LOS ANGELES - John McDaniel bristled with anger as he recalled the looting and arson that erupted a decade ago after four policemen who beat Rodney King were acquitted.
McDaniel, who owns the Sons of Africa barber shop at 103rd Street and Central Avenue in Watts, had to defend his shop against what he called "senseless" arson and looting after the April 29, 1992, verdict.
Today, Watts and the riot's epicenter in South Central Los Angeles continue to be troubled by poverty, unemployment and street gangs. "We don't need Rodney King, we need Dr. Martin Luther King," McDaniel said.
As ever, the Los Angeles Police Department remains a flash point in city politics, race relations and daily life in crime-ridden neighborhoods. On Tuesday, many in the black community were outraged by the city Police Commission's 4-1 vote to deny a second five-year term to Chief Bernard C. Parks, an action that had the support of first-term Mayor James K. Hahn, who is white.
Parks is an African-American like his predecessor, Willie L. Williams, who was appointed after the 1992 unrest that resulted in 54 deaths, more than 2,000 injuries and almost a billion dollars in property damage.
For many blacks in this town, having an African-American police chief was more than a victory symbol, it was reassurance that brutality complaints would not be ignored, as many felt they were under previous white chiefs. In 1965, police brutality sparked the Watts civil disorder, which caused 34 deaths, 4,000 arrests and $35 million in damage.
After African-Americans delivered 80 percent of their votes to Hahn in last summer's nonpartisan election, they were stunned when he announced in February that he did not support Parks' reappointment. The mayor said he disagreed with the chief's handling of community policing and personnel issues such as recruitment and retention that have left the department short by 1,200 police officers. The murder rate has also been spiking, up 52 percent this year.
"The mayor has abused his relationship with the black community, especially the clergy," said Brenda Shockley, the president of Community BUILD, a nonprofit development corporation, founded by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat. "When he asked for their support, they trusted him, they assumed he would support their issues and he knew reappointing Parks was very important to them."
Waters and basketball great Magic Johnson were among the black leaders who threw their support behind Hahn's mayoral bid. Now, Waters, who called the mayor's opposition to Parks "outrageous," says she'll work to unseat Hahn. Johnson says he might run for mayor in the next election in 2005.
City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who supported Hahn's opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, in the mayoral race, said Hahn appears to have suffered irreparable political damage by pressing for Parks' ouster. "His key message carriers in the African-American community have vowed to do everything they can to make sure he is not re-elected."
When Parks, 58, succeeded Williams in 1997, he inherited a troubled department.
In 1998, an investigation into the theft of six pounds of cocaine from the department's evidence room sparked the Rampart Division scandal, the worst in the department's history. The investigation turned up violent, drug-dealing rogue cops. In 2000, the city signed a consent decree with the Justice Department to avert a lawsuit over police reforms. Nine years earlier, a blue ribbon panel had recommended reforms after King's beating, but they had not been implemented. The consent decree requires the city's reform efforts to be evaluated by an independent monitor.
"The chief opposed the consent decree, and I am extremely disappointed now that the department is falling short in its implementation of reform," Hahn said.
Parks' supporters say Hahn's opposition to the chief was politically motivated, and blamed the police union. Parks clashed with the union over a number of issues ranging from work hours to the system for investigating citizens' complaints against officers. Under Parks, the complaints were closely scrutinized, and disciplinary action against officers increased.
Some of Hahn's most vocal supporters for dumping Parks came from Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Latinos have become increasingly influential in Los Angeles over the past decade as their population has risen by 24 percent and black residents have dropped by 15 percent.
Today, the city is 46.5 percent Latino and 11.2 percent black. The shift is very obvious in South Central Los Angeles, where Latinos are buying homes as black homeowners head to more affluent areas or leave the city.
Monsignor John Moretta, whose parish is in Boyle Heights, said there are 38 known street gangs in the area. During the first three months of the year, there were 17 homicides in Boyle Heights, three times the number during the same period last year.
Moretta blames the spike in homicides on a departmental policy that has resulted in the loss of officers who are experienced in fighting gang violence. Moretta also said there were too few officers on the streets.
