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Riots Are Violent Reruns for the Veterans of Watts : Survivors: They felt their past come full circle. But many acted far differently this time.

May 04, 1992|STEPHEN BRAUN and RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In those three hours, Blake forgot the fears that had paralyzed her during the Watts riots, emboldened by the camaraderie of her neighbors, black and Latino families who live around the center.

"In Watts, I was simply afraid," she says. "I reached out for the security of my family. We stayed inside and watched it on TV. This time, my friends helped me feel stronger. I felt secure with them. We all came forward on our own. And we felt strong enough to work together. When it was over, I just wanted to stand back and be proud."

It was shortly after 10 p.m., three hours after the riots had begun, that Blake and the others joined in their fire line. Two young neighbors, Richard Flagg and Alex Drake, ran from door to door down 53rd Street, alerting residents and rounding them up to save the center.

Neighbors brought garden hoses and screwed them together, creating two long hoses out of six shorter lengths. Snaking the hoses into an entrance, Blake and the others took up lengths of the hoses, holding them aloft as flames shot inches away from the center's south wall. The heat was so intense that it peeled paint off the wall. Glass popped from the windows above them, raining shards on their heads.

Finally, after midnight, several fire engines pulled up and took over. The neighbors watched until the hot spots were doused. When Blake left, the auto yard was a pile of smoking embers. Several cars parked in its lot were burnt to the metal. Blackened chunks of wood lay in piles with twisted piping.

In the days since the fire, Blake has been back at work in the center, supervising relief efforts and joined by a cadre of volunteers gathering packages of diapers, cans of soup and fruit, bags of soup beans and bread for those without food.

She ushers visitors out to the south wall, where she proudly looks over the ruins of the auto yard and narrates the tale of how the center was saved--and how she became unafraid.

The Rev. Frank J. Higgins peered out a window from his Watts church toward the smoldering remains of a storefront two blocks away. "That verdict rattled the bones of our mothers and fathers in the grave," he intoned in a pained voice.

Pastor of Trueway Baptist Church for 31 years, Higgins, 62, has served as the conscience for three generations of the black community's poor. He was there in August, 1965, when the city exploded around him.

On the night the Watts riots erupted, he was driving home from church when another minister honked his horn and asked him to stop. Soon the pair were standing on a dirt lot at the corner of Imperial Highway and 118th Street, a few blocks from where youths had begun attacking motorists.

"The LAPD had set up a command post at that corner and people from the neighborhood were starting to gather," Higgins said. "The police were standing four abreast, slapping their batons in their hands in the hope of instilling fear.

"I asked the officer in charge for a bullhorn thinking maybe I could help disperse the crowd, but he just placed his hand on my stomach and said, 'We can handle it.' I knew right then that it was going to be bad."

Within minutes, he said, people started throwing rocks and bottles, and the police at the corner were forced to break and run. For the young black minister, it was the beginning of a sort of spiritual triage. Over the course of the next several days and nights, he tried to persuade anyone who would listen that violence was not the way.

In the 27 years since Watts, Higgins has continued to preach against violence, but his memories of the revolt left him with the knowledge that men of peace are helpless to stop such a spasm, that only after the fury of the streets is spent can they do any good.

Last Wednesday, an hour before the jury in Simi Valley came back into the courtroom with a verdict, an older, more realistic Higgins again drove away from his church after admonishing the volunteers who operate the homeless shelter there to stay inside.

Convinced that a suburban jury would not find the police defendants guilty, and certain there would be violence, he went home, got into bed and turned on the television.

Throughout Watts, the streets were strangely quiet that afternoon. The trial "was like the World Series and Super Bowl rolled into one," Higgins said. "People were glued to their television sets."

Afterward, when those angered by the outcome recoiled in anger, the pastor's voice was absent from those beseeching calm in the community. Instead, he waited for the riots to end, and the days of recovery to come, when he might again play a role.

"The years of neglect directed at blacks have taught me something: I no longer fantasize in the dark," he said. "Even the Scriptures speak of a Jubilee Year when the slaves must be set free."

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