I’m driving in South Central Los Angeles in my rented Ford, which is calculated, with its icing-sugar bodywork and sappy sprig of an aerial, to lose itself in the fitful lines of flaking write-off and deckled insurance jobs. My chrome is see-your-face; theirs is in-your-face. It’s a loweringly humid afternoon on which four white men are standing trial in a city courthouse accused of depriving a black man of his civil rights, especially the right not to be batoned following traffic violations. The sheriff’s car with which I have been making tender eye-contact in the rear-view mirror seems to have turned off, somewhere on Compton or Alondra. I’m now the only white man for blocks. I know this because the people of South Central LA are on the streets – black teenagers wheeling buggies to the 99-cent thrift shop, moustachioed Hispanics waiting in line for a bus near the Solid Rock Church. When people tell you that nobody walks in LA, they mean nobody except people of colour: the euphemism preferred by the hand-wringing classes, all of whom consider the idea of going to the ghetto – you mean actually going – one of the worst they’ve ever heard. The man at the hire-pound had been uncommonly sanguine, perhaps because he had learnt his roadcraft on the streets of Lagos.

On the whole, I’m feeling pretty chipper, basically up, considering the black station I am tuned to is playing ‘Fight the Power’ by the Isley Brothers, a band I have hitherto always unwound to, and considering the narrow squeak I enjoyed the last time I was behind the wheel of my Ford. Having taken a sceptical view of the highway shootings reportedly notched by vexed gridlockees, I had scoffingly negotiated the Long Beach Freeway at rush hour only to turn on Channel 2 Action News and learn that two motorists had been shot by a fellow commuter after they had laid into him with a baseball bat on the stretch of road I’d used half an hour before them.

Now I’m driving past three black men sitting in the back of a stationary pick-up truck. Its tailgate is down, and it’s stacked with a crop of plantains. The palm-trees look scorched, withered, unlike the glossy ones a few miles north of South Central in Inglewood. A red van looms stockily in the rear view as I’m passing brakeshops and tyreshops and a place where they recycle aluminium cans. There are two figures in the van I can’t make out any more because the early afternoon glare has penetrated the smoggy corona suspended over the city and is catching the windshield of the van, which slips into my blindspot and draws alongside me. We’re passing the burnt-out shell of a filling station. I look across at the van and am relieved to see there’s a woman on the bench seat nearest me, they’re a couple. I make a left at lights beside a railway track and I’m on Florence, approaching the neighbourhood worst affected by the riots almost a year ago. South Central is the only area of Los Angeles in which I’ve seen bare advertisement hoardings, their posters stripped or weathered away and not replaced. The only commercial still standing that I note features a bouffant-haired attorney offering help with legal problems. It’s written in Spanish.

I’m relaxing, I’ve dipped my window, though the trip isn’t over yet. I still have to pass the windowless building ringed with a high wire-topped fence, which you could take for a penitentiary but which turns out to be a US Mail depot. I have yet to see the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the eye of last year’s disturbances, where a neat grid of ash marks out where single-storey homes and businesses stood. Over the murmur of the disc-jockey on KGFJ, there’s the pop and rumble of a clotted engine; it could be an out-board motor. A mauve Buick, its fins twisted, its radiator concave, barrels up alongside me on the inside. It is comfortably exceeding the speed limit; no doubt, judging by its appearance, it’s infringing many more of the motoring regulations insisted on by California’s finicky law-makers. There’s a black guy in the driver’s seat, or rather, halfway out of it and through the Buick’s open window. He’s chewing something, mouth busily ajar, and he’s wearing a baseball cap at an angle which you might call playful, but not to his face. Without warning, although – how shall I put this? – not wholly unexpectedly, the Buick cuts in across the blameless grill of the Ford, forcing me to brake tightly. I look at the driver, very likely my mouth is open now too, and he yells something at me, though I don’t catch what it is because he’s already pulling clear, setting himself up to shoot some lights. However, I do catch his licence plate. I’m not about to report it; at least, not in the accepted sense. But I do jot it down for future reference: it’s NWA 199. The name of one of South Central’s most notorious black rap groups – they had an album called ‘Straight Outta Compton’ – is Niggas With Attitude, bowdlerised by record company executives to ‘NWA’.