"Why do we have to die before we get attention?" he asked. "Parks ignores the drumbeat of the community; his attitude is it's my way or the highway."
Unlike many in the black community, McDaniel, the Watts barber, agrees with the decision to replace Parks. McDaniel says there has been a large increase in gang-related violence in Watts and that the police department hasn't done enough about it. "He [Parks] should go. I'm tired of seeing the police helicopter flying around because there's been a shooting," McDaniel said.
Aqueela Sherrills, a community activist who works with street gangs in Watts, said Parks has done an "excellent" job because he's let the line officers know they "can't do any damn thing they want to do in the name of LAPD."
Sherrills, a former member of the Crips street gang, helped to negotiate a truce between gangs in 1992 that sharply curbed violence.
He said the Rampart Division scandal should have been called the "Rampant Division scandal" because police officers committed the same offenses all over the city. It was common for officers to beat confessions out of gang members. Innocent people went to jail because the police were more interested in clearing the books than in finding the real perpetrators.
"They don't harass people as much now, and internal affairs is following up on community complaints," he said. "In the old days, they'd just throw your complaint in the trash can. Parks has shaken up the department; that's why he lost the support of the police union."
Less than a year after taking office, Hahn has managed to "paint himself into a corner," said Monica Lozano, the president of La Opinion, a Spanish-language daily. She said pulling the rug out from under Parks had angered the black community, while Latinos have not forgotten the negative campaign he ran against Villaraigosa, a former board president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Hahn ads depicting Villaraigosa as being soft on crime showed a fuzzy image of the candidate and a crack pipe. The wounds from the campaign haven't healed in the Latino community, Lozano said.
Shockley said Hahn's negative campaign should have sparked outrage in the black community. "He pandered to the most racist and most biased white voters in the city," she said. Instead, Hahn got four of five black votes as well as 60 percent of the white vote, much of it from conservatives. Political observers attributed Hahn's support among blacks to the lingering respect for Hahn's late father, Kenneth Hahn, who represented South Los Angeles on the county board of supervisors for more than 40 years
Raphael Sonenshein, a California State University, Fullerton professor, said it is too early to write Hahn's political obituary because the mayor's race is more than three years away.
"Had he gone the other way on Parks, he would have had just as much trouble with the other parts of his coalition; the police union would have been screaming," Sonenshein said.
Sonenshein said Magic Johnson is a "powerful businessman and a big political player," but if Parks' successor does a good job, Johnson would be hard pressed to make Parks' ouster a campaign issue in 2005.
The flap over Parks is a hot issue now, Sonenshein said, but it's likely to be overshadowed by the most important election in the city's history. In November, voters are expected to decide whether the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and the harbor area can secede from the city. If Hahn doesn't find a way to keep the city together, "everything is academic," Sonenshein said.
A few miles away from the Sons of Africa barbershop is the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues in South Central Los Angeles - the site where live television captured trucker Reginald Denny being beaten and smashed in the head with a slab of concrete in 1992. One of his assailants did a victory dance as Denny lay unconscious in the street.
Today, an auto supply store, a liquor store and a couple of gas stations sit at the intersection, which shows no sign of its infamous past. In this part of town, and in much of black Los Angeles, few use the word "riot" to describe what happened nearly a decade ago. It goes by names such as "the uprising" or "the rebellion." No matter what it's called, it cut a swath of destruction from South Central Los Angeles to Hollywood.
Charlie Taylor read a newspaper after finishing a meal at Art's World Famous Chili Dogs, which sits near the intersection. Autographed photos of Sammy Davis Jr., Laurel and Hardy, and Marilyn Monroe adorned the walls of the small restaurant, a fixture since 1939, when the neighborhood was white.
Asked about the situation with the police chief, Taylor said Parks' opponents threw monkey wrenches into whatever he did, so they could force him out.
"I believe police harassment was an issue in 1992," he said, asserting that violence had erupted at the intersection back then only after police had roughed up some neighborhood residents. "It's an issue now, and it will continue to be an issue."