested, he said, until he saw the videotape of police officers beating Rodney King.

"The policeman grabbed me and banged my head into the hood of a car," said Mr. Rand, who now works for tips at a gas station. "I still have the scar inside my lip and three of my teeth are chipped."

"People can only be put down so many times before they rise up," he said.

"But what we must do is build up. We must build our own community and build good lives for our families."

He began that rebuilding yesterday, with hundreds of other volunteers like Ms. Smith of North Hollywood, who brought her 10-year-old daughter to help with the clean-up effort.

"This is all of our city and I want her to learn that all of us are responsible for each other," said Ms. Smith.

James Wagoner also got his sons up early. He is a resident of Compton, a city that borders South Central Los Angeles and was also torn by riots.

"I got them dressed and told them, 'Come on. We're going to go see history,' " he said.

As they walked past burned liquor stores and gutted food markets, the boys looked at their neighborhood as if it were a movie set.

"This is not the way you handle your problems," Mr. Wagoner told the boys, aged 9 and 10.

"Two wrongs do not make a right. But I want you to look around. I want you to see this so you can understand how angry your people are."

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