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Will the Pleas for Peace Be Heard This Time?

April 12, 1993|GEORGE RAMOS

It dominates every conversation these days. "So, what do you think?" the line goes. "You think there's going to be another riot?"

It's a question that many Latinos are pondering as the jury deliberates in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial in Los Angeles federal court. After all, contrary to initial perceptions that last year's unrest was a black uprising, Latinos were both victims and vandals in the violence.

An estimated 40% of the businesses destroyed or damaged were Latino-owned. Nineteen of the more than 52 people killed in riot-related violence were Latinos. And more than half of the 15,000 arrested were Latinos, including 1,200 suspected illegal immigrants.

The concern was underscored Friday at three news conferences specifically aimed at Latinos, asking for restraint from violence. "Please remain calm," pleaded Angelina Juarez, whose clothing store in the Pico-Union district was destroyed. "We don't want to suffer the consequences of an unjust verdict."

Will the pleas be heard?

In recent days, I've talked to more than two dozen leaders, activists and average folks who shared their thoughts about pride, fear and a belief that last spring's widespread violence won't be repeated.

Rogelio Avila and Jose Anguiano were pretty excited the other day as they carried a 19-inch TV set out of an electronics store in east Hollywood, crowing about the $230 they had paid for it. "Pretty good deal," they told others as they loaded the set into a beat-up Toyota.

A scruffy-looking vagrant pushing a shopping cart overheard their boasting and promptly chewed them out. "Dummies, why didn't you guys wait for the riot to start?" the man screamed. "You could have gotten the TV for free!"

Yeah, the two Salvadorans admitted after exchanging sheepish shrugs, they could have done that. But they wanted to do the right thing. They think there'll be no trouble. But just in case, they rushed to get their purchase in case the store, as they put it, "suddenly runs out."

The electronics store on Santa Monica Boulevard is in an area where heavy looting and destruction occurred. A drugstore across the street was burned to the ground last year.

"My brother was picked up for looting (last year)," Avila volunteered. "He was caught up in all the wrongdoing. That's not right. People shouldn't do that.

"My campanero and I decided we won't do that. I don't want anybody--the cops, gringos, anybody-- saying this TV doesn't belong to us. It does!"

Sgt. Al Ruvalcaba, a 24-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, has his doubts about the LAPD's preparedness should large-scale trouble break out.

"I really can't say we're fully prepared," he admitted several days before the King jury started its deliberations.

That's at odds with the public comments of his superiors, who predict that there won't be a repeat of last year's embarrassment when LAPD was slow to meet the widespread looting, arson and killing.

Ruvalcaba, nevertheless, contended that protective masks haven't been passed out to everyone detailed for riot duty at the Wilshire station, where he is assigned. Also, some officers, including himself, have yet to get the riot training the LAPD brass said they would receive in anticipation of more trouble.

He also thinks the planned mass mobilization may be flawed.

"You don't know if (the LAPD's) planned mass mobilization will work. You should mobilize a bureau (comprised of several patrol stations) to see how it works. But that hasn't been done. You don't know how good a plan is until you try it out."

So, what does he think about this time around?

"The way (trial testimony) abruptly came to an end, you have to be prepared for a hung jury (in which jurors cannot reach an unanimous verdict)," he said. "A lot of people won't be happy with that."

Columnist Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News, who has covered his share of riots ranging from L.A.'s last year to the racial trouble in the Crown Heights and Washington Heights sections of the Big Apple, has returned to Los Angeles. He's been here for more than a week this time around, trying to figure out if the city will do it again.

"I think not," he said. "There's so much at stake, both for the good guys and the bad guys. There'll be a lot more caution this time around. Riots always happen when you don't expect them.

"I was talking to a man at Normandie and Florence, and he said: 'Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.' And he's right."

I hope so.

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