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.
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."
It is also institutionalized despair. Massengale, in an interview over breakfast, cited all the staggering statistics about high unemployment, high dropout rates, and broken homes: "You have fractured families that are missing the males, missing the fathers, and these young men are growing up without the things they need to become adults." Gangs have simply become extended families made up of minority young men who, he says, are "alienated from society."
Massengale is an elder at Zoe Christian Fellowship, and makes his living in "community training and organizing." Professionally, he is a social worker involved with both government- and church-based programs, in which he ministers principally to gang youth.
So, what do the gangs want? Massngale tires of hearing the question, but he answers nonetheless. "Bottom line, they want what any man wants," he says, picking up steam. "They want a fair opportunity to be educated, a fair opportunity to get gainful employment, to have a nice place to live, to have a nice place to shop, to be able to go to and fro in the community, and feel like where they live is not so different from other parts of town."
But even with hard-nosed police chief Darryl Gates out and more federal aid money flowing in, the conditions that provoked the rioting still exist. President Bush called the $1 billion urban aid package he signed into law last week "just a start," as if the lack of money, per se, in the main problem.
Out of Touch
Washington is about as out of touch with the problems of the inner-city as is the rest of white America-including the so-called white church. Giving a tour through the city, John Perkins spots a church with a huge display of clothing for sale along the street in the front of the building.
Perkins laughs, but turns sarcastic about the truckloads of food and clothing that were dumped in to the city by well-meaning suburbanites: "Ain't nothin' to eat down here."
"All this clothing, all this food, all this stuff-how is that connected to the situation?" Perkins wonders. "People are still out [collecting] clothes and food-for Los Angeles. It's insane. But the suburban white person can give that and feel better."
Perkins doesn't want to discourage the charity, just refocus it. "My goal would be, yes, send even more money," he says. "But what do we do with it? How do we turn that money into some creativity?"
White churches weren't alone in falling short on finding creative solutions to inner-city problems. The riots prompted many black and minority church leaders in this city to work with a renewed sense of urgency to address the root causes of the despair and alienation of inner-city life-before it's too late. "People are saying, in my interpretation, 'we are going to give you another shot,' because [most of the] churches were not on the cutting edge of this thing before it broke out," Massengale says. "They have been given the opportunity to kind of catch up."
Catching up is exactly what many church leaders in Los Angeles have been doing. "It's been one big meeting ever since [the rioting]," says Michael Mata, director of the Bresee Institute, a Christian urban organization committed to economic and spiritual development. "Yesterday was my first day I had a whole day in my office that I didn't have to be at one other meeting, or speaking, or doing interviews, or what have you," Mata said in a interview at North-Central's First Church of the Nazarene, where the institute is headquartered.
Mata is optimistic. He believes that the church will rise up to meet the needs of the inner-city and solve the problems of those who live there. Low-income people have been left behind because of economic "restructuring" and poor educational opportunities in the public schools. They simply have not been able to "keep up," he says. The church, Mata believes, should be more involved in economic development: job creation, housing, education, and training-but with a spiritual emphasis. "Gang members have skill. We just have to redirect that. Let's change that."
"The church," Mata says, "is going to have to show a unified front-coming together, breaking down the denominational [differences], and the egos-and sit down at the same table and say, 'we have the resources to do something about that, not only the spiritual but the material resources to respond.' And then begin those church-based community development projects."
Despite that confidence in the corporate church, Mata lays much of the blame for the April riots at the feet of the clergy, who failed to show "moral and spiritual leadership" prior to the outbreak. "We have a strong Christian presence here [in the city]," he says. "African-Americans, as well as the Koreans, are the two most highly-churched ethnic groups in the world. For me that's an indictment against the church because it wasn't involved in the public life of its community."
'Looting' began long ago
Government is to blame, too, and Mata does not have much time for the nation's political leadership-Bush and especially, his predecessor, President Reagan. "Reaganomics has raped the cities," he says, matter-of-factly. Mata, a member of California's Democratic Central Committee, says the real "looting" began when the savings and loan industry was deregulated and investment was driven from the cities. But asked whether Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton is right when he blames the rioting on "a decade of neglect" by the Reagan and Bush administrations, however, Mata says "no."
"I think it's been more than 10 years of neglect," he said, berating the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Perkins, too, has criticism for government attempts to "solve" the problems of the cities. After the August 1965 rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Perkins said: "Instead of economic empowerment, we got entitlement programs, and welfare programs, and food stamp programs. We got the 'Great Society.' "
While President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs in large measure fostered dependency on government, Perkins said they also for the first time in American history helped create a black middle class. But just as there was a "white flight" exodus from the cities to the suburbs, so too there was black flight-the newly-created black middle class fled the cities, leaving behind a permanent under class.
