Recovery Outlook: Costly, Slow
LOS ANGELES RIOT
THE first faint outlines of recovery plans for riot-torn communities here are beginning to emerge as troops withdraw from the streets and questions linger over the early response of police to the unrest.
State and federal aid packages for the thousands of residents affected by the rioting are being sketched out, though most don't bear the kinds of numbers local activists would like.
At the same time, the private sector - which may hold the key to reconstruction - continues to chip in money, but analysts caution that these good-samaritan impulses, too, without attention to the underlying social ills that helped ignite the violence, will do only limited good.
"This will be a lengthy process," says Jon Goodman, head of the entrepreneurial program at the University of Southern California (USC), who has worked with start-ups in south-central Los Angeles. "Virtually all of the infrastructure that allows us to rebuild inner-city neighborhoods has never been put in place here." (Watts and south-central riots compared, Page 8.)
More than a week after the rioting occurred, a dominant theme continues to be whether more could have been done to anticipate and contain the violence that erupted in the wake of the verdict in the Rodney King case. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said last week that mistakes were made in the early stages of the rioting, but he generally defended the actions of his department.
He blamed a field lieutenant for not regrouping his officers and returning to a south-central Los Angeles intersection where moments earlier they had been pelted by debris. It was at that intersection, Florence and Normandie, that a driver was pulled from his truck and beaten in what has become the signature image of the riot. Had the officers returned, the chief suggested, the beating might have been prevented. But he denies that the spreading rioting could have been contained, no matter what was done i n that circumstance, and he calls the department's overall performance "beautiful."
The chief's comments have done little to stifle the criticism - some of it from within the department - of the LAPD's handling of the unrest.
Predictably, many of Mr. Gates's critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are stepping up their calls for him to retire immediately. He remains resolute that he will not step down until the end of June.
The Police Commission, a civilian oversight group, is expected to announce an investigative panel this week to look into the department's actions. No matter how that probe comes out, however, it is already clear that the LAPD - which had image problems before the King verdict - now faces further challenges in restoring public confidence.
"I think their image has been badly harmed," says Dr. Lewis Yablonsky, a criminologist at California State University at Northridge. "People can't help but think and feel that the harshness of the rioting could have been averted."
In the area of reconstruction, response has been mixed to President Bush's plans for the city. He is pushing a $19-million initiative as a long-term federal solution to the problems behind the rioting.
The weed-and-seed program would include trying to eliminate crime from targeted neighborhoods and bringing in needed social programs, such as to prevent drug abuse.
The president also says he will seek additional money for Head Start programs, health clinics, low-income housing, and worker retraining. He wants tax breaks for those who invest in inner cities and the turning of public-housing tenants into homeowners. This is in addition to $600 million in federal grants and loans that have been offered for rebuilding.
Most of these ideas have been pushed by Mr. Bush in the past - a fact not overlooked by congressional Democrats, who consider the proposals shopworn and insignificant for the magnitude of the social ills facing urban America.
Out here, the response has been less overtly partisan, but varied nonetheless. One prominent black leader - state Sen. Diane Watson (D) - welcomed the initiatives but urged the president to go farther, as did Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
No matter what the needs, though, few analysts expect a huge infusion of federal cash, both because of the deficit and disputes over what works.
"In the 1960s we were much more optimistic about being able to change the circumstances of people at the bottom," says Anthony Downs, a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He was one of the authors of the landmark Kerner Commission report.
"We are less enthusiastic now," says Mr. Downs, "not only because we don't have the money, but because of the feeling that not much can be done to get at the roots of the complicated things that cause people to riot."
The likelihood of limited government roles, at all levels, will make private efforts of paramount importance in Los Angeles's attempt to rebuild from rioting that caused $1 billion to $3 billion in damage. This week, the special task force, called Rebuild L.A., being organized under former Olympics czar Peter Ueberroth is expected to specify some of its plans and goals.
USC's Ms. Goodman says private aid has the best chance of hitting the streets first and, if sustained, the best chance of making the most lasting impact - provided the community is involved.