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August 30, 1992|CHARLES SOLOMON

DREAMS ON FIRE, EMBERS OF HOPE: From the Pulpits of Los Angeles After the Riots edited by Ignacio Castuera (Chalice Press/ Christian Board of Publication/ PO Box 179/ St. Louis/ MO 63166-0179: $10.99, original paperback); THE L.A. RIOTS: What Really Happened and Why It Will Happen Again edited by Don Hazen (Institute for Alternative Journalism: $11.95, illustrated, original paperback); UNDERSTANDING THE RIOTS: Los Angeles Before and After the Rodney King Case by the Staff of the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times: $14.95, illustrated, original paperback). Four months after the most serious civil disturbances in American history, people are still struggling to decipher what occurred and why. "Dreams of Fire, Embers of Hope" records the passionate reactions of community leaders ordinarily ignored by the news media who found themselves thrust into the glaring spotlight immediately after the riots. "The answer to our problems," Rabbi Steven Jacobs notes, "will not come from a charismatic leader. The answer will come from you and from me and from us doing significant work together, doing our part in the greater whole."

The accounts from the alternative papers represented in "Inside the L. A. Riots" offer some powerful first-person impressions, but they tend to lard their accounts with lists of cliched villains ("million dollar" news anchors; the "real looters" who caused the Savings and Loan Crisis) and with facile references to apartheid, lynchings and the intifada . In contrast to this finger-pointing, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, along with writers Andrew Goodwin, Carol Tice, Jonathan Marshall and Jeff Faux, offer devastating reports on the number of jobs lost in Los Angeles in recent decades, the Reagan and Bush administrations' mishandling of the nation's poverty and drug problems, and the often dubious television coverage of the riots. They paint a disquieting portrait of a city that burned because, like Wagner's Valhalla, it was built on power tainted with the curse of injustice.

"Understanding the Riots" is a compilation of straightforward news stories from the Times, supplemented with the first-person recollections of field reporters. The dramatic color photographs of the fires, looters, National Guardsmen, armed Korean merchants, et al. recall the terror of the events, but the most moving image remains the agonized face of Rodney King as he made his famous plea for an end to the violence.

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