LA riots raise fears about convention

Wednesday, June 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

City is urged to 'learn lessons' before arrival of Democrats

LOS ANGELES – Street violence that marred the Lakers' NBA championship and recalled Los Angeles' darkest hours had city officials scrambling Tuesday to play down any threat of similar unrest at the Democratic National Convention.

The burning and looting spree erupted late Monday outside the downtown Staples Center, where the Lakers won their first National Basketball Association crown in 12 years and where the Democrats are set to nominate Al Gore in August.

Although only a handful of injuries were reported, the disturbance was the worst here since the 1992 South Central riots, memories of which are still fresh. Several hundred people joined in the rampage minutes after the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers, 116-111.

Most were young men who whooped and cheered as they set fires, pelted cars with rocks and bottles, and accosted terrified fans.

"Last night, we all witnessed pride and shame, winners and losers," Mayor Richard Riordan said Tuesday. "We need to learn the lessons of last night [so] we will have an outstanding and safe Democratic convention."

It took the Los Angeles Police Department more than two hours to restore order. By that time, piles of trash and broken barricades were burning in numerous intersections, two police cars and two media vans had been torched, and scores of storefront windows had been smashed.

Dozens of cars at auto dealerships also were damaged. A computer store was looted.

Downtown shop owners and workers, many of whom have attended security-planning meetings for the Aug. 14-17 convention, lashed out at the LAPD, saying it failed to protect their businesses.

"They knew this was coming," car salesman David Gutierrez said of the police. About 35 vehicles at Mr. Gutierrez's Toyota dealership were damaged. The showroom windows were shattered, and glass littered the lot Tuesday. "They could have prepared for this. But they just stood back and did nothing. I blame our city leaders."

Police Chief Bernard Parks, however, insisted that the department responded effectively to the upheaval. The skirmish lines of officers in riot gear as well as mounted patrols, the department said, kept the mayhem from spreading.

A few officers fired rubber bullets into the crowds, and by early Tuesday morning a dozen people had been arrested. Four officers were treated for minor injuries, and at least eight other people were also said to have been hurt. Authorities expect to make more arrests after reviewing videotape of the vandalism and looting.

"From looking at the size of the crowd and looking at the emotion of the crowd, we certainly feel as though the end result was the best that we could do in those circumstances," Chief Parks said.

The chief added that the department would be out in force Wednesday for a Lakers parade and rally that will probably draw tens of thousands of revelers downtown.

Mr. Riordan, meanwhile, said security during the convention would be much tighter and that demonstrators would not be allowed to gather directly outside the Staples Center. Most of Monday's rioters had watched the Lakers game on the 11th Street arena's giant outdoor video screen.

"These are not fans. They are losers who only know how to trash our city," the mayor said. "Last night was essentially a spontaneous event. The DNC will be a very disciplined, well-planned, business-type event."

Even so, Mr. Riordan ordered the police and fire departments to draft a report on what they might have done differently to better control the mob. The city is girding for thousands of protesters during the convention, the first here since 1960. Organizers say they believe Los Angeles will be ready, despite Monday's chaos.

"We are confident that come convention week we'll have the resources and be prepared for every possible scenario," said DNC spokesman Luis Vizcaino.

Dallas lawyer and former Democratic Party chairman Ken Molberg, who plans to attend the convention, said he also isn't worried. "I frankly don't think any police force or agency can be blamed entirely for these things," he said. "They'll be ready by the time we get there."

The Gore campaign was unavailable for comment. In Washington, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "It's unfortunate that the celebrations for something so positive could turn so bad so quickly."

After the first fires were ignited, Staples security officers and the police stopped hundreds of fans from leaving the blue-roofed arena. "It was annoying," said 16-year-old Cesar Guzman, who was stuck inside for more than an hour.

Some of the Lakers also remained at the center to wait out the violence. They had seen television footage of the rioters swarming around departing autos and limousines, including an SUV that reportedly was ferrying team center Shaquille O'Neal.

"This is crazy. It really is," said Lakers forward A.C. Green, who spoke to camera crews as the violence unfolded outside. "You'd expect it in a foreign land, maybe in a soccer tournament."

Taxi driver Cesar Machado found himself trapped in the surging throngs. "I was scared," he said. "I mean, we are on the street and we are working. ... I took off."

Tuesday morning, Emmanuel Arias, 19, was banging on the Staples Center's locked doors, looking for a job. He admitted that he took part in the trouble the night before.

"I was trying to tip over the police car," he said. "But then they started trying to set it on fire and I got out of there. As soon as I saw the cops coming, I took off running.

"That [violence] ain't cool, dude. It just makes L.A. look bad."