• U.S.

The Fire This Time

15 minute read
George J. Church

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR HE had been a writhing body twisting on the ground under kicks and nightstick blows in what may be the most endlessly replayed videotape ever made. Then on Friday afternoon TV finally gave Rodney King a face and a voice — a hesitant, almost sobbing voice that yet was more eloquent than any other that spoke during the terrible week. “Stop making it horrible,” King pleaded with the rioters who had been doing just that in Los Angeles — and to a lesser extent in San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Pittsburgh and other cities. He sounded almost dazed by the violence that followed a jury’s acquittal of the cops who had beaten him: the killing, burning and looting, he muttered, were “just not right . . . just not right.” As to black-white relations: “Can we all get along?”

Would that the nation’s leaders, of both races, could find such plain but heartfelt words. Then perhaps the quiet that will return after the fires and the fury burn themselves out — whenever that is — could cover healing. Which would make it very unlike the totally deceptive quiet that preceded the King verdict.

It had not exactly been unknown that race relations were worsening; a hundred voices had said so. But not until last week did many whites and blacks realize how deep an abyss had been opening at their feet. And last week’s violence is all too likely to make the gulf still wider and deeper. For blacks the acquittal, and for whites the aftermath, tended to confirm each race’s worst fears and suspicions about the other.

Blacks have far more than police brutality to worry about: high unemployment, widespread poverty, poor schools, drug peddlers and criminals who prey on their neighborhoods. But it is no accident that nearly all the great ghetto riots since the 1960s have been triggered by some incident involving arrested blacks and white cops. To an extent that whites can barely even imagine — because it so rarely happens to them — police brutality to many blacks is an ever present threat to their bodies and lives.

Indeed, few things more vividly illustrate the extent to which whites and blacks live in different worlds than their reactions to police brutality. A white who was sickened by the tape of King’s beating would probably have said to himself something like, Look what they’re doing to that poor guy. A black would be almost sure to say, My God, that could be me. And nothing makes blacks feel more helpless than the thought that they cannot do anything about it. However innocent a black may be, and however outrageously he or she may be treated, the criminal-justice system simply will not convict policemen of using excessive force.

After the King verdict, many blacks said bitterly they had always thought the cops would be turned loose. Lester Barry, the black emcee of the “Comedy ‘n the Hood” show at the Guild Theatre in Inglewood, had even been saying in his act that “those guys are going to get off.” But the shock and rage after the verdict belied those statements. This time, many blacks apparently hoped, it would be different. After all, this was not merely the word of a black with an arrest record against the word of one or more cops: this time there was hard evidence in the form of a tape on which the jurors, like hundreds of millions of TV viewers around the world, could actually see the beating. Says Robin Gant, a student at Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, N.Y.: “When the beating first happened, the black community felt this is our chance to show that, yes, we do have rights and you can’t beat us within an inch of our lives and get away with it.”

In a TIME/CNN poll conducted last Friday by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, 78% of 200 blacks questioned, and 79% of 798 whites, said they thought before the verdict that the policemen would be found guilty. On many other questions, a majority or plurality of one race agreed with a much larger segment of the other: 62% of whites, but 92% of blacks, thought they would have voted to convict if they had been on the jury. The riots that followed were condemned as completely unjustified by 63% of whites and 42% of the blacks; an additional 20% of blacks and 14% of whites found them somewhat unjustified (though 15% of blacks and only 4% of whites thought they were completely justified). Blacks also tended to agree with whites that the riots were mostly caused by “people taking advantage of the situation to justify violence and looting” rather than “a genuine reaction to the verdict in the Rodney King case.” But one of the greatest differences between the races was also among the most ominous. Only 23% of whites felt that in an everyday encounter with police they ran a risk of being treated unfairly. More than twice as many blacks (48%) did.

In any case, blacks found cold consolation in the idea that many whites also disagreed with the acquittal of the policemen. To them, the white disapproval was pallid and ineffectual and showed little real understanding of their emotions. “Police terrorism is a form of oppression that black people intimately understand, because we are the victims of it,” says Steven Hawkins, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. “It is something that few whites understand, because they are typically not affected by it.” Herman Collins, an unemployed 26-year-old black in Ohio, says more simply, “I don’t want to see any white people today. Every time I see a white person now I will think, ‘You think you can get away with anything.’ I know you can’t blame all white people for this, but there’s only so much a black man can take.”

