With devastating suddenness, the Rodney G. King verdicts have put both Ventura County and Simi Valley on the map. In the view of critics nationwide, the county has shown itself to be a rural bastion of racism so insidious that it could block out the truth.
"I've won a thousand dollars in bets because I predicted this," outspoken Los Angeles defense lawyer Stephen Yagman said after the not-guilty verdicts. "Who in the world would expect a bunch of Ku Klux Klanners in Simi Valley to find police guilty who had beaten up an African-American?"
Such comments have been repeated so often since a Ventura County jury in Simi Valley cleared four white Los Angeles policemen in the King beating that they have taken on the aura of truth.
Even state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita), a former Los Angeles police chief who has represented parts of Ventura County for years, suggested that it could have been a mistake to put a black prosecutor in front of a predominantly white Ventura County jury.
Local officials, though expressing surprise at the King verdicts, have jumped to defend Ventura County's reputation, insisting that the county is no more racist than the nation as a whole and that it represents the best of America: strong families, proportionally high home ownership, low crime, respect for law and order, civic involvement and, to a large degree, racial harmony.
"This is a very emotional issue," Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) said Friday from his hometown. "It gets very personal."
Gallegly, a former Simi Valley mayor, sat next to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson on an airplane to Los Angeles Thursday evening, and the congressman said he tried to convince Jackson that he was wrong about Simi Valley and Ventura County.
"I told him that we have a great deal of pride on how we're viewed from outside," Gallegly said. "I told him that I very much resented the statements from individuals, many of whom had never even been in Simi Valley . . . and that a lot of inaccurate finger-pointing is going on."
Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) demanded an apology from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), a political ally for years, for comparing racial injustice in Simi Valley to that in Mississippi.
As for Ventura County juries, a number of local prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges have maintained that the panels have been scrupulously fair in cases with racial overtones.
"I'm proud to be a jurist of this county," Superior Court Presiding Judge Steven Z. Perren said. "And I have no hesitation about the fairness of the people who are citizens of this county."
Yet, the King verdicts have prompted reflection even among those who have made it a practice to defend the system here. Many say the verdicts show that it is time to heighten the county's sensitivity to racial issues.
Assistant Sheriff Richard Bryce, whose department was shaken last year by 11 black deputies' claims of harassment and institutional bias, said this county may be racially insensitive to blacks in particular.
"There is not the degree of sensitivity or experience with black issues that there might be in other counties like Los Angeles," he said.
And Oxnard Police Chief Robert Owens, who is white, said he has felt the barbs of racism against his city since he arrived in 1970.
"Ventura County has not come out of the closet on the race issue," Owens said. "We've not openly discussed race at all. There is a feeling, almost a hostility, among most other Ventura County cities that Oxnard has some built-in flaws because of its racial and ethnic makeup."
By and large, racism is subtle here and not as bad as it was 35 years ago when "No Negros or Dogs Allowed" signs could be found in some businesses, black leaders said.
Still, it has only been 20 years since a county cultural heritage group considered allowing the site of a black man's turn-of-the-century lynching to be identified as "Nigger Canyon," said Fred Jones, former president of the NAACP Ventura County chapter.
And there has been a resurgence in racial incidents as Ventura County--still 66% white--has adjusted to being more racially mixed, minority leaders said. The fast-growing Latino and Asian communities now make up 26% and 5% of the county's population, respectively. The black proportion has held steady at about 2%.
"The Rodney King verdicts have verified the fact that we have a lot of work to do in addressing the issue of police abuse and racism here at home," said Marcos Vargas, executive director of El Concilio, a Latino social service organization.
"Oftentimes we become complacent because the racism here appears to be isolated and less overt," Vargas said. "But we're seeing it as a very real part of the daily life of children at school, people in the workplace and in the government policies."
Indeed, in recent years Ventura County has been marked by a spate of racial incidents and controversies that have divided communities.