Cover Story

'Fear is winnin' the day'

But courageous leadership from the church could turn the tide

LOS ANGELES—Little in this Pasadena neighborhood suggests how dangerous it really is. On a sunny-and-72 Saturday afternoon, young women walk and talk together as their children push strollers carrying baby brothers and sisters. Hispanic and black children play on the sidewalks with little concern for safety, occasionally skipping into the corner grocery for ice cream and sodas.

Palm trees line the streets and sway silently in the cool Southern California breeze. Houses in the neighborhood, indeed in much of Los Angeles, do not announce the poverty within them. Garbage is out of sight, and most of the houses are well kept.

A young man on a high handlebar bicycle lazily circles the block. He sings and swings back and forth in front of several former "crack houses" which now serve as the headquarters for John Perkins's Harambee Center-a Christian outreach to the people of the inner-city.

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Across the street from Harambee, six young men have gathered in front of the house Perkins and wife Vera Mae call home. They laugh, talk, and pause only to lean over and chat with the occupants of an occasional passing car.

Perkins, a veteran Christian social activist who grew up near here black and poor, has promised us a tour of the areas of Los Angeles that two months ago were ablaze.

But first things first. Perkins has just returned from the graduation ceremonies of his daughter (one of his eight children). Friends and family have gathered in Harambee's front lawn enjoying the day and each other. It's time to snap some photos. This is how American neighborhoods should be, shouldn't they?

But the seeming normalcy belies the tragic reality of this neighborhood, situated about a half-hour's drive from the roiling cauldron of South-Central Los Angeles. Most everyone is oblivious to the sound of police helicopters buzzing overhead-or (more likely) they've grown accustomed to it. Squad cars patrol this neighborhood regularly, but not regularly enough for the homeowners.

As Perkins bids good-bye to his family, a quiet scuffle breads out down the street. Of the six young men, the tallest is fighting with a much smaller one; the others laugh. Boys will be boyz. Perkins ducks into his office for "just a minute" to check his calendar.

Just then, a young boy, perhaps 11, walks toward us-and stops. "He's got a gun," the boy says, watching the scufflers, backpedaling gingerly and plugging his ears.

He does indeed have a very large gun, and that blue-steel monster is aimed near the feet of the kid he was fighting.

One shot. It sounded more like a "pop" than the "bang" you hear on television. Like a western where the rough guy says, "dance," then gives the poor fellow some bullets to dance to, the shooter squeezes out six more shots from his obviously automatic weapon. He was trying to frighten, not kill. Message received.

The gunman leaps into a waiting car and speeds off. The others do not immediately scatter, but lean over to scrape up the evidence, the spent shells, from the dirt. Perkins, who has seen this kind of danger before, has found relative safety behind a bush.

Dusting himself off, he calls to us: "Anybody get shot?" with the same insouciance that he might ask: "Did the Dodgers just score?"

The young man apparently wasn't hit, but four Pasadena policemen arrive quickly. Is this unusual? Perkins seems to think so. He insists that we drive over and talk to them. When we arrive, he confronts the officers immediately: "You can't disarm this community. Can you?"

The officers weakly assure Perkins that they're doing their best with limited resources.

The bicyclist-it turns out-is the main drug pusher for the neighborhood. Now, he swings into action, overwhelming the policemen with obscenities and threats. In no uncertain terms, he tells the officers to get the ****" out of the neighborhood. We watch from the car, and Perkins calls the play-by-play.

"He's runnin' the policemen off. He's runnin' them off. He's cursing them out and runnin' them off." Perkins says. "I don't understand it. I think they're afraid."

There is plenty to be afraid of two months after the Los Angeles riots began. Charred remains of what used to be neighborhood businesses are bulldozed and fenced off now. What is left of those mostly Korean shops sits as a monument to the anger, frustration, and hopelessness of many inner-city youth. The rubble has also become a political symbol of a culture that has lost its way.

Presaging the burning and looting which followed the Rodney King verdict was a "quiet riot," whose toll in human life far surpassed that of the April "uprising," says Tony Massengale, who for the past decade has worked with young gang members in Los Angeles. "Anytime you watch gang-related homicides climb to 771 last year in L.A. County,...there is something dreadfully wrong," Massengale says. "That's institutionalized violence."

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