LOS ANGELES -- National Guard troops and police wrestled to gain control of riot-ravaged neighborhoods across Los Angeles yesterday amid indications that authorities were gaining the upper hand for the first time in three days of the worst urban unrest in the city's history.
In a city that has long boasted about the richness of its Third World flavor, it had come yesterday to mirror the worst of its war-torn neighbors to the south. Military equipment rolled down boulevards, men with automatic weapons kept sentry and a dusk-to-dawn curfew kept residents indoors following Wednesday's not-guilty verdicts in the case of four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney G. King.
In a highly visible show of force, hundreds of armed National Guardsmen moved into troubled spots, maintaining calm at post offices and grocery stores as thousands of panicked residents rushed to pick up Social Security and welfare checks and prepared to bunker down for an uncertain weekend.
On the third day of unrest, Mr. King made his first public appearance since his beating last year. He appealed for calm and denounced the mayhem as senseless.
"It's just not right; it's not right, and it's not going to change anything," Mr. King, 26, told a crowded news conference, his voice choked with nervousness and emotion. "We'll get our justice. They've won the battle, but they haven't won the war. We'll have our day in court, and that's all we want."
President Bush ordered 4,500 armed troops into Los Angeles last night and vowed to "use whatever force is necessary to restore order" to the riot-torn city.
Federal and local officials said that the muscle-flexing, decried as long overdue by many in ransacked areas of the city, was meant to "ensure the safety of the streets" before the weekend.
Elsewhere in the nation, outrage over the verdicts continued to reverberate.
* Police in Atlanta fired tear gas at black demonstrators after they hurled bricks at the officers. At least 26 people were injured.
* In New York City, crowds leaving rallies last night attacked two truck drivers in Harlem, stormed into Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan and shattered windows on a bottle-hurling march through Greenwich Village.
* San Francisco remained under a state of emergency.
* Nevada Gov. Bob Miller activated the National Guard in Las Vegas to quell violence in that city.
In Los Angeles, police reports placed the number of deaths at 37, with at least 10 killed by law enforcement officers. An additional 1,400 injuries have been reported, including three police officers among the victims, since the violence erupted.
The death toll, combined with estimates of property damage exceeding $250 million, added an inauspicious historic dimension to the three-day rebellion: The unrest eclipsed the 1965 Watts riots as the costliest and deadliest urban disorder in Los Angeles history. The worst rioting in the United States occurred in Detroit in July 1967, when 43 were killed, more than 2,000 injured and $200 million in property damaged.
By late yesterday afternoon, more than 4,400 people had been arrested countywide. In the rush to make room for the newly arrested, officials moved about 1,200 inmates from county jails to state prisons.
Although the violence had subsided substantially yesterday, giving residents time to catch their breath and clean up the mess, scattered fires still flared, including one in Long Beach, where a California Department of Motor Vehicles building was set ablaze.
The civil strife is likely to worsen Southern California's battered economy. Fires have closed thousands of businesses and idled uncounted workers. Continuing disruptions will hurt tourism, retailing and service industries; put an added burden on banks and other financial institutions, and ultimately strain city, county and state budgets.
Officials in Washington indicated that the Department of Justice was likely to seek criminal indictments of the officers involved in the March 3, 1991, beating. In a highly unusual announcement, the officials said that the department had convened a federal grand jury in the case and that a subpoena had been issued yesterday "in furtherance" of the grand jury investigation.
The overnight curfew in Los Angeles and neighboring areas, extended by officials for a third day into this morning, left much of the smoldering city in a nervous calm. Freeways and streets were almost deserted, as were restaurants, theaters and sporting arenas.
Even so, daybreak yesterday was regarded in some neighborhoods only as an invitation to renew the looting, arson and shooting. A thick pall of smoke still hung over much of the Los Angeles Basin, fires burned from Hollywood to South Los Angeles and new outbreaks of violence erupted in Long Beach, the Los Angeles Harbor area, the Mid-City district west of downtown and in the Panorama City portion of the San Fernando Valley.
Vermont Avenue was one of the hardest streets hit. For a 10-mile stretch from Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood to
Manchester Boulevard in South Los Angeles, the
scene was one of devastation.
Entire blocks were burned out. Traffic signals no longer worked. Glass littered the streets. Police in riot gear, joined by National Guard units, stood guard at two post offices while thousands waited in line to get their government benefit checks.
At least one fire was set yesterday along the stretch -- in an abandoned beauty supply store on 57th Street and Vermont. A volunteer federal firefighter, who normally spends his days working as a fire inspector, struggled to put out the blaze with a lone fire hose until reinforcements from the Los Angeles Fire Department arrived. By that time, the building was fully engulfed, as was the adjacent shop.
But for every horror story of fire and violence, there seemed to be a tale of neighborliness or heroism. Cleanup efforts were under way along the northern part of Vermont Avenue, in the Mid-City, mid-Wilshire and Hollywood districts. There, volunteers from various churches, supplied with brooms and shovels and gloves, swept up glass and boarded up broken windows.
Not all the heroics had happy endings. In Inglewood, a 24-year-old Good Samaritan lost his life trying to save a burning store near his home. Kevin Evanshen died early yesterday morning after plunging through a weakened roof on Inglewood Boulevard while helping to put out flames in a looted check-cashing store, police said.
Other deaths ranged from opportunistic gang slayings to police shootouts with suspected thieves and snipers. The coroner's office also received an increasing number of burn victims as bodies were reclaimed from the rubble of hundreds of charred buildings.
In all, 10 people were killed in encounters with police, four were burned, one beaten, one stabbed and the rest were slain by gunshots that rang out sporadically in neighborhoods from Lennox to Long Beach.
People were able to move around in relative calm yesterday, for the first time in two days, thanks in large part to the heightened military presence.