Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti concludes a meeting with young residents… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
Two weeks after being sworn in as mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti is facing the first big test of his leadership skills as he responds to outbreaks of vandalism and violence in the aftermath of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Garcetti stepped before a bank of news cameras on a lawn outside Dorsey High School in South Los Angeles on Tuesday and immediately made clear his solidarity with peaceful protesters, saying that they had "gathered to exercise beautifully their 1st Amendment rights."
But he also sought to establish a firm law and order footing as the city's new chief executive.
"Tonight, we will be increasing the number of police officers deployed, and they will respond quickly to any criminal activity," Garcetti said, with Police Chief Charlie Beck and South Los Angeles clergy and political leaders at his side. "Crimes of any kind will be stopped."
For Garcetti, who interrupted an East Coast trip Monday and returned to the city after the unrest erupted, the disturbances offered a jarring demonstration of how forces beyond his control can disrupt his efforts to shape a new City Hall agenda.
Since the day he took office, Garcetti has sought to project an image of relentlessly focusing on stimulating the economy and bringing high-tech efficiency to a city that often falls short on tasks as basic as street paving.
But TV news video of angry protesters blocking traffic on the 10 Freeway and leaping onto the hoods of cars in South Los Angeles were a vivid reminder that, for all its progress, the city has not entirely shed the racial tension that gave rise to the riots of 1965 and 1992.
"We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go," said the Rev. Xavier Thompson, pastor of Southern Missionary Baptist Church in the West Adams district.
This week's vandalism and violence was nowhere near the scale of the earlier riots. And it's a gauge of the LAPD's advances that the current upheaval was not sparked by anger at law enforcement's treatment of African Americans in Los Angeles.
"It may be the first civil disturbance in L.A.'s recent memory that's not about police abuse," said Josh Sides, the author of "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present." Sides said his initial impression was that Garcetti was handling matters "professionally."
Garcetti made a point Tuesday of praising the police for showing restraint, saying he knew critics believed "we should have been cracking down in a more aggressive way."
"They created the space and the place to make sure that there was a venting," Garcetti said. "But we also want to make sure that we maintain peace on the streets."
Garcetti, a liberal Democrat, faces political risks as he tries to balance protester "venting" with the kind of robust law enforcement that many of his supporters — San Fernando Valley Republicans among them — see as essential.
During his campaign for mayor, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce attacked Garcetti for telling Occupy Los Angeles protesters camping out in City Hall Park in 2011: "Hey, stay as long as you need to." The two-month demonstration cost the city nearly $5 million.
In the same vein, Garcetti — whose candidacy also drew the opposition of the Los Angeles Police Protective League — offered to assist screenwriter Nick Silverman on Sunday in a dispute with police over a traffic ticket at a protest over the Zimmerman verdict on Sunday near La Cienega and Pico boulevards.
Silverman, who was driving by the demonstration, complained to Garcetti on Twitter about getting a ticket for honking to show support for the protesters. Garcetti personally replied to Silverman with a tweet telling him to "send us the info tomorrow and let us help you get it resolved." An aide said the mayor's office routinely helps constituents navigate the process of contesting tickets, but does not take sides.
On Tuesday, Garcetti spent most of the day at private gatherings in South Los Angeles, an area that overwhelmingly backed his rival Wendy Greuel in the mayoral runoff. He said he met with 100 young people at a community center and discussed "what action they can take to make this moment a positive one."
"I want them to know that this mayor respects them," he said.
At Dorsey High School, Garcetti used a question about Los Angeles' history of riots to argue "how much change for the better this city has enjoyed since 1992."
"What a changed department this is," he said of the LAPD. "Not a flawless one, but a significantly changed one. Not a perfect city, but a better one. Not an undivided city, but a much more united one. We can see that difference."
Garcetti recalled that one of his first mayoral events outside City Hall was a South Los Angeles celebration of a summer jobs program that he vowed to rebuild after years of budget cuts.
"We turned away 10,000 young people that wanted to work last summer — who wanted, in these neighborhoods, to do something productive with their summers," he said. "When we let down 10,000 young people, we deal with the consequences of that. And we, as a city, must step up."
Garcetti went on to list challenges facing the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, including giving schools the resources they need and re-integrating those returning from prison or military service.
"We know that there is tremendous work to be done," he said. "What is not to be done, and what is not honoring any of those issues, is taking to the streets and lighting fires, stealing a scooter away from a kid, smashing someone's windows. That is not what L.A. is. We are a better city than that."