A few minutes later, I am a witness as George Hamilton, the actor and walker, or beard, to Hollywood matrons of a certain age, takes the air outside Paddington’s, an ersatz tea shoppe on fashionable Melrose Avenue. A blonde whom the checkout tabloids would probably call George’s ‘mystery gal pal’ takes him by the bespoke elbow and murmurs: ‘This place is kinda nice – English.’ George is holding a copy of that morning’s Los Angeles Times, which reports details of the Rodney King trial.

Now for all I know, George is so devoted to South Central LA that he holds a weekly acting workshop in Lynwood, but if he’s anything like most of the Anglos in Los Angeles, he is happier contemplating the minutiae of its native movie business than the inner-city melodrama. The Anglos’ willingness to look away is exploited in the campaign for the mayoralty, which the long-serving Tom Bradley is about to relinquish. Businessman Richard Riordan, one of 24 candidates to succeed him, seems to be promising that all the unpleasantness of South Central will somehow be removed. He puts it less plainly even than this, however: his paid-for advertising slots include a sound-bite in which a self-consciously shirt-sleeved Riordan is telling business-folk, none of whom is black, that ‘to get jobs, we’ve got to make LA safe.’ It’s fair to assume he’s not talking about making the city safe for the likes of Rodney King to drive in. Riordan’s spot, like those of his rivals that I’ve seen, doesn’t offer solutions, at least none that can be spelled out; nor are alternatives rehearsed by the city’s supposed opinion former, the Times, which has lately preferred to consider what a candidate’s choice of automobile says about him.

In this emphatic town, where even the copy on the lite beer ads says, ‘It’s it and that’s that’ and ‘Why ask why?’, you are given to understand that the inner city is one vast killing field. But the ghetto is not quite the unwieldy menace that the politicians and the media are apt to suggest. Consider, for instance, the unfortunate case of Kevin Michael Burrell, a victim of the most recent firearms assault on police officers in Compton. How many officers do you suppose were gunned down in the infamous ’hood of NWA during the thirty years prior to Burrell’s shooting? Would it be a hundred, an annual casualty tally of between three and four members of the LAPD? Does a thousand, a mortality rate of more than thirty of LA’s finest per annum, sound too high? The truly staggering answer is that the number of police killed in Compton since the early Sixties is two. It is no consolation to Burrell’s family and colleagues, who were attending his funeral on the day I arrived in LA, but his was the first death of a policeman in Compton for as long as he had been alive, according to the nightly news shows. (His partner, 23-year-old James McDonald, died from wounds received in the same incident.) You felt that the statistic might have given pause to the TV bulletins, transmitting what appeared at first, to jet-lagged eyes, to be file footage of freeway snafu: a cortege of squad cars and outriders from Burrell’s precinct.

This may not be the place, nor I the disinterested correspondent, to mull the chicken-and-egg riddle of schlocky infotainment and pulp TV news, but it is not in dispute that one follows the other in LA schedules: the first television of any kind that I absorbed here, straight off the plane at LAX, was a salacious trail for a patricidal mini-series. The evening’s viewing would be incomplete without a video-vérité programme on the emergency services, in which a steadycam dwells on the meat wagons – the franchised ambulances, the black marias – reminding you of a natural affinity between the fly on the wall and carrion. In one of the news updates which has to hold its own in the ratings alongside this kind of thing, the matched anchors – the usual his ‘n’ hers combo, suggesting an April-October wedding – revealed that a boy of 11 had been gated by his inner-city elementary school for threatening a classmate with an unloaded pistol. It was, you had to concede, a sensational story. But that is the point: an under-age gun-man is still, mercifully, news in Los Angeles, a city which otherwise does little to dispel the image that every high school is an arms dump. (Ironically, that function is served by the press: even such an innocent-sounding journal as the Beach Reporter carries a quarter-page of guns for sale – the ‘very light, extremely reliable’ Glock 45, the ‘Korean War vintage’ M-1 Garand 30-06 rifle.) The expelled student was a graffiti ‘tagger’, his target an aerosol artist from a rival gang. Having always understood graffiti to be the work of a faery Kilroy, I was taken to find that you could watch taggers going about their business in LA. I saw one spray ‘Hot Metal’ on a highway pillar one night: it was head-clearing to read the inscription again in the morning and see that what he had written was in fact ‘Let me Kill’. I might have been more worried had I been somewhere other than sleepy Redondo Beach, and had I not seen the author, a pimply dauber, taking so long to pluck up his courage that I had thought at first he was waiting for his parents to pick him up.

