SIMI VALLEY — They have spent five years trying to ignore it and make the rest of the world forget too.
Simi Valley folks have labored to scrub off all trace of the controversial Rodney King beating trial, the incendiary April 29, 1992, verdicts and the explosive riots that laid blame on their doorstep and blood on their city's name.
They gathered food and clothing for burned-out victims of the rioting.
They shouted and threw stones when a white supremacist came to town five months later looking for supporters.
And the predominantly white residents of Simi Valley launched a series of five annual Unity Games, reaching out to the mostly black residents of South-Central Los Angeles over softball diamonds and picnic blankets.
Yet nearly five years later, mass media outlets--from newspaper columnists to late-night comedians--sometimes wield Simi Valley's name like a bludgeon. In coverage of the trials of O.J. Simpson, parallel references showed up repeatedly: the Simi Valley trial. The Simi Valley jury. Simi Valley justice.
The falsehood--that this is an inherently racist city that caused Los Angeles to burn--lives on in the minds of the uninformed and the ignorant, some residents say.
"We'll forever have it as a negative impact, but the community has certainly taken steps to counterbalance that," Caesar Julian, a longtime Simi Valley physician, says.
"The community realizes that we live in a total environment, not just our own little town," says Julian, author of a short-lived proposal soon after the riots that would have protected the city from further stigma by changing its name to Santa Susana. "And regardless of how we are . . . we have to be careful not to be a lily white community."
Council members and others hasten to point out that only two Simi Valley residents were among the 12 Ventura County jurors who acquitted four white Los Angeles Police Department officers of beating a black motorist.
The mayor pleads with outsiders to remember Simi Valley as a city of people, not the site of a notorious borrowed courtroom. As the home of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. As a quiet bedroom community of affordable family neighborhoods just northeast of Los Angeles. As one of the three safest cities in the country.
Yet as the fifth anniversary approaches, Simi Valley finds itself gunshy and resentful, wondering whether the community has been forever changed.
Some Simi residents find themselves acting overly self-conscious about even appearing improper, former Councilwoman Vicky Howard says.
"People are aware of the unfair label we got, and perhaps we've become a little more careful," says Howard, who represented Simi Valley on the Board of Supervisors and organized the food and clothing drive for the riot victims nearly five years ago.
Some Hypersensitivity Noted in Community
"They question themselves more--'Could that remark I just made be racial?' " she says. "You become a little sensitive."
Keith Jajko, a longtime Simi Valley resident who helped coordinate the Unity Games until they petered out last year for lack of interest, says he finds himself acting differently too.
"Walking the streets, or at the store, subconsciously I tend to smile at an African American or Latino person," Jajko says. "I don't want to show any slightest indication of shining them on."
All this hypersensitivity is unneeded, says Simi Valley Building Inspector Gaddis Farmer, a 7 1/2-year resident of the city and an African American.
"That's unfortunate, that this situation has caused them to make sure they are sensitive to that," Farmer says. "If they were just being natural and normal, they would find that they were doing fine."
Even before the verdicts and the riots, Farmer says, "I didn't notice any problems or any kind of negative behavior here toward me or my family or any other people of Afro-American ethnicity."
Mayor Greg Stratton says Simi Valley itself is the same as it ever was: a good city with a bum rap.
"I don't think the city's changed, I didn't think anything was wrong to begin with," Stratton says.
"The public's memory is pretty short," he adds. "I usually test it by the reaction when you use a phone and you're calling a 1-800 number, and you give them an address [of] Simi Valley. If they say 'spell it,' they don't really know where you are. I'm getting more 'spell its' now than anything else."
But among outsiders, the stigma lingers.
Moorpark High School Principal John McIntosh announced last month that his school's basketball squad would move a game with Compton Dominguez High School from the Simi Valley High gym to a "neutral site" because of the city's connection to the King verdicts.
And, oddly, the farther some Simi Valley folks get from home, the more vividly they hear the same accusations.
Simi Valley High teacher Robert Collins travels across the country to teachers' conventions.
"When I tell people where I'm from, they say, 'That's the city that has all the KKK and white extremist groups,' " Collins says.