• U.S.

No Shades Of Gray

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

What drives history? Facts? Or people’s perception of the facts? Twenty-five centuries ago, Thucydides enlisted on the side of literal, close-focus truth. His older contemporary Herodotus took the more expansive view that people’s self-images and folklore and even self-delusions are as important as the hard facts of history. Myths open windows upon fears, fantasies, possibilities. The old bipolar question always comes into play when Americans, black and white, approach the facts and myths of race.

For example: What exactly happened in Los Angeles on the night of March 3, 1991, near the corner of Foothill and Osborne? The famous videotape showed a cluster of police savagely and gratuitously beating a black man named Rodney King. The scene replayed indelibly on television sets around the world. Did the videotape show the truth? Whose truth? All of it? Enough of it?

Or consider a case that began in obscurity, without benefit of videotape, about 10 weeks after the King beating. The body of a 16-year-old black youth named Eric McGinnis was found floating at the mouth of the St. Joseph River where it flows into Lake Michigan. How did Eric die? Accidental drowning? Racial murder? But in the “Twin Cities” on either side of the river–in the overwhelmingly black town of Benton Harbor, Mich., and in the overwhelmingly white community of St. Joseph–people’s suspicions tend to be shaped by the folklores and assumptions that emerge from separate experiences, black and white.

Two journalists have now done admirable work along the fact-myth continuum of these two cases. Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, a 1991 best seller about two black boys growing up in a Chicago housing project, spent five years investigating the death of Eric McGinnis. In The Other Side of the River (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 317 pages; $24.95), Kotlowitz attempts a kind of narrative mediation, shuttling back and forth across the bridge between the white and black universes–the somewhat gentrified white St. Joseph and the dirt-poor Benton Harbor, with its drug gangs and the highest murder rate in the country.

While Kotlowitz reaches no conclusion about what caused McGinnis’ death, his account is a saddened, sympathetic portrait of two Americas. At the same time, however, the book often seems curiously unmoving and thin, perhaps because it is ultimately inconclusive, perhaps because of a note of self-importance that sometimes falsifies the author’s narrative voice.

In Official Negligence (Times Books/Random House; 698 pages; $35), Lou Cannon has written an exhaustive and considerably more complicated book–a study of the Rodney King case and of the riots that followed, of the Los Angeles police department and of the city itself. The result is that Cannon, the former Los Angeles bureau chief for the Washington Post, has put together a multidimensional model of patient, dispassionate journalism.

The famous videotape, edited for television, did not show that after leading police on a 7.8-mile chase at speeds up to 115 m.p.h., King, a large man over 6 ft. tall with muscles buffed in prison weight rooms, appeared, according to police, virtually psychotic on some kind of drug, showed no effect from two jolts from a stun gun and threw off several officers who tried to “swarm” him, a relatively benign technique used to subdue a violent suspect. Nor did it show that after all that, King was charging directly at the officer who first whacked him with a baton. But the videotape became one of those vehicles of Herodotus, carrying at its core a mythic truth that fetched back centuries: white authority brutalizing a black.

When, a year later, a suburban Simi Valley jury acquitted three of the police officers of using excessive force against King and cleared another officer of all but one charge, Los Angeles exploded in riots that left 54 people dead, 2,000 injured and more than 800 buildings burned. During the riots, another videotape was made, this time from a police helicopter, showing a cement truck driver named Reginald Denny, a white man, being dragged from his cab by young blacks, who kicked him and smashed him in the head with a brick until he lay near death. Now each side had evidence to validate its stereotypic myths.

Cannon’s verdict, as his title suggests, ultimately finds the LAPD and the judicial system guilty of negligence (as, for example, in failing to train officers adequately in ways to subdue an out-of-control suspect) and of a certain institutional incompetence in administering justice. A multidimensional Rashomon, of course, adds up to something out of chaos theory. Cannon has integrated both the facts and the myths into a work of superbly professional journalism.

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