L.A. Braces Itself As King Trial Ends

Apprehension, anger, and hope mix in South Central as Koreans and blacks await federal verdict

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHILE the jury deliberates in the Rodney King trial, Pong Cha has been doing some deliberating of her own in the back of her photography studio in Koreatown. She is deciding which equipment to haul home for safekeeping in case violence breaks out when the verdict comes down.

"A lot of Korean people are moving things home," she says. "I am a little bit worried."

Eighty blocks south, in the heart of the city's toughest gang neighborhoods, Georgia Joseph is cleaning up plastic trucks and stuffed animals after a day of preschool at a city recreation center. Her thoughts are not on taking things home but building them up.

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"We're so busy at this point trying to rebuild and get back to life as it was before riots that we aren't focused on the trial," she says. "We want to rebuild. We want to get our stores back. We just want to eat."

Out on the streets hardest hit by last year's civil unrest, a gamut of emotions is surfacing as the federal civil rights trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of Mr. King reaches its denouement. (Trial analysis, Page 6.)

There is apprehension about another round of violence, anger over the criminal justice system, and an almost universal hope that the city learned enough from last year's strife to avoid any repetition.

A gang member who calls himself "Droopy II" predicts gunplay, a health-care worker preaches peace, and nearly everyone laments the klieg-light glare of the media, which they believe aggravates emotions and depicts multiethnic tensions with cartoon simplicity.

The varied feelings emerge as a cordon of police takes up positions across the city and National Guard troops lurk in the background. Many churches and neighborhood groups, meanwhile, are holding peace vigils.

For Ken Lee, Monday will be another day overseeing the grill at the Olympic Burger restaurant in Koreatown. During last year's violence, windows were broken in the minimall where his eatery is located. He still harbors hard feelings.

"The police didn't keep the safety," he says, a hamburger sizzling nearby. "We are still angry."

Mr. Lee says he thinks it will be different this year, though, should any unrest break out. He believes the police are better prepared. Private security guards and neighborhood watch groups will also be cruising the area.

Even so, Lee says more healing is needed among the city's diverse groups. "If I had the money I would move to Washington state," he says. "I don't like Los Angeles anymore."

Hee Myung Lee is moving. The owner of the Cosmos electronics store just down the street will be opening a bigger business next month in another neighborhood two miles away. Safety is the prime reason. Last year his store was ransacked in the riots. He lost $1.3 million in merchandise.

The new store, he points out, will be all cinder block construction, meaning it will be less susceptible to fire or damage. Still, Lee does think there has been progress in Los Angeles in the past year.

More stores in Koreatown, he says, are displaying signs in English, welcoming customers of all colors and cultures. That is another reason for his move.

His new store will be in a more ethnically diverse neighborhood, and he wants to attract more than his usual Korean clientele. He will also be hiring a more diverse sales staff.

"This is the only way to solve racism problems in Los Angeles," he says. "Everybody needs to do business in a blend of cultures."

THOSE sentiments won't draw an argument from Alaina Stephens. She is standing in the doorway of her bungalow home in South Central. An arch of bougainvillea frames the doorway. Roses line the sidewalk.

The windows of all the houses on the block, like the Stephenses', are covered with bars. Last year she and her husband watched as someone drove a truck through the store across the street, and looters wheeled goods away in shopping carts.

"Things aren't getting any better," says the nurse's aide. "You aren't even safe going to the automatic teller machine anymore. I take my son with me."

"People are upset. Those cops should get some time," she adds, referring to the King trial.

All of the major grocery stores, swap meets, and other businesses that Georgia Joseph used to frequent in her South Central neighborhood were destroyed in last year's rioting. She has to take the bus across town to buy food.

"There is nothing else to tear down," she says. "We're basically trying to get people to help us rebuild." Ms. Joseph sees jobs as the paramount need: "We need to give people something to do with their hands other than put a 40-ounce bottle in them."

Despite the woes, the preschool teacher remains optimistic about the inner city. "I believe in the community," she says, "because the community is made up of people. And the people are good."

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