"Those [programs] built the black middle class, but then removed it from the community, Perkins said, lamenting not only the breakup of the black family, but the loss of positive "role models" whose success young black men could aspire to. He said middle-class blacks "about 10 years ago" acknowledged the need for these role models for inner-city youth, but their response missed the point.
"They started talking about bringing in the Michael Jacksons, the Magic Johnsons, the Mike Tysons,' Perkins says. "but the young people have rejected these, because when you want a role model, you want somebody who's moral. So while they'll try to be like them in terms of their looks and style, in their hearts they want somebody of integrity as well as character."
Instead of seeing fellow blacks running businesses in their urban neighborhoods, the remaining under class saw immigrants-Hispanics, but mostly Asians-move in and acquire land, run stores, and make money. Perkins said they wondered how just a few years "off the boat," these Koreans could become such successful business owners.
'Burn 'em out'
"These young folks felt totally disillusioned," says Perkins. "And they said, 'Why not? We can't get freedom in this place. Why not burn it down? Somebody did more for the Koreans than they did for us. So let's burn 'em out.' "
And burn 'em out they did. A tour through the city's burned-out areas reveals that the firebombings were not random acts. There was an obvious pattern: the rubble of Korean-owned shops that were burned to the ground stands out in stark relief to virtually untouched stores and shops next door.
Inside a liquor store at the corner of Florence and Normandie in South-Central, the putative flashpoint of the April riots, tension between blacks and Koreans is manifest. Perkins buys a Diet Pepsi, then asks for a cup of ice (a request that under "normal" circumstances would have been out of the question) from the Asian clerk behind the counter. "Normally," he said, "they would have told me where to get off. Now, when a black man makes a request, they go out of their way." Common courtesy is a matter of survival here.
Robert Oh, pastor of the Oikos Community church, a Korean-American congregation in central Los Angeles, explained that the significant cultural differences also added to the tension. "I have been visiting two African-American churches before going to my church every Sunday for many weeks now since the riot. Basically what I was telling them is that there is a cultural difference that we have to recognize," Oh said in an interview.
He says that Koreans culturally are very formal; blacks aren't. So a Korean clerk, for example, when returning change to a black patron, slides the coins across the counter to avoid contact with that customer. Blacks take that as racism.
Oh explains it to blacks this way: "My father who had two Ph.D.s would never touch my hand or hug me to say, 'Son, I love you.' He never said that in his entire life. Why would he-starting a store in South-Central-grab someone, or touch someone, and hug someone and say, 'I love you?' If he cannot do that to his own son, his not going to do it to anybody. This formalism people misunderstand as arrogance, racism. They think it is negative racism to African-Americans. It's not."
Oh chafes at the notion that the Koreans as a people received unfair advantages at the expense of blacks. "Wait a minute," he says, "75 percent of Korean immigrants are college graduates with masters degrees or doctorates. How can you compare that segment of people one-on-one with African-Americans to start? That is not right; it is not fair."
But Oh says Koreans are not blameless. He said the riots provided an opportunity for second-generation Koreans to examine the other reasons many blacks are angry with them. "Within a week after the riot Korean-Americans got together and we had a prayer meeting, and about 350-400 Korean young people got together and started repenting of our sins... [and] the sin of our parents," whom Oh says were "in love with their neighbor's money."
"We recognized the fact that [some] Koreans had moved into a black community and did not really give back what they should have," Oh says, referring to the starting of "a lot of liquor stores and all these non-productive stores."
None of that is to excuse the criminality of the looting and burning-or, for that matter, the routine day-to-day crime that doesn't make national headlines.
"Fear is winnin' the day," Perkins says, referring to the proliferation of personal firearms and the erosion of public confidence in the police to keep the neighborhoods safe. He isn't advocating more Rodney King-style police beatings, but rather the old "cop-on-the-beat" style of community policing.
Just more brutal law and order, Perkins says, "could interfere with the peace we need." He says law and order without justice is likely to lead to more of the same. "What I want," Perkins says, "is a certain amount of peace so that we can have a process of educating the kids...But if you come down on the kids without considering the empowerment of the kids, That's a whole different situation."
Although all the Christian leaders we talked to come from varied political viewpoints-conservative and liberal-they're all agreed on one point that transcends American politics: government alone cannot solve the deep institutional problems of the inner-city. The see the problem at root as spiritual: broken values, broken families, broken opportunities. Only the church, preaching the whole gospel, can "fix" the problem.
They all agree on the importance of community and family, but are not glib about how to restore those values. Perkins, the committed husband and father, put it this way: "You don't fix families like you do a car. It takes a generation to 'fix' a family. It took me 25 to 30 years to fix this family I've got. Know what I mean? And I'm still sort of fixin' it."