In the first night of the riot, a building was burning a half-block away from Pastor Cecil L. (Chip) Murray's First AME Church, home of Los Angeles' oldest black congregation. The fire, he recalls, "was burning like Dante's inferno" threatening the 5,000 parishioners and community leaders gathered in response to Murray's call for peace and justice.
"We felt utterly helpless standing there, those 5,000 people at the church meeting," the 62-year-old pastor said, his booming baritone reduced to a sad whisper. "Soon the palm branches and the fronds would catch; it would leap across the street. We would be consumed."
Murray, 62, an ex-combat pilot and Claremont Ph.D., who has led his congregation for 15 years, does not easily accommodate the sense of feeling helpless. When told the firemen would only come if guaranteed protection, he organized a group of more than 100 men to stand between them and the rock-throwing rioters for over three hours. There was no blood shed.
All in a night's work for someone who believes, "The church exists to set the moral climate and moral program" for the community. But those are not the words of some commercialized and ever-safe television preacher. Murray has a long history in the trenches of his mid-City community, fighting to protect and educate a flock that extends far beyond his 7,500 parishioners. Some of them are famous--like Arsenio Hall, who, during the riots, had Murray close his show with a prayer for tolerance. But many of his followers are poor. These people are his main concern because, he explains, "It really takes an arrogant black person to fail to see that 'There, but for the grace of God, go I.' "
Murray is no pie-in-the-sky ameliorator of his people's discontents. His capacity for outrage over the death blows of racism are never muted; they have proved to be ever channeled and thoughtful. The night the jury in Simi Valley debated their verdict in the Rodney G. King case, Murray, in a terribly prescient sermon, warned "Be cool . . . . Even in anger be cool. And if you're gonna burn something down, don't burn down the house of the victims, brother! Burn down the Legislature! Burn down the courtroom. Burn it down by voting, brother!"
His words did not still the night following the verdict. And while he understood the rage boiling up--he did not condone it: "Under no circumstances will we pretend that the looting, the burning, the arson are excusable. They are totally inexcusable. And in the same breath that we say that, we must say this miscegenation of justice in the court system in Simi Valley was injurious to us all. It is inexcusable. And the system that condones it is inexcusable. So while we're handing out blame, guilt and default, let's make sure we are an equal-opportunity employer. The blame belongs to more than just the people burning." It is sad that, only after nights of death and destruction, men of power might finally pay serious attention to Murray's message and to the community that he so obviously loves.
Question: Where are we this Sunday after days and nights of rioting?
Answer: By Sunday, the armed might of the state will have been demonstrated, and we will be at a different level, I tend to think, one of smoldering ashes and smoldering resentments.
Q: Do you see the violence and the fires as having an economic base?
A: I think everything in history is pulled by an economic engine: Our train of thought is pulled by an economic engine. To pretend that you can be poor and depressed and poor and racially discriminated against without an explosion sooner or later--that is Disneyland. There is no such existence.
Then, too, what's happened among our poor in this city and in America at large is we have a rising level of expectations. As long as they weren't exposed to something better, then you could keep a slave with a plantation mentality. But then when the plantation-mentality slave sees Paree, how you going to keep him down on the farm? People need a way to live. Even our middle-income people need a way to live. Apparently, our lawmakers need a way to live, given the way they've cheated on their check-writing; and our billionaires who pay no taxes.
Q: So you're saying this was not just rage over a racist verdict?
A: People don't burn down a city over a singular unique event. They burn down a city over 200 years of events.
Q: But the mood in poorer urban communities seems to have become particularly desperate in the last few years.
A: I quite agree with you. For the vast one-third below the poverty line, things are worse than ever. You can't sustain yourself on $6,000 a year, $15,000 a year, $18,000 a year. Now someone will say, "Does that give me the right to go out and burn?" Of course not. And we're not talking about right--we're talking about reality. The people have been fed sour grapes and their teeth are set on edge.