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How L.A. worked to head off riots after grand jury decision in Ferguson case (+video)

Aware of their city's long history of explosive violence in police matters, Los Angeles police, clergy, and community leaders prepared the city to remain calm, whatever the outcome in Ferguson, Mo. 

After community activist Najee Ali told a group of demonstrators that there would be no indictment in the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., there was anger, sadness, disgust, and tears.

But no violence.

A crowd of about 200 to 300 had gathered at Leimert Park in the heart of Los Angeles’s African-American community, where rallies and demonstrations are a regular occurrence, to hear the announcement.

Dividing into groups, the crowd marched down Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards, slowing traffic and shouting for people to get out of their cars. But they weren't breaking windows or setting fires.

When the grand jury decision broke, the Rev. Mark Whitlock of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, Calif., was finishing up a talk about community development at the Westside Unity Church in Culver City. The congregation moved immediately into a prayer vigil, calling for peace and calm.

“We prayed for the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., and also for people here [in L.A.] to not erupt,” Mr. Whitlock says. “To the best of my knowledge, they didn’t.”

Interviews with Whitlock and other clergy, as well as community leaders here, reveal some reasons why one of America’s most ethnically and racially diverse cities, with a long history of explosive violence in police matters, remained calm.

For several weeks, the Los Angeles Police Department, along with religious, education, and civic leaders, held meetings at the LAPD’s downtown headquarters, readying the city for dealing with the grand jury’s decision whether to indict the white policeman who killed Mr. Brown, a black teen.

Meetings were also held ahead of time in churches and homes. Whitlock calls them “listening sessions.”

“We in L.A. know the effects of riots and looting, and at end of the day, we know what’s best for our community is simply to display anger in a peaceful manner,” he says. He recalls the most expensive riots in US history, which followed the acquittal of four white officers in the beating of African-American motorist Rodney King in 1992, and the Watts riots in 1965, in which 34 people died.

By contrast, what happened Monday night was prayer, singing, chanting, open mikes, and extended moments of silence.

“We marched, picketed the streets, and had already organized for many of the major churches to be opened,” says the Rev. K.W. Tulloss, western regional director of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. The network designated teams of “disciples of justice” to be impromptu liaisons of peace on the streets, mediators between police and residents.

Whereas marchers in Oakland, Calif., maneuvered to close a portion of Interstate 580 for a time, it was a different story in Los Angeles when a small group of protesters tried to get on Interstate 10 at the La Brea Avenue exit. Police – tipped off by the citizen liaisons – were able to keep them back.

“We gave people an alternative outlet to voice their concerns and anger in constructive ways," says Mr. Tulloss, noting the planned vigils at local parks, churches, and designated street locations.

Los Angeles police were also praised for declaring a citywide tactical alert Monday afternoon, freeing up more officers and resources in anticipation of demonstrations. Police Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday there were no injuries and no property damage during hours-long demonstrations across L.A. Three people were arrested.

Mayor Eric Garcetti also called for calm.

"Tonight's decision [in Ferguson] is one that will be heatedly debated – but we should do so through dialogue and peaceful action," he said in a statement.

One organization singled out by several observers for effective, pro-active grass-roots activism has been the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. It is headed by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the author of several books on the black experience in America. The group holds regular Saturday meetings with guests and open mikes on a variety of issues affecting the wider community.

“We laid out a three-point instant response plan that gave people constructive channels for their anger and frustration – petition campaign, planned peaceful rallies and marches, and justice and peace monitors on the streets," says Mr. Hutchinson.

"There was never an issue of a possible violent response because we educated, prepared, and provided pro-active leadership in the community," he adds.

Hutchinson has been lauded for his blog, which many readers find eloquent, evenhanded, and constructive in racial matters. Some feel that his recent call for the US government to indict the white officer on federal civil rights charges helped address the anger of those who feel they have no recourse.

“I think that Earl’s columns are helping to defuse hard feelings over this, because he speaks with so much authority and irrefutable common sense,” says Mr. Ali, executive director of Project Islamic HOPE in Los Angeles.

Rallies are scheduled in several US cities Tuesday night, including Newark, N.J.; Portland, Maine; Baltimore; and Washington. In the nation's capital, a group that laid on the ground to stage a "die-in" in front of Metro police headquarters plans to occupy various buildings in the District over 28 hours. 

• Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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