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Although Verdicts in the 1st King Beating Case Triggered Violence, They Also Led to. . . : A Minority's Political Awakening : County Report / Changing Black Mood

April 11, 1993|TIMOTHY WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the aftermath of the first Rodney G. King beating trial in Simi Valley last April, the Rev. John Baylor launched a series of forums on racism that have continued throughout the year so frustrated Ventura residents could vent their feelings and work together for racial unity.

In Oxnard, black political activists responded to the verdicts with an unprecedented drive to register voters which, some of them believe, helped propel the second black in county history onto a city council.

And throughout the year in Simi Valley, black groups helped organize rallies against white supremacists seeking to recruit new members there since the trial ended.

Since the verdicts of a Ventura County jury sparked widespread rioting and soiled the county's image last April, the traditionally low-key black community has become increasingly activist.

Now, as a second jury deliberates the King civil rights case in Los Angeles, many Ventura County blacks have begun to see the entire King episode as a turning point in what amounts to the political awakening of a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly white county.

"Before, we didn't have the kind of awareness, the level of communication, the kind of networking that you see now," said Andrew Rucker, vice president of the tricounty African-American Chamber of Commerce in Oxnard. "The riots forced us to become closer."

And though the gains have been modest, last spring's anger has brought greater unity to a community of less than 15,000 that makes up slightly more than 2% of the county's population, scattered among 10 cities with few common institutions and little history of activism.

Black churches in Ventura and Oxnard were among the first to respond.

"Some of the pastors got together after the verdicts and decided that as a group we hadn't been vocal enough on a number of issues, including racism in the county," said Baylor, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in Ventura. "There was a lot of frustration and anger in the community and I thought people might start burning things up."

Baylor presided over four town meetings, three of which attracted 150 people to his Anacapa Street church. Other ministers followed with similar forums in Oxnard, Camarillo and Oak View.

Additionally, Oxnard's Bethel AME Church collected baby food and other supplies for riot-torn areas of Los Angeles, and the Ventura Ministers Assn. drafted an open letter which called for "non-tolerance for racism" and which detailed hate crimes against religious minorities and homosexuals as well as ethnic groups in the county.

Meanwhile, the county's branch of the Black American Political Assn. of California began planning a voter registration drive last spring among Oxnard's blacks and Latinos aimed at sending school board member Bedford Pinkard to the City Council and electing others who had a rapport with the black community.

The outcome was 600 additional voters, a factor--if even a small one--in a win for Pinkard and in the first election of a Latino mayor and the fourth Latino council member in the city's history.

Said Pinkard, "African-Americans in Ventura County have never been active in politics, but we're hoping this will be a door opener for them."

The voter registration effort in Oxnard, combined with an even larger drive among the city's Latinos, was an important step toward the kind of racial coalition needed to give the county's black population more political clout, some leaders believe.

Latinos account for about 27% of the county's population and about 54% of Oxnard's population. While the black population in Oxnard is greater than in any other Ventura County city, it still amounts to only 5% of the city's population.

"There are so few African-Americans in the county that it's very important for us to form coalitions, especially with Latinos because a lot of our interests and concerns are the same," said Irene Pinkard, president of the Ventura County chapter of the Black American Political Assn. of California, vice president of Oxnard College and the wife of Bedford Pinkard.

Lonnie Miramontes, director of community services for the Latino advocacy group El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, said Pinkard's election was part of a long history of cooperation between Latinos and blacks.

"We've always worked together in Ventura County because we know we won't make it without each other," Miramontes said. "It's good to be proud of your cultural heritage, but society works in strength."

BAPAC, primarily a political education group, has also expanded its mentorship program for black youths, which includes counseling, tutoring and tours of black colleges, and has even started teaching black youths how to avoid confrontations when stopped by police.

But, in the aftermath of the King case, the black community has not focused solely on political unity and education. The last year has also seen a more confrontational posture by the county's NAACP leadership toward local law enforcement.

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