L.A. Residents Engage In Unprecedented Soul-Searching

In wake of unrest, people wonder how to bring together different cultures

AS during no other time in city history, Los Angelenos are examining their frayed social fabric, stitch by stitch.

From talk radio to comedy clubs, interneighborhood gatherings to university symposia on Black/Korean relations, a relentless introspection is engulfing residents, government, academics, and press. Forced together by those in immediate need of redress in the aftermath of the country's worst rioting this century, citizens are finding a new level of self-inquiry that has shifted beyond decaying neighborhoods to the very founding principle of the republic.

"We are examining whether or not multiculturalism is a myth," says Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at California State Poly Technic University in Pomona. "We told ourselves that we all came from different places and were happy. [The rioting] showed that perhaps white, black, Asian, and Hispanic are still all too separate, unequal societies."

By day, there are door-to-door attitude pollsters. By night, local TV anchors spin the latest numbers on everything from immigration patterns and bank-loan discrimination to welfare and prison statistics. The questions: How did the city get the way it is? Where do we go from here?

Come dawn, the details of the riot are still being relived in exhaustive local newspaper coverage. Today, the Los Angeles Times completes a five-day special report of 12-page, daily pullouts with oversized headlines and photos recounting dozens of first-person accounts. Together with a visual history of the city's defining moments - from segregation rulings to museum openings - the series is being called an unprecedented catalyst for community self-examination and healing. It is being drawn on for publi c discussion from Long Beach to Beverly Hills.

"There is probably more sensitivity to the experience of minorities in this town now than there has ever been," says Brian Stonehill, a sociologist at Pomona College. "The print media are leading the way in deepening and broadening people's understanding past symptoms to causes they can now address."

In their own words, schoolchildren, businessmen, immigrants, and policemen are telling their side of events. Several accounts by looters explained how the momentum of events and causes combined with little or no police presence swept them into opportunism.

"I'm being forced to look at the same situation from a number of different viewpoints," says Rebecca Delay, a Los Angeles resident reading the Times's series in a local restaurant. Besides keeping her from shifting back to her pre-riot complacency, she says the series is leavening current strife with long-term context and analysis.

In a Korean grocery, Kim Kwon reads the account of Hispanic high school student Octavio Sandoval, for instance, explaining why Sandoval and two friends joined in looting at the Hi Brite Furniture Store in his neighborhood: "[Latinos] are accustomed to being a low minority ... that's why it made it easier for me to take the [stolen] beds," writes Sandoval. Guilt-ridden, Sandoval explains how his parents' disapproval led to a decision to take the beds to a local church.

"I understand this," says Kwon. "I don't approve of it. But I understand."

Beyond the slowly-grinding wheels of official recovery efforts - local largesse by community corporations - and the prospect of government aid, Angelenos are beginning to realize what the city's rebuilding means at an individual level.

"The immediate reaction stage is over," says Eui-Young Yu, a professor of sociology at Cal State Los Angeles and chair of the Koreatown Emergency Relief Society. Saying that America's dominant, Eurocentric ideology is not working, Dr. Yu says, "L.A. is going to have to learn how to put together an entirely different culture. Part of that [will mean] finding a new level of interacting harmoniously, one on one."

Though some community activists describe the atmosphere alternately as tense and uneasy, many also say the mood is expectant, that added attention will eventually produce the effort that brings results.

"You don't have to wait for a government check to go out and learn about your neighbor," says Addison Hawthorne, a 50-year resident of South-Central. Present during the Watts riots 27 years ago, Hawthorne says, "there were coalitions forged then that are still going today. Sometimes you need a catastrophe to wake you up," he says.

Press accounts of ongoing developments undergird some efforts at conciliation and undermine others. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates has been heavily criticized for interjecting a tone of personal bravado into the arrest of three suspects in the well-publicized attack on trucker Reginald Denny. A new investigative body to be headed by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster will examine police effectiveness during the rioting.

As the troops recede - President Bush ordered another 4,000 out this week - fallout from the legal proceedings of the suspects, and the eventual evaluation by the Webster panel are seen by many as possible sparks for renewed violence.

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