California gets ready for 2nd Rodney King verdict

April 13, 1993|By Bill Glauber and John Rivera | Bill Glauber and John Rivera,Staff Writers

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- This was a deployment -- Hollywood style. Citizen-soldiers outfitted in camouflage-green fatigues, flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, and bearing M-16 A-2 semi-automatic rifles, raced through a parking area crammed with tanks, trucks and Humvees while being tailed by more than 50 television, radio and newspaper reporters.

Without even leaving their armory compound, the California National Guard managed to act out a demonstration of force yesterday.

It was a performance with a purpose: To deter those who might take to the streets and stage another riot in the wake of the jury's impending verdict in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial.

"We're here. We're ready. We want to let our potential opponents know to think twice before messing with people who are wearing the green suits," said 1st Lt. Kurt Schlichter, a second-year law student at Loyola Marymount University.

For many of the 600 National Guardsmen who were deployed yesterday at armories in Inglewood, Glendale and Arcadia, this is the second tour of riot duty in their home town. And they all hope it's the last.

Shielded from this show were the eight men and four women that make up the trial jury. For the third consecutive day they deliberated the fate of the three police officers and a former policeman accused of beating Mr. King.

On a day when the federal courthouse was filled with rumors that the jury would reach a decision, the only news that came out was that the panel ordered a lunch of salad, beef stroganoff and cod, and that a request to take home notes from the case was denied.

"I've learned not to listen to rumors," Mr. Schlichter said. "It's just kind of a Zen thing. It's [a riot] either going to happen, or it's not."

The Guardsmen have already seen L.A. Lawless.

What Spc. Eric Dowells of Los Angeles remembers about the riot last April is this: fire.

"That was scary," said Specialist Dowells, 27, who works nights in a warehouse.

"We were out there, blinded. They burned everything. They even burned the 7-Eleven store a block from the armory. And there was nothing we could do about it."

What Mr. Schlichter remembers is walking through his city as if he were patrolling an enemy battlefield.

"Much of the time, I'm in shorts and T-shirts and I'm like any other guy," he said.

"I did not like driving through my own city, surveying it like it was a military site. You drive through the city and you have a loaded weapon. Strange."

What Sgt. Troy Green of Los Angeles remembers is the riot's aftermath. A truck driver by trade, he couldn't find his way around the city after fires and looting wiped out many of his geographic landmarks.

"There would be a shopping center, and then, it's leveled," he said. "There would be this big building, but all that was left was the bricks. I kept asking myself, 'What's wrong with this picture?' "

And what Spc. Torrance Rabb, 19, a college student from the Lynwood section of Los Angeles, remembers is the anger of the city's residents.

"Basically, that last riot was just anger being built up and let out," he said.

"People saw an opportunity to release that anger over something that was not worth it. That's why I don't think there will be another riot. The people now know that it's just not worth it."

But law enforcement officials, caught unprepared during the last riot, say they are not taking any chances this time.

The sheriff's department has opened an emergency operations center and 800 highway patrol officers have been assigned to escort and protect firefighters.

The National Guard says it can have an additional 6,000 troops on hand within 48 hours, and soldiers at nearby Camp Pendleton can be called in to quell any outbreak of violence.

And of course, the Los Angeles Police Department has already announced plans to have all 6,500 officers on the street after the verdict is announced.

L.A. is not an armed camp -- it's just an uncertain place.

Outside of the Southwest Station, on West Martin Luther King Boulevard, a young black police officer in his late 20s, asked a reporter: "What do you think is going to happen?"

When the reporter responded that the threat of sporadic violence was real, the officer, who requested anonymity, said: "That's right."

"A lot of the merchants have weapons, right under the counter. Semi-automatics," the officer said, shaking his head.

"If we see someone running down the street, carrying a weapon, we don't know if he's a good guy or a bad guy."

At the 77th Street Station in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, police have piled sand bags by the front of the building, while an officer patrols the roof.

"We're ready and waiting for the verdict," said a female Hispanic officer.

So are the Guardsmen.

Yesterday, they set up cots on a basketball court inside the Inglewood Armory. They smoked cigarettes. Read books. Slept. And trained.

They were part of a show. But they were also preparing for a riot.

"Nobody wants to see armed troops on the streets of a United States city," said Sgt. Raymond Grafton, 46, a 23-year Guard veteran. "It doesn't thrill us to go on the streets of our own neighborhoods."

But if asked, they will serve.

"There is a sense of urgency to do my job and to do it right," said Staff Sgt. Robert Cummings, a Los Angeles native who lived through the Watts riots and patrolled the streets last April.

"You see on the police cars, the words, 'to protect and serve.' Well, that's our job, too."

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