IT IS SUNDAY, MAY 3, FOUR DAYS AFTER the start of the L.A. riots, and superstar rapper Eazy-E of N.W.A (Niggas with Attitude) is steering his silver Mercedes 600 SEL through the ravaged landscape of his hometown of Compton in Los Angeles County. "It's crazy," he says, shaking his head in dismay as he surveys the burned remains of a snack stand to his right, a gas station reduced to rubble on his left. About the same time, amid the ruins on another street corner, Arsenio Hall pulls his car over to talk with dazed South Central Los Angeles residents. And nearby, at the Crossroads Arts Academy, Marla Gibbs, better known as Florence, the cantankerous housekeeper on The Jeffersons, is setting up hot lines to get fast help to victims of the rioting.
But Eazy, whose group's 1989 underground hit single, "F— Tha Police," foreshadowed the furor that has decimated his 'hood, is oblivious to everything but the destruction around him. "I could see them acting up about the verdict," he says of his former neighbors, "but tearing up their neighborhood don't make no damn sense."
To many of Hollywood's black elite, the outrage that fueled the chaos was both understandable and painfully personal. None are strangers to racism. Says Eazy of what he calls routine police harassment and brutality against blacks in Los Angeles: "This s—t has been going on for years."
Nonetheless, on Wednesday April 29, the incendiary day a Simi Valley jury acquitted four policemen of almost all criminal charges in the beating of Rodney King, Arsenio made an unscripted plea for peace. Afterward he headed for the inner city with the pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church to hold a peace vigil.
Not far away, Gibbs and model turned actress Beverly Johnson were in downtown L.A., filming an upcoming Robert Townsend film, Meteor Man. When they heard the verdict, says Gibbs, "the pit of my stomach went sick."
That night, Johnson, who in 1974 was the first black to appear on the cover of Vogue, had a sinking feeling of her own. As she saw raging fires and billowing clouds of smoke off the freeway while she made the 10-mile trip to her Hollywood home, she says, "I was shaking so much I didn't think I could control the wheel. I was driving a Mercedes and I wanted to jump in somebody else's car. I was thinking, 'Is my makeup too light? Will they think I'm white?' "
Putting aside her own fear, Gibbs, meanwhile, took off for the violence-torn Crenshaw area to protect Crossroads Academy, the nonprofit cultural center she opened in 1988. Together with locals defending their homes and businesses, she set up barricades at either end of Degnan Boulevard. "When I saw people looting. I, like everybody else, said, 'It's like a bunch of mad dogs,' " says Gibbs. Alarmed, she confronted one young mother running out of a nearby store with an armload of groceries. In a car a few feet away, the woman's toddler sat watching. "I said, 'Don't let your child see you stealing,' " Gibbs recalls. "And she said, 'I have enough dignity left to appreciate what you're saying, but I ain't got no food. We ain't got nothing.' I had to stop and think about that."
In the days that followed, Gibbs. Johnson, Hall and fellow entertainers of all colors were busy mending not just broken glass and burned buildings, but, as best each could, the community's battered soul. On Thursday staffers at the Paramount lot, where the Arsenio Hall Show is taped, were sent home by 4 P.M. But the talk show host managed to keep his show on the air (although the Johnny Carson and Dennis Miller tapings were canceled)—and to get L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley as a guest.
Afterward he raced out to a Red Cross shelter in South Central L.A. "That was the most heartfelt time for me," says Hall. "There were a lot of little black kids who didn't understand. They know what happened with Rodney King. They know people are angry. But try explaining to them why their houses are gone."
That same day, Carl "Action Jackson" Weathers grabbed a push broom and a shovel and jumped into his Range Rover to drive the 17 miles from his prosperous—and safe—Marina Del Rey neighborhood to the scene of the violence. For the next five days, dressed in jeans, sneakers and a Los Angeles Dodgers cap, he swept rubble-strewn streets from Watts to Korea-town. He also bagged clothes, diapers and groceries for the hungry, at times homeless, victims of the rioting. "I didn't even look up," says Weathers. "There was so much to deal with, so many people. They're frightened. The situation is still very volatile."
Indeed, as Hall made his way between his studio, Red Cross shelters, community churches and a local radio station, where on Friday night he arranged for stars like Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Cosby and Roseanne Arnold to make on-air pleas for peace, he and the church members he traveled with dodged an occasional bottle—and insult. Picking up a broom to help sweep the streets, recalls Arsenio, he heard an angry woman shout, "It's about time." "I don't know what that meant," he says. "I looked at her and thought. 'What haven't I done?' It hurt my feelings."
As the days passed, moments of pain and outright strangeness—"It was weird to stand in front of McDonald's between a statue of Mayor McCheese and five feet away a marine with an M-16," says Hall—were eclipsed by flashes of hope. At a blacked-out intersection, he says, "I saw a Korean man and a black man sharing a bottle of Evian water and directing traffic. Sometimes a disaster brings out the best in people."
Back in Compton, Eazy, staring in silence at what remains of the Jack Rabbit Liquor and Market, is less optimistic. Inside, black employees are working alongside the Korean-American owners, sweeping up debris. "I hope this will happen no more," says a Korean woman holding a broom. "We want peace." Despite his name, however, Eazy cannot offer a simple solution. "A lot of those people they pulled out of cars was upset at the verdict too," says Eazy, of the motorists who were savagely beaten by rioters. "They was going back to take care of their black friends." Maneuvering his Mercedes out of the war zone, he exchanges a stern glance with two beefy bodyguards sitting, guns tucked discreetly out of sight, in the backseat. "I don't know what to do about it," he says quietly. "I'm waiting until everything quiets down. Then I'll see what's next."
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
LOIS ARMSTRONG, KRISTINA JOHNSON, CRAIG TOMASHOFF and MICHAEL SMALL in Los Angeles
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