L.A. awaits King verdict with a gun in its hand

April 10, 1993|By Dan Fesperman and John Rivera | Dan Fesperman and John Rivera,Staff Writers

LOS ANGELES -- From the moment he hears the verdict, Richard Rhee will stand at his market in Koreatown and begin looking south, to where all the trouble began a year ago. He will watch for the first inky plume of smoke to rise above the smog into the blue California sky. Then he will prepare for war.

"I'll shut it [the market] down," he says. "Then I'll barricade my parking lot with whatever I can -- my car, trucks, rice pallets. Then I'll get my boys together."

His boys, about 40 to 60 of them, will be well-equipped. Mr. Rhee unlocks a booth holding the central arsenal of his merchant militia and hefts a fully-loaded M-16. "This is what the U.S. Army is using right now," he says. "I understand this is very powerful."

There are also six AK-47s, six shotguns and five Beretta pistols here. At his four other stores there are more guns. He's got 10,000 rounds of ammunition, which he figures is good for up to three days. Then there are the 15 men from the security company, who'll bring their own weapons.

Nothing personal about all this. It's just a matter of economic preservation after 35 years of doing business.

"I am commander in chief of the California Market," Mr. Rhee says of his huge Korean market. "I give orders what to do. I am ready."

A few miles down the road, in the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles that Mr. Rhee fears so much, there is talk of resorting to a different tactic of economic preservation, should rioting begin. It is just as impersonal, just as dangerous.

"A lot of people are saying, 'I didn't go out last year [during the riot],' but if there's a riot this year they will go out," says high school senior Claudio Rosas. "It will be for financial reasons. Because these are people who can't find jobs."

Translation: Loot now, if the chance arises, because times are desperate, and opportunity may not knock a third time.

Mr. Rosas opposes this kind of thinking, and as a volunteer for the mayor's Neighbor to Neighbor program he tries to talk others around to his point of view. But he doesn't always succeed.

"There is a lot of confusion right now," he says. "No one really knows what will happen."

Police may prevail

Such is the mood in Los Angeles as the second trial of four white policemen who beat black motorist Rodney G. King goes to the jury this weekend. But for all the tough talk and grim preparation in this city of sprawl and freeways, there is an equally strong undercurrent of assurance that, somehow, things won't be nearly as bad as they were April 29 when the rioting began. Somehow, the reasoning goes, the police will prevail.

New Police Chief Willie L. Williams has contributed to this feeling by announcing plans to deploy 6,500 officers to potential trouble spots before jurors have even reached a verdict. National Guard units will be activated as well.

It also hasn't hurt that the police chief is no longer Darryl Gates, who infuriated South Central with his remarks on the King case, then infuriated practically everybody else with a sluggish response last April.

Among the cautious optimists are Mr. Rhee and Mr. Rosas.

"I feel the police department, LAPD, will do a better job," Mr. Rhee says.

"If there are a lot of police out, it will work differently," Mr. Rosas says. "Last time, when the National Guard would come, people would stop right away."

But there is a flip side to such pronouncements -- the nagging fear that if police fail to hold the line, this time the violence will be worse.

That would take some doing.

In last year's rioting, anger and opportunism boiled over into three days of loot, shoot and burn, leaving 53 people dead and 2,400 injured. About 1,400 stores and homes were damaged at a cost of about $1 billion.

The costliest result to some, however, is a new sense that the city is now only an incident away from anarchy. There is also exasperation that civil unrest seems to have become the newest part of the judicial process, occurring automatically whenever enough people with enough anger decide that a verdict isn't to their liking.

Most in this city of more than 3 million people have taken it all in stride, and seem barely affected except when they discuss the case from time to time with their friends.

Adele Somers, 70, of Culver City, says, "I think there's just been too much of the negative reported. When you move around in the community it seems that everyone is at peace."

But others have reacted more strongly. Some have decided to get out of town altogether as the end of the trial approaches.

Ed Hill, 51, a biomedical engineer, packed up yesterday in a recreational vehicle and took off for Yuma, Ariz. Joining him were eight neighbors from a trailer park in Downey, a suburban town about 10 miles east of South-Central Los Angeles.

"Nothing may happen," he says. "But after the last one, I'm not going to wait for it. The nearest rioting was about 6 miles away, but that was close enough for me."

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