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Child's plea is for adults to learn to 'play together' Anguished by riots, people strive to find way forward

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- Weary, yet resilient, the people who live and work in the South Central section of this city are struggling to get past their pain.

As the odor of smoke fades from the air and cleanup crews haul away the charred remains of the mom-and-pop stores, the homes, the vehicles, people everywhere talk about what needs to be done to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"It" is last week's riots, which erupted after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. What happened took the life out of much of South Central and of the dreams of many who live there.

Often people here say they felt as if they had lost a loved one; they suffer drastic mood swings that take them through periods of depression, hopelessness, anger and enthusiastic resolve.

Some of those touched by the violence talked about the future:

Adults need to learn

Shawana Adams, a chubby-faced 14-year-old, sees the answer to this country's racial tensions quite plainly:

"Adults need to learn to play together."

Only hours before angry mobs set fire to the liquor store across the street from her house, Shawana and 14 of her classmates from Foshay Junior High School traveled to a Hollywood park to make friends with children from other parts of the city and from vastly different backgrounds.

All of the 1,700 students at Foshay -- in the midst of riot-torn South Central -- are black or Hispanic. More than half speak a limited amount of English, and only a few dozen live above the poverty line.

Usually outspoken and gregarious, Shawana said she was nervous about getting off the bus once they arrived at the picnic. Her classmates -- many of whom rarely leave their neighborhood sat clutching their seats as well.

"We thought the other kids were going to look at us funny or treat us mean because we're from South Central," said Shawana, turning up her nose. "People usually think we're all just a bunch of criminals."

But with a strong push from their teacher, Elbert Gaither, the Foshay students ventured onto the playground. Within minutes, they were romping and giggling with new friends.

"What we learned is that sometimes we have ideas about what other kinds of people are like and we prejudge them," Mr. Gaither stressed to his students. "But when we mingle with them we realize that they are not much different than us. We all like to do the same things: spend time with our families, go shopping or out to eat."

"When it was over, I didn't want to go home," Shawana interjected.

The students came home to a war zone. Many said they cowered behind locked doors, trying to comfort themselves with thoughts of their day in the park.

'People warned me'

Unfortunately, said 53-year-old Rod Davis, South Central often snuffs out spirits like Shawana's. And, after the complete destruction of his auto repair shop, his own commitment to the neighborhood may never be rekindled.

Besides his family, Mr. Davis' Firestone shop at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and 52nd Street was his greatest source of pride and one of the most respected black-owned businesses in the district.

With a loan from Firestone, Mr. Davis, his wife and their son worked 14-hour days, six days a week to turn the store into a million-dollar-a-year business.

To him, the shop not only represented his life's dream but stood as tangible proof that black-owned businesses could thrive in black neighborhoods.

But on Wednesday night last week, as he watched television, Mr. Davis saw his dreams dissolve in flame.

"I could have bought a store anywhere in Los Angeles, but I felt an obligation to the inner city," Mr. Davis said. "People warned me that this could happen, and I just never believed it.

"It just makes me sick," he said, shaking his head.

Mr. Davis and his wife cannot decide whether they will rebuild their store. One day he receives dozens of checks from friends and customers begging him to rebuild. The next day he appears on the Oprah Winfrey show and is heckled by admitted looters who say his loss is nothing compared to the injustices they have suffered at the hands of white people.

"I had to sit there listening to our people justify this looting and destruction," said Mr. Davis, his eyes drooping from a lack of sleep. "Black people are always taking the stand that the white man has his foot on our necks and our boys can't do anything because they are neglected.

"Well, the man isn't coming onto our streets and burning down our businesses," he said. "We need to let these kids know that this kind of activity will not be tolerated."

'Life is not easy'

Richard Rhee did not wait for the police to protect his 24-hour grocery store in the heart of Koreatown.

As soon as he heard the rioters were beginning to seek out Korean-owned businesses, he called in all his employees, armed them with semiautomatic weapons and surrounded his store with rows of Volvos, Mercedes and rusted grocery trucks.

"I told them not to shoot anyone, just to fire in the air," said Mr. Rhee, who opened the California Market 10 years ago. "We fired hundreds of shots. It sounded like war."

But not one window was broken at the store. And because of Mr. Rhee's security force, the businesses that surround the market also emerged unscathed.

On Monday, Mr. Rhee opened his store to customers. For him, only time will erase the anxiety he felt those nights that he spent on the rooftop of his store.

But to cool the tensions between Korean merchants and their black customers, Mr. Rhee said blacks should try to learn from Korean business owners instead of lashing out at them. "They say that they can't find good jobs and can't save money," said a rumpled Mr. Rhee. "I came to this country 33 years ago and worked as a dishwasher. I didn't even speak the language.

"I'm not saying it's easy," he said. "But life is not easy. Nothing is going to be given to you without hard work.

"Blacks don't seem to realize that this is the most beautiful country in the world."

Blacks must rebuild

"Sweet" Alice Harris, 67, raised nine children in Watts, but she is known as the mother of the entire neighborhood.

She watched her neighborhood self-destruct in 1965. And after the verdict in the Rodney King case was announced, her senses warned her it was about to happen again.

She pleaded for calm from youths gathering on the corners.

"But they just told me, 'I'd rather die and go to hell than live here in this world with no justice.' "

The cycle will continue, Ms. Harris predicted, unless those young boys are given the chance to take part in ownership of their neighborhoods. This time, she said, blacks and Hispanics must rebuild what they plundered.

"Don't let these big corporations come in here and do all the rebuilding," she urged. "People need to feel like they are a part of the neighborhoods where they live. They won't destroy something that they build up."

'We have to stick together'

Perhaps those facing the greatest emotional turmoil over the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed are police officers like Bill Driver.

He has patrolled the streets of South Central Los Angeles for 20 years and considers many of the people there his friends.

But when those friends needed his help at the start of last week's riots, Mr. Driver sat at the 77th Street station -- the headquarters for police activity in South Central -- crushed by a sense of helplessness.

"If we had gone out there, we would have had to hurt someone, and people would have said we overreacted," said the 49-year-old officer, puffing on a cigarette. "And since we didn't rush out there people are criticizing us.

"We can't win."

A 77th Street colleague, Officer Donald Watkins, said that the lines of communication between the department and the community have been frayed for years and were nearly severed after the King beating.

"What happens is that when there's trouble, the community and the police come together to solve the problem," said Officer Watkins, a 14-year-veteran. "But then when the problem is solved, the community goes their way, and the police go another way."

"This time, we cannot let go of those ties," interjected Officer Al Arthur. "We have to stick together if we are going to make this peace last."

Love thy neighbor

James Wagoner, a 44-year-old father of four sons, said the only thing that can save his sons from the rage that consumes many black men in this country is an education. And the only thing that can save "The City of Angels" is divine intervention.

Mr. Wagoner lives in Compton, a small city just south of Los Angeles that was also smashed and burned by rioters. He sat his sons in front of the television throughout the riots so they could see every frame of destruction.

"Now they understand how hopeless and angry people can be without an education and good jobs," he said. "I told them that this is why they must always strive to better themselves.

"But I also tell them that even with an education, life is not going to be easy for them -- especially because they are black," he

said. "But when they get angry, they have to look to God for strength.

"God tells us to 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' It's a simple rule, but one that seems the hardest for people to follow."

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