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Church Members Say Fire Was Warning

South-Central: Activists at KRST Unity Center believe arsonist was trying to silence them.


Someone crept to the door of a little church in South-Central Los Angeles this fall, doused some rags with flammable liquid and tried to burn it down.

The KRST Unity Center of African Spirituality, a 200-member church known for its criticism of police brutality and support for leftist causes, was saved from serious damage only because a passerby saw the flames and got help.

The Los Angeles Fire Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are investigating. But many supporters of the congregation believe that while they don't know exactly who set the fire early on Oct. 1, they do know why: to silence them and their minister.

A few church members said the arson attempt could have been random or vandalism by neighborhood youths. But many saw it as a warning against continued activism. Despite a lack of evidence, many in the church believe authorities were involved.

"I'm not sitting here blaming anyone specifically," said the Rev. Richard Byrd, the church's minister. "I don't have my teeth clenched and my fist balled up in the air. But when you're speaking on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal [the death row inmate in Pennsylvania convicted of murdering a police officer], who is the natural constituency that wants to stop you? The authorities. Not all, but some."

If anything, members said, the fire has brought new energy to the church.

Distrust of authorities and church burnings resonate in black neighborhoods, calling to mind both the 1960s arson fires and the spate of burnings in the 1990s that left dozens of black churches in ashes.

A Times poll taken in spring 2000 found that African Americans and Latinos are far less surprised than whites by allegations of police misconduct. According to the poll, 83% of blacks and 72% of Latinos believe officers commonly commit acts of brutality, while that view was shared by only 43% of white respondents.

That so many people at the church believe that police or other government officials could be involved in setting the fire illustrates the tension with law enforcement in segments of the African American community, a hostility that waxes and wanes but never disappears.

Los Angeles Police Department officials find the idea of law enforcement involvement in the arson stunning.

But, said LAPD spokesman Sgt. John Pasqariello, "if the church members or somebody says the police did it, they've got to bring it forward to us and we'll thoroughly investigate any allegations of police misconduct of any kind."

Far from overt anger, there is a sense of business as usual among church members, as if retaliation for pursuing a social agenda is to be expected.

"The point here isn't whether law enforcement was involved or not," said Frank Gilliam, a UCLA professor of political science and director of the school's Center for Communications and Community. "The point is that the suspect legitimacy of legal authorities in minority communities is a problem that needs to be addressed."

The tension has deep historical roots, he said. "If you look at many of the race riots in the 20th century, whether Chicago in 1919 or the urban riots of 1967 or Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo, all of these cases started in a breakdown in relationships between police and minority communities."

It is a problem well-known to law enforcement. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has asked UCLA's Center for Communications to study the root causes of distrust in minority communities, hold public forums and train its top officers. The project is on hold for lack of funding.

Many living in L.A's black and Latino neighborhoods were not surprised by a report this fall by the LAPD's court-appointed monitor, Michael Cherkasky. He said some officers see their patrol areas as "enemy territory."

The KRST Unity Center of African Spirituality is a humble dwelling but well-known among activists seeking to defend neighborhoods against police misconduct. Byrd, also called Meri Ka Ra, is often at the side of families whose relatives have been killed by police.

Worshipers, supporters and community activists gathered Sunday at the church for a celebration. The LAPD's Rampart scandal and the FBI's secret counterintelligence program were held up as examples of abuse by authorities, lending credence to their suspicions.

"I can't afford to waste my energy on anger," Byrd said Sunday. "If we allowed anger to overtake us, we would be useless. We're not bowing our heads and backing away. We're determined not to stop doing what we're doing. We have a responsibility here."

Ten years ago, Byrd took a formerly mainstream church down a new path. He infused his church with African traditions: The church teaches reverence for elders--the oldest member of the congregation begins the service. The altar is decked with colorful kente cloth, and sermons are interspersed with drumming and storytelling. Worship services include the pouring of libations to ancestors. Byrd also charted a course of edgy social activism.

Over the years, many have left.

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