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The Bradley-Gates DMZ : Civic Center Mall Between City Hall, Parker Center Abuzz With Talk About Rift

April 04, 1991|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 17 years, Anita Sloan has run a dry cleaning shop on the Los Angeles Mall, a collection of outdoor restaurants and shops that sits squarely between City Hall and Parker Center, headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department. She cleans the clothes of City Hall clerks and cops alike, along with those of some of the thousands of government employees who compose the Civic Center's work force.

On Wednesday, the day after Mayor Tom Bradley called upon Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to resign, a City Hall worker came into Sloan's shop wearing a blue ribbon--a sign of support for the police chief. The woman, an African-American, told Sloan the ribbon was causing her grief.

"She was going to take it off," Sloan said. "She was having a lot of people tell her: 'How can you be with the chief when you're black?' So she took it off and put it in her pocket."

Thus the battle between two of the city's most powerful public figures has filtered down to the rank-and-file--the anonymous "trench workers," as one man described himself--who keep both the city and the Police Department functioning. Perhaps nowhere were the tensions more readily apparent Wednesday than at the Los Angeles Mall, which lately has served as something of a Civic Center demilitarized zone.

Each day at lunchtime, hundreds of City Hall workers cross Main Street and descend the escalators to the west side of the mall. Those who work at Parker Center flow in from the east, across Los Angeles Street and down two flights of stairs.

Among this crowd on Wednesday was Gregg Wilkins, a manager of special projects for the Los Angeles Department of General Services. On his way back to work after a quick stop at the bank, Wilkins said the police beating of Rodney G. King, and the mayor's feud with Gates, has dominated City Hall discourse.

"People talk about it," he said, "at break time, at lunch, in the hallways: 'Do you think he'll go? What do you think will happen?' It's sort of like observing the Lakers: 'Do you think they can do it this year?' It's just part of the show."

But the 16-year city employee says the mayor's battle with the chief doesn't really make much difference to him. As the supervisor in charge of energy conservation, environmental safety and earthquake preparedness, he's worried about "the real problems that the city faces," such as how he will implement his programs on an ever-tightening budget.

Bernard Heimberger, a civilian photographer for the Police Department, felt much the same. "We have a job to do and it's a job we need to get on with," Heimberger said. "Crime is not going to go away while we figure this thing out."

The way Heimberger sees it, the controversy over the beating of King "got politicized too quickly." He is not alone in this view; many of those interviewed Wednesday--City Hall employees and LAPD workers both--said they believe that Bradley had his own political future in mind when he called for Gates to quit.

"Bradley wants to keep his office," said Scott Hurwitz, a police fingerprint identification expert, as he picked through boxes of baseball cards at the mall's Sav-On Pharmacy. "He's using Gates as a scapegoat."

"I think it's political motivations," said a city planner who asked not to be identified. "I think the mayor is going to be running again and he's trying to distance himself from the problem."

While the barbs continued to fly back and forth between City Hall and Parker Center, the people who came to the mall to eat lunch, or have their shoes reheeled, or their clothes dry-cleaned were, for the most part, just trying to get on with their jobs. For some, it has been more difficult than for others.

One man, a communications electrician who is employed by the city but assigned to the LAPD, said the flap has created a ticklish situation for him: "Who do you serve?" he asked. "Your boss or your customer?"

Meanwhile, a clerk-typist who works in Gates' office said she cannot seem to escape the controversy. "It's upsetting that they've let it go so far," she said. "The morale, even among the civilian employees, is just not the same. It affects everybody."

Like this woman, many of those who spoke did so on the condition of anonymity--especially those who work for the Police Department. There was a sense among them that this issue is too hot, that having one's name in the newspaper might cause unnecessary hassles on the job. Some covered their name tags as they spoke; others would not talk at all.

Their fear spoke forcefully to the tensions created by a struggle between the two most powerful figures on either side of the mall.

One man walked briskly away from a reporter, his plastic Police Department identification card flapping against his shirt. "I don't have nothing to do with that!" he hollered over his shoulder. "That's none of my business."

A group of four uniformed police officers, on their way back to work after a lunch at Bob's Big Boy, were similarly reticent--although somewhat more jovial. "We can't talk about it," said one who identified himself only by his nameplate, Valdez. "But we support the chief."

As for whether Gates should resign, the Los Angeles Mall crowd is apparently undecided. At a telephone booth on the first floor of City Hall East--a city office building that opens onto the mall--someone had scrawled the words "Gates must go" in black marker. Underneath, someone else had written in ink: "So must Bradley."

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