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TV REVIEW : Trying to Make Sense of a Divided City

April 27, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER

The Los Angeles unrest a year ago has become a defining moment, but with no one definition. Everyone knows that nothing will ever be quite the same again here, but no one knows what the changes will look like.

That is because the causes of the bloodiest civil disturbance in 20th-Century America cannot even be agreed upon. And the most dramatic media monument yet on this disagreement must be "Frontline's" ambitious 90-minute "L.A. Is Burning: Five Reports From a Divided City" (at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15; 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24).

You can feel the sprawl of the city getting to the minds of the quintet of reporter-observers who try to make sense of the chaos that ravaged L.A. in the wake of the Simi Valley verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial. And yet, while writer John Edgar Wideman and community activist Susan Anderson are in South-Central, L.A. Weekly reporter and KCET's "Life and Times" co-host Ruben Martinez is in East L.A. and Pico-Union, Edward Chang is in Koreatown and Times staffer Tim Rutten is in the hillside areas of Brentwood and Los Feliz, whole swathes of the L.A. area are ignored.

Long Beach, for example, which was rattled with tremendous fury after the Simi verdicts, is never even mentioned. Except for Rutten's brief visit to the Windsor Hills neighborhood, L.A.'s vast, multi-ethnic middle class is invisible in this report.

Nevertheless, class--the dirty, unspoken word of American politics--is at the heart of the program's discussion. Rutten talks about "the boundaries" of the town coming down last April. Martinez notes that the socioeconomic ills that plague blacks also affect Latinos, who were 51% of those arrested during the unrest--but who still get about 10% of media coverage. Normalcy, Wideman observes, "means for some people the impact of police pressure, no jobs, terrible stores."

And if the despair of a downtrodden underclass was one of the unrest's causes, this uniformly liberal group of observers are sometimes unwilling--or perhaps afraid--to acknowledge a more disturbing phenomenon that boldly announces itself to "Frontline's" cameras.

No one in the L.A. print press wrote more perceptively and indelibly about April '92 than the Weekly's Martinez, and yet he can't come to terms with the comments on the looting and burning from a young Latino man he meets on the street. "And why were Latinos involved too? What reasons?" Martinez asks. "For fun. Everybody was doing it," the young man answers.

Cut to Martinez commenting on "the recipe for the riot" as hopelessness, despair, crime, drugs, gangs and police abuse.

But "fun"? That is just too hard to swallow--which is understandable, given that Martinez and his four cohorts are obviously sensitive, caring, deeply affected reporters (Martinez most of all, perhaps, since he continues to report from the streets where he grew up).

The riots-as-fun theory is something that Anderson seems to implicitly understand, when she condemns the violence as a terrible form of politics. Martinez ridicules it even more, calling it "one chaotic piece of performance art that only L.A. could have concocted."

More than a city in despair, "L.A. Is Burning" documents the American liberal mind at wit's end. Chang wants Korean-Americans to reconcile with African-Americans, Rutten wants neighborhood barricades to come down, Anderson wants young black men to take some responsibility for their actions and Wideman wants all of us to hear the intelligent comments of those same young black men.

But it appears harder for them to call for these young men's fathers to stay home and keep a family together, and even harder to contemplate that, for some, mass violence isn't only rage, but entertainment.

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