L.A. riot claims 38 lives, surpassing 1965 Watts riots

By ELKA WORNER  |  May 01 1992
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LOS ANGELES, May 1, 1992 (UPI) - The death toll in a three-day rampage of devastating fires, riots and looting reached 38 Friday and the damage estimate topped $550 million, making it more deadly and destructive than the 1965 Watts riots, for four decades the symbol of racial anger in the United States.

The most recent casualties reported Friday by the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office included people who died of burns in some of more than 3,600 fires set by arsonists since thousands of rioters took to the streets Wednesday and began torching and pillaging businesses and attacking bystanders, fellow looters and police and firemen.

The latest deaths and the still climbing damage estimate topped the toll of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, which broke out on a hot August day in 1965 during the arrest of a black man by a white Highway Patrol officer. The Watts riots claimed 34 lives and injured more than 1,000, leaving $200 million in damage in their wake six days later.

National Guardsmen riding armored vehicles and carrying assault rifles assisted police Friday in quelling the deadly rioting, and President Bush ordered 5,000 Army troops and federal law enforcement officers in to help them.

The chaos paralyzed the nation's second largest city, as businesses were closed, bus service halted and one sporting or entertainment event after another canceled. Hundreds of thousands of residents remained close to home Friday, fearful even during daylight hours of the bands of hoodlums that have been marauding through one community after another over an area of about 250 square miles, smashing windows, robbing stores while shop owners watched in anger and setting fires.

The federal troops and officers will join 4,000 California National Guard troops already on the street or on standby and another 2,000 called in Friday.

The violence, which broke out after four white policemen were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King in a notorious videotaped incident last year, appeared to abate overnight as a dusk-to-dawn curfew was put into effect citywide.

Mayor Tom Bradley and other city officials said authorities have started to gain the upper hand as the presence of the National Guard troops used to guard businesses and public buildings allowed police to start cracking down on rioters. Bradley said the dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed on Thursday had helped stem the violence, and he extended it indefinitely.

''We want to make it clear that we are serious,'' he said. ''We are going to take back the streets from the thugs and hoods that have used this incident as an excuse to loot and burn and kill and we will not tolerate it.''

More than 1,200 people were injured and more than 3,000 arrested, filling local jails and forcing authorities to seek other facilities in neighboring areas to house the overflow.

More than half of the arrests were for looting, authorities said.

Rodney King broke a public silence since shortly after his March 3, 1991 beating sparked racial tensions, appealing Friday for an end to the violence.

King, appearing nervous and his voice choking with emotion, asked for a halt to the brutality which erupted as a backlash to the verdicts that exonerated the officers who beat him.

''Can we all get along, people? Can we all get along?'' he said. ''It's not right.

''We'll have our justice. They've won the battle but they haven't won the war,'' King added. ''We'll have our day in court. We've got to quit (the violence).

''We're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out.''

King's attorney said his client does not want people ''to kill in his name.''

Mayor Bradley strongly endorsed Bush's order sending 4,000 Army troops from Fort Ord, Calif., and 1,000 federal law enforcement officers.

''We were concerned that the situation might get out of control,'' Bradley said. ''With an incident of this kind, there has to be a massive show of strength.''

The pace of looting appeared to peak Thursday, as thousands, most of them black or Hispanic, went on a crime spree that spread from South Los Angeles and downtown -- year-round hotbeds of gang activity and other crimes -- to many other communities.

Among the hardest hit areas was Koreatown, said to be targeted because of widespread anger lingering from the probationary sentence given to a Korean grocer for the shooting death of a black teenager in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. Authorities said some 100 Korean-owned businesses were damaged or destroyed.

To defend the Olympic Swap Meet, about a dozen Korean-American businessmen lined up their expensive sedans in front of the building, forming a protective barricade by opening their doors in an interlocking pattern and turning on the lights. All were armed with pistols or shotguns. One man patrolled the roof with an Uzi-like automatic weapon.

Another target area was Hollywood Boulevard, where buildings around the landmark Chinese Theater, legendary restaurant Musso and Frank's, and Frederick's of Hollywood lingerie store were burned or vandalized. There was also damage in Pasadena and the Hancock Park area, where the mayor lives.

The wave of destruction, which had been focused on businesses, spread to houses and apartments late Thursday. All over the city, friends, neighbors and strangers joined to hose down houses, protect businesses and start the massive cleanup.

''I don't agree with what happened to Rodney King, but this is beyond,'' said one youth among a group of people who had helped put out a fire. ''This is greed. This is anger -- look at the sky. L.A.'s skies. It looks like Kuwait out here.''

A white trucker who was dragged from his vehicle, kicked, and hit in the face with a rock by a man who then danced around his unconcious form in the first hour of the riot became a local symbol of the violence. He was improving Friday after surgery. Black men and women risked their lives to help get him to a nearby hospital.

While the crime spree subsided during the curfew hours, daybreak Friday brought new fires in South Los Angeles, Koreatown and other already smoldering parts of the city.

In addition, earlier fires that had not been thoroughly doused were springing back to life, compounding the problems facing exhausted fire crews, who raced from blaze to blaze under police protection. At least three firefighters were shot and wounded. Others were threatened with their own axes.

Police Chief Daryl Gates said he was troubled that federal help had to be called.

''It's a horrible indictment of our civility, but what has to be done, has to be done,'' he said.

