• U.S.

What Can Be Done?

5 minute read
Michael Kramer

FOR 14 MINUTES FROM THE OVAL OFFICE LAST FRIDAY the echo was familiar. It was George Bush at his Inaugural. There were kind words, gentle words and tough words — all appropriate, all profound in their simplicity. It was good, plain talk from the heart. Nothing flashy; none of the “Message: I care” nonsense the President pushed on New Hampshire voters last winter when it was his survival and his future that were at stake.

The nation needed to hear its leader condemn the mindless rioting — and it was good to learn that a federal grand jury is investigating the violation of King’s civil rights. It was good, too, to hear the President again share with the country his frustration and anger with the Simi Valley verdict. Nevertheless, there was little that telegraphed a true understanding of the connection between what the President deplores and what he still, for the most part, ignores.

“After peace is restored,” Bush said, “we must then turn again to the underlying causes of such tragic events.” Given the G.O.P.’S ideology and its sources of political support, it is unrealistic to expect the President to direct a mass transfer of resources toward the economic inequality that plagues America’s minorities. But there is a good deal else that can be done, and Bush should begin listening to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, the only Administration player who has thought seriously about urban problems. Kemp’s proposals to turn over public-housing units to tenants and his incentive schemes to tempt business and industry into the inner cities have got nowhere with Bush. They should now.

Straight talk — the place where we all must start — demands that the President move far beyond last week’s speech to articulate what everyone knows: in a country that each day reveals itself as two nations, where almost everyone sees race first and the individual second, where there still exist children of a lesser god, the Simi Valley verdict is perfectly explicable — not as a fair consideration of the evidence but as an expression of fear. The argument that won acquittal played to that fear — the defense’s clever evocation of the “thin blue line” that “alone” staves off chaos. “The jury’s message,” says Adam Walinsky, a New York lawyer who served as Robert Kennedy’s top aide, “is this: What are cops for if not to protect you against what you watch all day on TV and what you feel each time you pass two blacks on a deserted street? White people are so terrified of black violence that they will condone even what they can plainly see on videotape.”

As the fear is real, so is the crime that feeds it — and it should be said again that blacks are themselves the most likely victims of violence. This much, at least, the President must acknowledge. It would help, too, if the man who sanctioned the infamous Willie Horton ad during his 1988 run for the White House would admit his complicity in developing the images and code words that encourage whites to demonize blacks.

Beyond admissions and entreaties, a little extra funding and a little leadership could significantly enhance the public safety. Here are three actions Bush could take immediately:

— More cops in poor, high-crime neighborhoods: The unimpeded looting in Los Angeles is nothing compared with the violence that inner-city residents endure daily — and that most of us will suffer at some time. The Justice Department says that 83% of all Americans will be victims of a violent crime at least once in their lives. Forty years ago, there were three cops for every violent felony. Today there are 3.3 violent felonies for each officer. Returning the ratio to its 1950s level should be a first priority, and a first step is to break out and pass two provisions of the crime bill currently stalled in Congress. One would provide about $1 billion in extra law-enforcement assistance to local areas. An environment of disorder — broken windows, graffiti, shoplifting — threatens civility and leads to major outrages like robbery and murder. Cops on the beat are the best defense. More than 300 communities have found that returning cops to the street is the best way both to police petty offenses and to build the trust between police and citizens that is the best guarantee against abuse.

Another way to get more — and better-educated — cops is to pass the crime bill’s police-corps provision, a plan that would finance a college education for those who agree to serve as cops for four years after graduation.

A third way to add cops — and deal with another pressing problem in the bargain — is to retrain as police officers some of the troops being demobilized as the Pentagon cuts personnel.

— Gun control: It’s past time, period.

— The President should support U.S. Circuit Judge Jon Newman’s call for a law that would more easily permit the victims of police brutality to recover monetary damages. To ensure payment, Newman would have the Federal Government bring lawsuits directly against local governments. “A city pays when a garbage collector negligently causes a motor-vehicle accident,” says Newman. “The city should similarly pay when one of its officers commits an act of police brutality.” Newman would also eliminate the good-faith defense: “The reasonableness of ((one’s)) belief in the lawfulness of his actions should not stand in the way of the city’s obligation to pay damages to the victim of his wrongdoing.”

These are fairly simple steps, but they should appeal to a President taken with law-and-order cures — and they go beyond talk at a time when even good talk, alone, will no longer do.


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: Have prejudice and discrimination against blacks become more prevalent in recent years?

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