Riot-Wary L.A. Residents Develop `Non-Offensive' Defense Strategies
LOS ANGELES — IN the San Fernando Valley, merchants and homeowners armed with cellular phones and binoculars will be stationed on store tops along upscale Ventura Boulevard to spot lawbreakers if civil unrest breaks out.
In Koreatown, a special emergency number is planned that residents can call for help as a backup to the police's 911 line.
And in Hollywood Hills, homeowners are discussing ways to barricade streets.
From platinum Beverly Hills to impoverished South Central, a pervasive and eerie preparation is under way by thousands of residents ready in the event that violence erupts in the aftermath of two emotion-laden court trials now under way.
Stung by the widespread looting and burning of last year's civil unrest, merchants, homeowners, and community groups are organizing neighborhood surveillance programs, cutting "pre-graffiteed" plywood to cover windows, and attending dozens of preparedness seminars.
While no one hopes for another disturbance - nor do they want to seem to be fomenting fear - there is nonetheless a widespread feeling that readiness would be better than panic.
"This is not a bunch of vigilantees out there waiting for hoodlums to come over the hill when the alleged riots start," says Stephen Getzoff, an Encino accountant who is helping organize the citizen's surveillance network along Ventura Boulevard. "This is a group of concerned citizens who want to maintain control of their communities."
The preparations underline the anxiety and complexity of emotions in the nation's No. 2 city as the trial of four white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King, and the case of several young black men charged with assaulting a white truck driver during last spring's riots, move forward.
Much of the preparation is institutional. Police Chief Willie Williams has said he will have all hands on the street when the verdict comes down. Some fire departments are stocking protective gear. A hospital in South Central is making arrangements to shuttle staff to work.
Yet many of the precautions are being taken by individuals. Knowing that the police have limited resources, homeowners and merchants are plotting ways to aid law-enforcement authorities or safeguard their own neighborhoods, from carrying guns to readying videocameras.
While some say the readiness could help deter unrest, others say the threat is overblown and the precautions, especially the weapons stocking, inflammatory.
During last year's riots, many Korean-Americans could not get through on the police's overloaded 911 number. Some who did could not speak English. Thus community leaders and the Korean-American Grocers Association are looking at establishing a special line that residents could call and then have the information relayed on to police.
In the affluent Hollywood Hills, residents, like many across the city, are sitting through briefings by police as well as talks by private specialists.
Linda Lockwood, a private citizen who lectures on disaster preparedness, has been speaking to as many as four groups a day for months. She and her husband developed a grass-roots plan after an earthquake three years ago. The interest in their ideas during the past year, however, has been for riot readiness.
Their "nonoffensive" plan - guns are expressly discouraged - includes covering windows with graffiti-tagged plywood to deter looters. "Molotov cocktails can't be thrown through wood," she says. She tells neighbors to organize teams and divide the tasks: establish food stations, first-aid centers, communication hubs, and provisions for child care.
"Citizens are a bit panicky," she says. "We are running into a lot of people who are arming themselves and barricading streets."
The planned surveillance effort along Ventura Boulevard typifies the preparations going on. Though little damage was done in the area last year, some believe that organizing to reclaim streets and help police fight crime is a noble cause, no matter what the outcome of the court verdicts.
Unarmed volunteers would be stationed on rooftops and in strategic locations along a 12-mile stretch of the artery. Using ham radios, portable phones, videocameras, and binoculars, they will act as eyes and ears for police, but not as enforcers. "We aren't looking to have cowboys out there," says Mr. Getzoff. "If someone appears to be of that notion, we won't use them."
Others, though, are unnerved by the growing trend of citizen participation in crime-fighting.
"It troubles me that we have police asking citizens to participate in what is essentially a police function," says Gerald Silver of the Encino Homeowners Association, who nevertheless is taking part in the surveillance effort.