Collins’ opinion of the signal that the jury’s decision will flash to police and other whites across the country is widely shared among blacks. On a scholarly level, Robert Starks, professor of inner city studies education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, asserts, “The message is loud and clear. It reinforces the 1857 Dred Scott dictum that no black man has any rights that a white man is bound to respect. African-American males feel it is open season.” Not only males, either. Akos Esi, 36, a professional nurse who has immigrated from Ghana to New York City’s Harlem, says, “I think it’s a message white America is sending, that you can do anything to a black person, even with evidence against you, and get away with it.” She vows to tell the children she takes care of, “You are black; the policeman is an enemy. When you see the police officer, go away because no matter what you do you are guilty.” Gwendolyn Young, executive director of the Louisville and Jefferson County Human Relations Commission in Kentucky, declared to a hundred people at a protest rally in Louisville that “in America black life is meaningless and black rights do not exist.” To many blacks, the fact that the not-guilty verdicts were handed down by a jury that included no blacks (though it did have one Asian and one Hispanic) virtually proves that the criminal-justice system is ruled by bias and that they cannot look to it for fair treatment. They dismiss as a sham the official contention that the trial was moved from Los Angeles to nearby Simi Valley to guard against prejudicial publicity influencing the jury. In their view, the move was made precisely for the purpose of guaranteeing that a jury excluding blacks would be chosen (Simi Valley is not only almost exclusively white but also has a relatively large population of policemen and other civil servants) and that such a group of jurors was desired specifically because it would be almost certain not to convict. Not a few white observers, including some legal scholars, are inclined to agree with that judgment, at least partly. Says Douglas Colbert, a professor of criminal law at Hofstra: “I don’t believe it would have mattered what evidence was presented or not presented.” But again, white sympathy does little to reduce black fury.

For the black majority, fear and fury do not translate into approval of — let alone participation in — rioting (for that matter, Hispanics and whites joined the looters in some cities). Apart from moral considerations, blacks realize that it is their neighborhoods that burn and mostly their lives that are lost. Nearly every black leader of note voiced some variation on these comments from Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “We vigorously condemn with all the force we can muster what has happened. Rioting, arson, looting and murder solve nothing.”

But there are gulfs within as well as between the races, and last week demonstrated that black leaders are not always in touch with, much less in control of, all their supposed followers. In Los Angeles, even to some usually moderate blacks, appeals from leaders to channel their anger into such constructive measures as voting in a June 2 referendum for an amendment to the city charter that would reform police administrative procedures sounded distressingly feeble. Mayor Tom Bradley, who is black, drew boos and cries of “Uncle Tom” as well as cheers from a crowd jamming the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central Los Angeles during one of his frequent pleas for peace.

Worse, the riots demonstrated again the existence of a group of mostly young, impoverished and angry ghetto blacks who no longer listen to the established African-American leadership — or to anybody. “There is a major communication gap between our so-called leaders and these people who have taken to the streets,” says Johnnie Cochran, one of the most prominent lawyers in Los Angeles. People leaving the protest rally at the First A.M.E. Church on Wednesday night, he relates, were confronted by rioters who told them, “Nothing you’re talking about is going to do any good — so come with us and let’s burn.” Some rioters even shot at the churchgoers. “Black people shooting at other black people,” says Cochran disconsolately. “Nobody can talk to the people in the streets. Even their parents can’t talk to them. The only thing they’re going to understand is a show of force, and I hope it’s a measured show of force.”

On the white side of the racial divide, the riots may tend to reinforce suspicions — or convictions — that all too many blacks are emotionally irresponsible at best, criminals at worst. So far, it must be said, there is not much evidence of that. With the exception of people calling in to radio talk shows — one in New York City called the rioters a bunch of “terrorists and anarchists” who would seize on any pretext to wreak the destruction they enjoy — most whites were fairly circumspect in voicing their opinions.

In fact, according to last week’s TIME/CNN poll, whites’ criticisms of blacks have lessened in the past year, and are nowhere near as severe as blacks think they are. In a prize example of racial misunderstanding, 65% of blacks believed whites thought they “have no self-discipline,” but only 17% of whites actually said that; 63% rejected the idea. Though 75% of blacks believed whites thought them prone to crime, only 34% of whites were willing to say that blacks “are more likely to commit violent crimes” than whites are; 48% thought that description “does not apply.”