Gov. Pete Wilson said he would give the U.S. troops the go-ahead to shoot back if fired on or if otherwise necessary.

''We are taking no chance. We intend to have not just a show of strength, but actual strength,'' Wilson said.

Addressing questions about how soon the citywide riots and fires will be quelled, he said, ''We will do whatever is necessary, however many troops are required, however many patrols.

Wilson, responding to critics' charges that the initial National Guard deployment late Thursday afternoon was too little too late, said the troop movement was held up by ammunition shipments that were slower than expected.

Fire Chief Donald Manning said his department received 5,000 calls on Thursday, five times the number of a normal day. But Friday morning, the number of calls dropped off to about one fourth of the previous day's number.

The mayor's office said Friday the damage from vandalism and more than 3,600 fires had cost an estimated $550 million. That did not include merchandise looted from shelves, and just one Koreatown store owner said he had lost $500,000 in electronics equipment.

Later Friday, Bradley asked Wilson to seek a presidential disaster declaration for the city so victims would qualify for federal financial assistance.

The path of the looters was apparent from the air. Smoldering, blackened skeletons of buildings, glittering heaps of shattered glass, and rejected or damaged merchandise made some Los Angeles streets resemble a Midwestern field ravaged by locusts.

Rev. Jesse Jackson walked the ravaged Crenshaw District Friday, meeting with distraught residents.

Some law-abiding residents bemoaned the negative image they suffered at the hands of the rioters in addition to the physical destruction.

''I'm tired of us being portrayed as animals,'' one woman said, crying in Jackson's arms as they watched a medical clinic burn to the ground.

Jackson also visited a post office where hundreds of people were lined up waiting for their monthly Social Security or welfare checks. Many had no idea where they would cash the checks or spend the money on necessities because of the destruction of so many neighborhood shops and businesses.

Authorities said the protest that began over what many thought was an unjust verdict in the King beating trial, by Thursday had become a chaotic free-for-all of looting, arson and violence by roving gangs of hooligans bent on thievery rather than protest.

Among the many injuries reported were two LAPD officers who suffered minor injuries Friday after a sniper armed with an AK-47 assault rifle shot at their patrol car. Police returned fire and shot the suspected sniper in the head, wounding him.

Among the heroes were the thousands of firefighters who worked daylong shifts fighting already dangerous fires under the threat of snipers.

Many of the injured were bystanders, including reporters and photographers trying to cover the story.

Ironic scenes abounded.

Outside the Superior Courthouse, two National Guard troopers stood guard on a street corner, warily eyeing a teetering homeless man dressed in tattered tennis shoes and camouflaged fatigues just like theirs.

Freeways, which had been jammed Thursday afternoon with residents scrambling to get home, were all but deserted Friday as many of the government offices, schools and universities and the city's biggest employers were closed down.

Exclusive Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was virtually deserted as expensive shops remained locked up against what merchants and shoppers feared was a westward movement of the rioting.

For the second day Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers postponed a home game. In addition, the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA playoff game against the Portland Trailblazers was postponed, as Thursday's scheduled Los Angeles Clippers-Utah Jazz game had been.

Countywide Cinco de Mayo holiday celebrations, a Van Halen rock concert and other cultural events were called off rather than run the risk created by large gatherings.

The Southern California Rapid Transit District, which had shut down bus and train service overnight, resumed daylight-hour schedules but continued to keep buses out of the most dangerous sections of South Los Angeles.

The King brutality trial verdicts handed down Wednesday in nearby Simi Valley outraged thousands, particularly blacks and other racial minorities. The violence began at a single intersection as fistfights, bottle and rock throwing, and looting of stores and quickly escalated into a fiery riot that overwhelmed police and firefighters.

The verdicts and the resulting rampage sparked similar actions in cities across the country.

Rioting, arson and violence were reported in Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelpha, Las Vegas, Atlanta; Madison, Wis.; Detroit; Charleston, S.C.; Gary, Ind.; Toledo, Ohio; Normal, Ill.; and St. Louis.

A trial of a black Dallas government official was recessed because of death threats to the jury, while the mayors of New York and Chicago appealed for their cities to remain calm as fear and rumors of impending violence ran rampant.

The wave of destruction, which had been focused on businesses, spread to houses and apartments later Thursday, many of those structures enflamed when fire spread from neighboring commercial buildings.

While the crime spree subsided during the curfew hours, daybreak brought new fires in South Los Angeles, Koreatown and other already devastated parts of the city.

In addition, earlier fires that had not been thoroughly doused were springing back to life, compounding the problems facing exhausted fire crews.

Looters, who in many areas included small children and whole families, smashed windows and broke down doors to barge into stores and businesses, risking arrest and even their lives to grab merchandise from expensive appliances and furniture to ice cream and candy bars.

Others were caught up in the chaos. In one heart-wrenching scene, two tiny Hispanic children arrived at a shuttered grocery store with money in their hands to buy flour for tortillas. The store was closed because other people, including some children, had stripped its shelves. The bewildered kids looked up at a reporter and said, ''Muy malo (very bad).''

The most intense destruction and mayhem remained in South Los Angeles, where rioters, mostly black and Hispanic, demolished hundreds of stores and businesses, often torching the buildings after they scavenged the aisles where only days before they were doing their regular shopping.

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