IN A CHILLING, AND WIDELY unreported, coda to the rage that filled Los Angeles streets last spring, a woman sits in a banquet room in the Biltmore Hotel violently tapping her fingers on a dining table, slamming down her silverware repeatedly and trembling as L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley speaks. He came, he says, to pay respects to his friend Charles E. Lloyd, being honored that night by the Criminal Justice section of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. as Trial Lawyer of the Year.
Lloyd defended Korean-American grocer Soon Ja Du, convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting of a 15-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins. Her death, and Judge Joyce A. Karlin's decision to sentence Du to probation instead of prison, contributed, many believe, to the 1992 Los Angeles uprising.
The muttering woman at the table is Latasha's aunt, Denise. In the rear of the room, Joseph, Soon Ja Du's eldest son, sits with family friends. Judge Karlin is present, too. As Lloyd receives his award, telling the crowd he accepted it because "I know I deserve it"--throwing in that Karlin is the "greatest (judge) of them all"--Harlins rises.
"Charles Lloyd," her voice is surprisingly steady, "how can you have the unmitigated gall to--the audacity to celebrate the death of my niece?" Her voice suddenly spirals to a shriek and she turns to the filled banquet room. "All you people sitting, applauding over a child killer. All of you who have children. Latasha was defenseless. She didn't do \o7 nothing\f7 !"
"Sit down," yells the master of ceremonies from the stage, "or we will have to arrest you."
"You can have all the money in the world . . . ." she shrieks. The crowd is stunned, embarrassed. The rage that had leveled large swaths of the city just weeks earlier had entered the Crystal Ballroom. "This whole system is going to come tumbling down. . . . \o7 All your money is not going to cover what's going to happen, God be with me, as I stand here right nowwwwwwwww. . . .\f7 " The police escort her outside, her voice a human siren of pain piercing the hotel corridors.
Weeks later, a Korean-American premed student named Kenny Son sits in a Los Angeles church with a group of African-American and Korean-American Catholics trying to find common ground.
He had watched his friend get shot in the leg by a black teen-ager while the friend had defended his store during the riots, says Son, 22. "If I was to tell you what the African-American has done within the Korean community, you'd be outraged. My neighbor's mother--excuse me, I might get emotional," he sighs deeply--"was pregnant. She was managing an apartment building. Two African men came saying they'd like to see an apartment. They raped her, then they set her on fire.
"I came here with my mother in 1981," he tells the mostly black group. "We lived in a single apartment with rats and roaches. With the grace of God we were able to move up, literally, move up the rungs of the ladder. A lot of African-Americans condescend because they were born here and we are immigrants. If anything," his controlled tone gives way to anger, "we are more American than you guys are because we earned it. We came here seeking American democracy. African-Americans say they were forced here because of slavery. If you don't like it, \o7 leave\f7 ! Go back to Africa."
It was bad before, but in Los Angeles since the first verdicts in the Rodney King case, the notions of healing and coalition-building have become dirty words to many.
At a time when our piece of the planet reflects the same sort of social fissures and ethnic hostilities sweeping across Europe, how is it possible to heal profound wounds within and between ethnic groups?
Color and ethnicity are not the only sources of our tensions, of course; they have just seemed the most intractable. The hostility between Korean-Americans and African-Americans in Los Angeles is the crisis of the moment, but it also reflects a general circling of the wagons, a staking out of tribal positions. In this atmosphere, among the least aggressive acts may be the one of an L.A. motorist sporting a bumper sticker that read: \o7 "If I had known then what I know now, I would have picked my own cotton.\f7 "
Even among those who have devoted their life's work to "healing" and "conflict resolution," the phrases have started to sound hollow, because the concepts have become "Oprah-ized" on television and elsewhere. Conflict-resolution experts have descended upon the city in recent months with dog-and-pony shows hawking workshops, seminars and assorted techniques designed, they claim, to empower oppressed communities by giving them the skills to tackle issues of political, social and economic inequality. Many beleaguered local conflict-mediation experts greet the mediation carpetbaggers with skepticism.