After King Verdict, L.A. Focuses on Rebuilding

THE test for Los Angeles now is whether it can build on the comity and calm in the wake of the second Rodney King verdict and channel it into solving the underlying problems that still beset the inner city.

After last year's cataclysmic unrest, local leaders vowed to harness the mood of national crisis to help turn Los Angeles into the premier lab for revitalizing urban America.

Now, after this year's comparative pin-drop calm, they are hoping to capitalize on the community esprit de corps that helped keep the peace.

"Now the trial is over - a new trial begins," says the Rev. Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Certainly the city is better off starting from a point of calm and relief rather than smoke and rage. The Armageddon that some feared, and nearly all seemed to predict, did not come true.

One reason was the split verdict itself. In finding two police officers (Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell) guilty of violating Mr. King's civil rights and two others (Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind) innocent, the jury defused much of the anger that has persisted in the black community over the way the criminal justice system deals with minorities. That anger was a trigger behind last year's violence.

While some remain upset that all four officers weren't convicted, and others lament that they weren't all acquitted, the general reaction among black leaders (and many others) was relief - even rejoicing.

Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, called it a "day of reckoning. This was a sort of payback for a lot of people who have been beat on the street when no camera was present." City Councilwoman Rita Walters declared herself "not only satisfied but jubilant."

Others, though, aren't celebrating. Some minority activists remain upset about the two acquittals. A black youth in South Central grouses that the verdict means "nothing to my friends who have been beaten by police."

On the other side, there are complaints that the jury was swayed by the fear of rioting to convict the two officers. Police supporters worry that the verdicts will hamstring cops in doing their job.

Daryl Gates, the former L.A. police chief, predicts officers will now hesitate before entering dangerous situations. But others argue the impact will be beneficial, curbing brutality.

Overall, the city is heaving a collective sigh of relief. At the corner of Florence and Normandie, the flash point of last year's unrest, activists gathered early Saturday to prevent any violence.

There was no need. Residents hoisting "honk-if-you-are-happy" signs were greeted by a chorus of horns. Elsewhere, people just went about their normal business - dining on sidewalks in Sherman Oaks, browsing at swap meets in South Central, and grousing about the Dodgers everywhere.

Hee Myung Lee was behind the counter of his electronics store in Koreatown. Last year, he watched as looters wheeled away $1.3 million of his merchandise. This year he was back greeting customers a few hours after the verdicts came down - with little talk of the gunplay he was ready for.

"Los Angeles has turned the corner," says Mayor Tom Bradley.

Not quite. Random violence could still break out, and two more emotional thresholds remain to be crossed: the sentencing of the two officers in August, and the trial of the youths accused of beating trucker Reginald Denny in last year's unrest.

STILL, the likelihood of widespread unrest seemed farfetched from the beginning. The city was better prepared psychologically than last year. So were police, who remained highly visible all weekend, backed up by the National Guard.

Political leaders, too, reacted differently. Mayor Bradley and Police Chief Willie Williams were on the air before and after the jury decision to salve fears - and warn would-be criminals. Gov. Pete Wilson (R) was all over the city.

The final shock absorber was community groups. Launching drives like "keep it good on the hood," they set out months ago to keep order and build cultural bridges.

The question is whether the goodwill will give the city momentum in dealing with problems that have festered for a quarter century.

"It is important that residents not conclude that all our work is done," says John Mack, head of the local Urban League.

Still uncertain is how much largess Sacramento and Washington will funnel toward Los Angeles. Rebuild L.A., the effort headed by former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, is also on the hot seat. It has attracted $450 million in private investment so far and hopes to increase that to $2 billion by next spring - which some still consider meager.

"If we just go back to this game of private philanthropy, it isn't going to work," says Mike Davis, a local author.

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