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COLUMN ONE : Weary L.A. Looks to Its Future : The last three years changed the city forever, residents say. Some see hope, but others are wary. 'I don't think it will ever be over," one woman says. 'A Pandora's box has been opened.'

December 08, 1993|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles' seemingly endless cycle of trial, verdict and upheaval reached a milestone Tuesday. Damian Monroe Williams headed to prison and Henry Keith Watson headed home.

Their sentencing provides an ending of sorts--a symbolic step in the recovery of Los Angeles as it finally shifts its attention from the violence that has dominated its recent past.

The last three years--starting with the beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers and culminating in the sentencing of the men who beat Reginald O. Denny--have remade much of Los Angeles. A new mayor, backed by a new coalition, armed with a mandate for change and fortified by a stern commitment to law enforcement, sits in City Hall. Nearly a third of the City Council is in its first term. A new police chief commands the embattled LAPD while the old chief anchors a radio talk show.

But beneath the historic changes in the city's leading institutions, the past 33 months have taken a quiet toll on residents and shopkeepers, doctors and cops.

And they say the scars will not soon heal.

"The (Denny) trial became sort of a sinkhole for people's emotions and hatreds and fears and prejudices," said Lou Negrete, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State L.A. and a leader of the grass-roots Eastside community group, United Neighborhoods Organization. "I think we're in for a big disappointment if we think that race relations have been solved by the closing of this trial."

'A SENSE OF SADNESS' / A Deepening Feeling of L.A.'s Divisions

"I think there's a sense of sadness in this town," said actress Deborah Hedwall, who moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1992. "I think it's a result of the accumulation of a tremendous amount of turbulence. . . . I'm constantly running into people who are deeply concerned about the ennui, the sadness, the turmoil that people are in."

Louis Simpson, a psychiatrist at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center who treats teen-agers, said the trials and the riots have not brought peace to Los Angeles, but rather have deepened its sense of division.

"Our society in Los Angeles is being divided into the haves and have-nots," Simpson said. "There are a large number of individuals with no prospect for hope who live on the margins."

As they reflect on the trauma of the past three years, many cite increased racial tension as the most devastating consequence. Still, some discern a new openness about race, and they see that as at least small evidence that some good may come of all this.

"I think if there's anything positive to be said about it, it is that people now talk about things they didn't before," said Warren Olney, the host of KCRW-FM's weekday call-in show "Which Way, L.A.?" which was created in response to the riots. "I think it's positive that people are taking a more realistic look at the place they live in."

Carlos Vaquerano, who works at the Central American Resource Center near MacArthur Park, credits the willingness to talk with helping race relations. "At least among the leadership, there is more dialogue than before," he said. "Before the riots, we didn't even talk among Latinos."

But, Vaquerano added, "in the neighborhoods, there are still tensions."

And there still is widespread agreement that destructive racism exists in virtually every corner of Los Angeles. That anxiety is especially strong in the Korean American community, which absorbed much of the damage in the riots and where many residents felt abandoned by police. The aftermath of the unrest brought new attention to the difficulties faced by Korean Americans in Los Angeles, but it also prompted deep soul-searching.

"As an immigrant, I never experienced the depths of racism in America until the riots," said Kapson Yim Lee, editor of the Korea Times English edition in Los Angeles. "The riots and their aftermaths have been a lesson in American racism. As long as white Americans don't get involved actively to be part of the multiethnicity of this community, talk of diversity and multiculturalism is hollow. When I think of my son's future in this society, I feel sad."

If race relations have become Los Angeles' most-explored topic, a close second has been the conduct of the judicial system. The riots erupted in April, 1992, after what many considered a jury's unjust not guilty verdicts for four Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of King.

Conversely, many were overcome with joy when a federal jury convicted two of the officers on civil rights charges a year later. Most residents polled by The Times--particularly white residents--believed the verdicts in the recently concluded Denny case were too lenient.

Such reactions have divided public opinion about how well the judicial system has served Los Angeles. Some who once held out hope that the courts could resolve society's most troubling ills have scaled back expectations; others hope the trials have shown that even though not all verdicts can please all segments of society, some justice can be won in a courtroom.

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