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Remembering Rodney King, Southern Calif. Watches Ferguson, NY


Nightly protests in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri and other cities across the country have generated a national conversation about race and community and police relations. We're going to go now to a place where that conversation has been going on for decades - Southern California. And we have two different reports this morning from two different very parts of LA County. We begin with NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Leimert Park began the cultural heart of LA's black community after the late 1940s. The Supreme Court struck down the city's racist housing laws. Just west of the namesake park, today the tree-lined streets are packed with bustling cafes and shops. The intersection of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Boulevards has been the center of LA's recent protests.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) I am Eric Garner. I am Michael Brown.

SIEGLER: The fallout from Ferguson and New York is opening up old wounds here. It's abundantly clear when you talk to people like Ganiku Smith.

GANIKU SMITH: It's not good because a lot of us fear for our life out here in the streets.

SIEGLER: I met Smith one afternoon this week outside the mall at Crenshaw and MLK, where he works. He says all the publicity around Ferguson is making some in this neighborhood nervous and even more on edge than usual when they see the police.

SMITH: And it's not cool, especially when you're growing up in the city of Los Angeles and you're a black kid trying to make a way out, do everything the white way and go to school, when you've got to fear for the police. They're supposed to us protect and serve us, but they're out here killing us on the curb.

SIEGLER: Smith is 33, so he was just a kid during the Rodney King era and grew up hearing about it all the time. Those events shaped this neighborhood and much of South LA, more than 50 people died in the violence and rioting. Some blocks that burned down still haven't been rebuilt.

ED FOUNTILA: Vividly, I remember it vividly. I mean, the whole city went up in smoke.

SIEGLER: This is Ed Fountila. He's in his 40s and owns a trucking company. We met inside the mall's food court. Fountila tells me he sees a connection between the Rodney King era and what's happening today in Ferguson and New York.

FOUNTILA: And the reason I feel the media plays this up - the looting and rioting - it makes great television and sells ads. They always want to make more money. And they're not really looking at the issues deep enough, and these stories kind of fit the narrative.

SIEGLER: The narrative, according to Fountila is about race and excessive force by police. But he says the national conversation also needs to be about class.

FOUNTILA: Had Michael Brown been a middle-class black guy who was going to college and this had happened to him, I'm sure the officer, Wilson, would've been in jail by now or been fired. Same with New York.

SIEGLER: There a lot of ideas about how all of these problems should be addressed going forward, but one thing I kept hearing over and over around this mall has to do with the cops who patrol these streets themselves - where they come from, where they live.

STAN PATTERSON: I think that the community that's being policed should have policemen from that community.

SIEGLER: This is Stan Patterson. He grew up in Leimert Park and just moved back after graduating from Arizona State.

PATTERSON: Police-wise, I still get pulled over (laughter).

SIEGLER: I'm asking him whether relations between cops in this community have gotten better. A little, he says. There have been a lot of reforms in the LAPD since Rodney King. And then there's another thing.

PATTERSON: Now that there's so much media and there's so much social media, like, it only takes me five seconds to pull out my phone and record. A lot of things are coming to the light versus that have already been going on for the last 30, 40 years.

SIEGLER: Patterson says there's one good thing to come out the news recently. He says he's encouraged by all the peaceful protesting in New York. He thinks that's how change will happen.

Now, about 40 miles to the northwest of where I'm standing here in Central LA is my colleague Nathan Rott. Hi, Nate.


SIEGLER: And you are in Simi Valley, is that right?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, you have to understand that the Simi Valley is a very different place. It's far more white. It's far more conservative. And the community's relationship with law enforcement here is very different than it is in South Central LA.

ALLEN LLOYD: We have good relations with them here.

ROTT: That's Allen Lloyd, a 23-year-old with a fresh military cut. I ran into him and a number of other people with similar opinions at a commercial area just across the street from the Simi Valley Civic Center, which houses not only Simi Valley City Hall, but its police headquarters and the courthouse where a jury acquitted all four white LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King some 20 years ago.

Now, it wouldn't be fair to say that Simi Valley is just blindly pro-cop or law enforcement, as many people have labeled it since that acquittal. Most of the jury wasn't even from here. But when I ask people about the cases in Ferguson and New York about Michael Brown, I heard opinions like Catherine Phillipe's.

CATHERINE PHILLIPE: Brown caused his death. That's the bottom line. He did it to himself. I know that sounds mean to say, but if he hadn't tried to reach for the gun, if he hadn't tried to fight back, if he hadn't done what he did he would be alive today.

ROTT: Phillipe knows that many people wouldn't agree with that statement, but she says she knows many people would, including she says, the people whose opinions mattered most.

PHILLIPE: All of the evidence, you know, was shown to the grand jury and it's obvious that the cop did what he had to do.

ROTT: Dave Livingstone is a commander with the Simi Valley Police Department just across the street.

COMMANDER DAVE LIVINGSTONE: I don't think any police officer in their right mind will say that it is ever a positive thing when somebody dies. And I think it's tragic. I think it's tragic that a young man, you know, for whatever reason engaged with an officer to the point that led to this shooting.

ROTT: But Livingstone says that he thinks some positives may come out of the aftermath, the protests and the police response because he's seen it before, with Rodney King.

LIVINGSTONE: The paradigm shift that we experienced from the Rodney King trial and what took place after that was police departments started shifting away from certain uses of force.

ROTT: And though he says it's clearly not perfect in the eyes of many, its progress, and he expects even more after the incidents in Ferguson and New York.

LIVINGSTONE: I don't really know what the shifts are going to be yet, but I know one thing from my long career is that it's a perpetually forward-moving dynamic and you know, what I understood as a police officer in 1989, 1990, is completely different today than what it was then.

ROTT: A little bit of perspective from a Southern California police officer that might give the rest of the country a little bit of hope.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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