The most salutary tag I have seen was in South Central, where graffiti are so ubiquitous they can almost be regarded as a kind of topcoat. It read ‘Born to destroy – King’. So long as the King hearing sits, and other defendants await judgment over the beating of a white truck-driver, the jury is out, as it were, on whether the home of Hollywood will see ‘LA Riots 2’ later this year. Most people I have spoken to, taking a subliminal message from the mayoralty race, believe City Hall and the LAPD will move to quell any disorder before it gets out of hand. ‘They’ll throw everything they have at it if they have to,’ said one industry source. Perhaps justice will be done, and they won’t have to.

The King case itself is getting little play and airtime. The judge presiding over the Federal hearing has banned television from his cramped courtroom, and hacks complain that there are too few press passes to go round. Prospects of an early result have dwindled, and for the local media the case has become stymied in a round of expert testimony and confusing eye-witness accounts. An LAPD instructor garnered some column inches for observing that the four police officers broke department rules by striking and kicking King on the ground, but the media had a job picking the bones out of a statement by officer Rolando Solano. Called by lawyers prosecuting the four, he appeared to do them no favours by refusing to budge from the evidence he gave at the original trial – to the effect that he had not witnessed the beating despite being present while it occurred. Solano stuck by his story even while conceding that the assault was clearly shown on the videotape shot by George Holliday, which is now to American jurisprudence what the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination was to the American Constitution. The reaction of defence lawyers to Solana’s apparently handy contribution perplexed those reporters still following the plot. The attorneys protested that the prosecution was slyly making capital out of Solano, knowing that his testimony could be seen as proof of a conspiracy of silence in the LAPD.

Even Rodney King’s first appearance on the stand failed to lead the bulletins across his home State. However, in the way of these things here, prosecution attorneys gave press conferences after his testimony declaring themselves gratified. The 27-year-old former construction worker said he was ‘just trying to stay alive’. He said the police yelled, ‘We’re going to kill you, nigger, run!’ and: ‘How do you feel, nigger, huh?’

In a pinstriped suit and colourful print tie, King appeared hesitant and distracted until he took a long drink of water and began talking about how he felt after the incident. He testified that he had drunk a quart of malt liquor while watching basketball at a friend’s house on the night of the beating, and later, with two friends, gone out for a drive. Stopped by the police, he was ordered to get out of his car, to take three steps back and ‘spread my arms and legs apart. This person was approaching me with a gun on me saying: ‘I mean it, I mean it, I mean it.’

He was then given an electric shock from a stun gun:

It felt like my blood was boiling inside me. Finally the shocking stopped and my blood seemed like it was starting to come back. And they asked me: ‘How do you feel now?’ ... I had been struck to the face area and it was hard to even breathe and I just tried to laugh it off. I was coughing and laughing blood out of my mouth. I didn’t want them to get the satisfaction of what they were doing to me.

The defence response was to suggest that two years ago, at the time of the incident, King, who’d been 14 pounds heavier, had been a more menacing presence and to make much of the fact that King had previously said that he did not believe the officers where racially motivated and that he couldn’t tell what they had been yelling. On the second day of his testimony King again seemed doubtful about what exactly the police had shouted.

His moving perfomance on the stand brought out a central paradox of the case. It demonstrated to the officers’ lawyers that their clients could have gone to jail after the original trial but for the question marks over King’s evidence, which had influenced the LA District Attorney in deciding not to call him in the first place.

The nightly news has been more interested in the Waco cult siege and the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York. It has also found room for a mysterious apparition that has been drawing crowds to a shanty in South Central. Spectators claim to be able to see a vision of the Virgin Mary materialising on a wall; sceptics think it may be a shadow cast by a light across the street. Channel 2 Action News reported that the Catholic bishopric welcomes anything which draws people closer to God but it has not so far sent anyone into South Central to investigate.

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