White opinion, like black, also is divided — even among policemen. Like other whites, hardly any cops will say flat-out that they approve of the verdict, or of the conduct of the policemen who were acquitted. Some, however, do express relief and opine that the public got a distorted impression of what happened from the tape. There was — there must have been — other evidence that led the jury to acquit. “The trial was much more than 81 seconds of tape,” says Houston burglary sergeant Doug Elder. “The media and politicians took the tape and indicted, tried and convicted those officers before they went to court.” Now, he says, “politicians are helping pour flames on the problem.”

On the other side, Edwin Delattre, a Boston University ethics professor who has written a book on the use of force that is widely studied as a police training manual, says he has talked to hundreds of officers since the King tape was first shown. Says he: “They feel betrayed by the low standards of the police in Los Angeles. There is indignation and resentment; they believe the four cops in L.A. should have been convicted. Police all over the country are appalled that those police used force in such a contemptible way.” Maybe so, but these officers have also been keeping their opinions primarily to themselves.

There is some question, in fact, whether white fear and suspicion of blacks may be higher than most will confess to pollsters. Some analysts think it is and worry about a vicious circle: white fear of black crime is so high as to lead some to excuse almost any behavior on the part of the police who are supposedly protecting them against it. That leads to verdicts like the acquittal of King’s beaters, which touch off riots like those last week, which further intensify white fear. Scholars of both races express this apprehension. Says Henry Louis Gates, chairman of Afro-American studies at Harvard: “That ((King)) jury was more afraid of the potential of being mugged by some hypothetical black male than it was of the abuse of the Constitution, of civil rights.” Jim Sleeper, author of the book The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, is fearful that “we’re at the dividing line now, where perception becomes reality, where the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. The fact that the looters are out there doing the rioting only confirms what people have decided: this is what the cops are here to protect us from.”

The tragedy is that, if the polls are anywhere near accurate, the races have more in common than they think they do: the dominant strain in black and white opinion condemns both the acquittal and the rioting. That should have offered an opportunity for creative political leadership to begin emphasizing the convergence and narrowing the differences. In particular, it offered a rare chance to President Bush, who when faced with a tough choice often tries to go both ways. This was one time he could have done so and won the applause of that majority disgusted with the acquittal and the riots.

But Bush is also often a half-beat behind the mood of the moment, and so he was this time. On Wednesday night, immediately after the verdict, he gave reporters an utterly inadequate statement: “The court system has worked. What’s needed now is calm, respect for the law.” On Thursday he issued a series of statements that were stern in condemning the rioting but confusing about what, if anything, he intended to do about the verdict.

On Friday, however, Bush finally conferred with black leaders at the White House, and when he addressed the nation on TV that night — his eighth pronouncement in roughly 48 hours — he at last got the message about right. He announced steps to quell the already fading rioting, including federalization of National Guard units in the area. And he again unequivocally condemned the disturbances, flatly calling some of the rioters’ acts “murder.”

But this time the President also pronounced the tape of King’s beating “revolting” and spoke of the “anger” and “pain” he had experienced watching it. More important, he at last announced that the verdict of the Simi Valley jury was “not the end.” He ordered federal authorities to speed an investigation with a view toward starting a federal prosecution of the four cops for violating King’s civil rights, utilizing a law enacted specifically to apply in cases where state courts and juries could or would not convict. That move might help convince skeptical blacks that they can after all get fair treatment from the judicial system. Better late than never — but it remains to be seen whether the racial chasm that the King case and the riots revealed and widened can be bridged.


CREDIT: From a telephone poll of 798 white and 200 black American adults taken for TIME/CNN on April 30 by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. Sampling error is plus or minus 3.5% and 7% respectively. Some “not sures” omitted.

CAPTION: If you had been on the jury, how would you have voted?

Before the verdict was announced, what did you think it would be?

How many police in your area are predudiced against blacks?

In an encounter with the police, do you ever feel that you are at risk of being treated unfairly?

Which describes the reason for the jury’s not-guilty verdict?

How does the country’s criminal-justice system treat whites and blacks?

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