African-American leaders in Ventura County backed the guilty verdicts handed down Saturday in the Rodney King civil rights trial, although some argued that the evidence supported the conviction of all four Los Angeles police officers in the federal case.
Up at dawn and glued to their television sets, residents said they were eager to view the culmination of the legal proceedings triggered nearly a year ago when a Ventura County jury acquitted the same four officers in a state trial held at the East County Courthouse in Simi Valley.
The acquittals sparked three days of deadly rioting in Los Angeles and earned Ventura County a national reputation as racist.
"I'm very, very happy about what happened today," said John Hatcher, president of the Ventura County chapter of the NAACP. "I wish the jury had gone farther, but I knew in my heart that only two would be found guilty. Now I hope those two get jail time. I hope they put them in prison with some of the same people they sent to jail."
Added James Hardy, president of the Tri-County African-American Chamber of Commerce: "I think it was a good verdict and I think the jury came up with a pretty good decision. It was pretty obvious from the start that those officers crossed the line."
Police departments throughout the county were at a "state of readiness" Saturday after the verdicts were announced.
The Sheriff's Department established a command center at the county Government Center in Ventura in case of trouble locally or in case additional law enforcement officers and firefighters were needed in Los Angeles. The cities of Oxnard, Ventura and Simi Valley nearly doubled the size of their street patrols.
Simi Valley Mayor Greg Stratton said extra officers would remain on the job through the weekend.
"While I sense everything is quiet, who knows what will happen," he said. "Just in case someone gets overexuberant in their celebrations, we are going to keep high visibility and readiness."
After last year's trial, Simi Valley City Hall was inundated with angry and threatening phone calls. A local newspaper received a call from someone threatening to kill a dozen Simi Valley residents. A hotel in town received a bomb threat, and local gun stores sold dozens of firearms and hundreds of boxes of ammunition.
Although the threat of violence did not materialize, Stratton said the city's image was unfairly tarnished.
"The whole issue of it being a racist decision by a Simi Valley jury was misleading and false from the start," Stratton said. "We had to get this second trial behind us in order to put the first trial to rest. I'm just glad the whole thing is over."
On Saturday, a few hundred yards from the courthouse where the verdicts in the state trial were issued, about 20 representatives of the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People spread out blankets, roasted chickens and passed out plates.
They were having a picnic.
NAACP representatives said the organization's Saturday School program, which offers weekend classes on black history and other subjects for about 60 students from throughout the county, always holds its annual picnic in Rancho Tapo Community Park next to the courthouse.
It was only a coincidence that the event fell on the same day that verdicts in the civil rights trial were announced, said Greta Vaught, co-director of the Saturday School program.
Vaught and others in attendance said they did not want to dwell on either of the trials or the riots spawned by last year's verdicts.
"We're here on a more positive note," Vaught said. "Right now, it's the youth that we are concerned about."
Vaught said that instructors for the Saturday School program have tried to turn the King beating saga into a lesson for their African-American students, by encouraging the young people to further their education so that one day they will be able to help improve the legal system.
Sharon Cooper, the other co-director of the program, said she thought the conviction of only two of the four officers struck "a happy medium."
And she said the latest verdicts are easier to explain to African-American children than those delivered by the Ventura County jury last year.
The children "are seeing equality," Cooper said. "They're seeing a little bit of justice being done. It makes them feel more positive about themselves."