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Twenty years after the L.A. riots

May 1, 2012 - By Walter Cook

A little over a year ago, I found myself vying with a colorful California character for an apartment in a seedy part of Hollywood.

The guy looked to be in his 50s. He had shaggy, thin hair and was carrying a bottle of prescription medication, which he rattled occasionally.

His carefree and mellow demeanor led me to believe the bottle contained some potent, relaxing stuff.

As we waited on the stoop of the four-story apartment building for the property manager to arrive, we started talking. He'd been living in the area for some time, so I asked him about the neighborhood. It generally was safe, with some good places to eat and drink, he said.

But there was one hairy time, he recalled, back in 1992, when smoke could be seen in the distance and was growing closer by the hour. And there were rumblings about people coming from "the black part of town" to loot and burn the neighborhood.

That part of town was South Central Los Angeles, a place that exploded in rioting 20 years ago in April. The catalyst was the acquittal of four LAPD officers who were caught on tape beating motorist Rodney King following a high-speed chase. King was struck with police batons more than 50 times and sustained severe injuries.

Many black community leaders had decried aggressive, dehumanizing LAPD tactics in South Central L.A. for years to no avail. Defenders of such police tactics, meanwhile, said South Central was a war zone due to a crack cocaine epidemic at the time, which required military-style policing strategies.

Thanks to the Rodney King video, which was shot by a man who happened to live in a suburban home near the beating site, the South Central community felt it finally had solid proof of LAPD misconduct. As one leader described it, it was like getting a picture of the elusive Loch Ness Monster.

So when what most believed would be a certain assault conviction of the officers involved in the King beating failed to materialize, protests followed. They quickly transformed to violence against people, with the cars of non-black motorists pelted by rocks and beer bottles. Arson and widespread looting followed.

It was an irrational, inexcusable response to an irrational, inexplicable jury verdict that seemed to devalue the worth of a black person's life.

Perhaps the most horrible image from the riots was that of white trucker Reginald Denny who was caught unawares because his radio didn't work. He drove his truck through the epicenter of the riots and was pulled from his cab and beaten by several men. The assault ended with a perpetrator throwing a cinderblock on Denny's head while he lay limp on the blacktop. His skull was broken in 91 places.

Denny, like Rodney King, somehow survived. Also like King, his assault was caught on tape.

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I never moved into that Hollywood apartment. I saw a cockroach in the building and heard TVs blaring through the walls during the afternoon on a weekday. It gave off a bad vibe.

So I opted for Calabasas instead, just a few miles outside of the city limits of Los Angeles. I found myself next to a state park, where I went mountain biking every day after work. Since then, I've moved to Los Angeles' Westside district, where the beach is a short drive away. The natural beauty in both places is incredible.

L.A. is a city of contrasts -- including its architecture, microclimates, and, most of all, money. Unimaginable wealth in Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Brentwood are scant miles away from utter poverty and the hopelessness it breeds.

One particularly astute observer in South Central L.A. at the time of the riots told a television reporter it was tragic that the rioters were burning down their own neighborhoods. Instead, he said, they needed to take the trouble to places where the people in power live -- the Westside, in particular Beverly Hills.

I don't advocate violence, and though I appreciate a good march in the street for justice, I don't like the idea of rioting. Riots, even when spurred by a noble cause, lead to murder, rape, robbery and arson.

But I get the sense that if riot-fueled destruction actually occurred in the richest neighborhoods rather than, as is usually the case, the poorest, positive social change would be swifter.

In L.A., the rich are not far removed from the poverty to the south. It behooves us all -- rich or poor, black or white -- to ensure jobs and justice are available to all, lest we all be drawn into violent chaos.

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Sadly, 20 years after the L.A. riots, it seems the country is again on the verge of race-related violence. This time around, the potential catalyst is the deadly March shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who is black, by community watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who is Latino.

Zimmerman shot Martin at close range with a pistol. The story so far seems to be that Zimmerman profiled Martin and followed him after he noticed him walking through his Florida neighborhood, where he didn't think the teen belonged. A struggle ensued, apparently. Zimmerman said he was attacked by Martin and shot him as Martin was pounding the back of his head into the sidewalk

Others speculate that it was Zimmerman who initiated the fight, simply because Martin was black, and shot the teen because he was losing the fight.

Zimmerman has since been charged with murder. But the case against him, so far, seems to be much more flimsy than the case against King's baton-wielding assailants. For one thing, Zimmerman had large abrasions to the back of his head following the shooting, which indicates possible self-defense, and, unlike the King case, no video evidence exists to refute Zimmerman's claim.

In addition, the No. 1 witness is dead.

Will Sanford, Fla., erupt in 1992-LA-style racial violence if

Zimmerman is acquitted? Will the violence be limited to the poor neighborhoods this time around?

Careless bloggers are already predicting a race war in Florida.

Perhaps this is a time to learn from history, and heed King's fitting, tearful words during the apex of the L.A. riots: "Can't we all just get along?"

So be kind to every person you meet, regardless of skin color.

That person may be carrying heavy burdens and fighting battles of which you may not know.

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Editor's note: Former Ranger reporter Walter Cook is a business writer living in Los Angeles.

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