Moving Beyond the Tragedy in Los Angeles

THE events in Los Angeles have reopened the wound of racism in this country.

Whites on a jury render a verdict of acquittal for four white police officers, thereby, in effect, announcing their incapacity for minimal empathy with the plight of the victim, Rodney King.

Blacks respond with a violent and vicious attack on the lives and property of other innocent parties. Dehumanization begot dehumanization. Many of us, blacks and whites, are stunned and dismayed by the tragedy of it all.

But let us hope that this is the kind of adversity that, as Shakespeare said, has a jewel in its forehead. Our response to the tragedy can take us, hopefully, to a better place, a more civilized way of functioning, which will prevent a repeat of Los Angeles.

I must enter a mild dissent to the calls for re-prosecution by state authorities or fresh prosecution by the federal authorities. Such a course may not be wrong, but I don't believe it would be very efficacious, and it could compound the injury if it results in another acquittal, or, more possibly, a hung jury.

A part of what has brought us to the bad juncture where we find ourselves now is our overreliance of late on criminal prosecutions and jailings (America now jails more persons per capita that any industrialized democracy) when there were more important underlying social and economic conditions we should have addressed.

One of the problems which should be addressed in response to Los Angeles is adequate civilian control over our police forces. Practically every riot that has occurred in this country since the 1940s has been ignited by some perceived abuse by the police of a black citizen. No city should operate, like Los Angeles, with the police chief not being under the top elected official, the mayor.

Moreover, every city should examine whether it has a functioning civilian review board to hear complaints about excessive or unlawful police behavior. The appropriate response to the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles is to promptly institute proceedings to dismiss the culpable officers from the police force. This would be an administrative civil proceeding, conducted in Los Angeles, under a lower standard of proof than a criminal prosecution. It should have a stronger impact on the officers who have ab used their authority than the light sentence or probation they would receive even if convicted in federal court.

But the King beating, jury verdict, and rioting should be occasions for a larger inquiry. They tell me how vulnerable we are, black and white, to one another. To explain what I mean by that, I must call attention to the point made by many, but thoroughly documented by Thomas and Mary Edsal in their book "The Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics."

They say that a strenuous debate about values has been going on in America. Many Americans have been manipulated into believing that individual responsibility, the work ethic, and family stability are jeopardized by claims of "liberals" (and their black allies) that large-scale social and economic forces heavily influence one's opportunities, that more government intervention (read more taxes) is needed, and that all persons have a "right" to their own lifestyle, no matter how unorthodox (e.g. gays, radi cal feminists).

The Edsals claim that the Republicans have repeatedly captured the White House and exploited these value tensions (which are often cast as the middle class versus the poor) by utilizing race through code words to align themselves with (and to create) a conservative majority. It may seem a leap to draw the line from "Willie Horton" type campaigning to the police behavior and jury verdict in the Rodney King matter, but I think that there is a link.

I do not believe that you can, from the national platform that presidential politics permits, demonize a whole group of people, even if it is done covertly, without the social consequence that many whites will become desensitized to that group's humanity. Hence the police treatment of King, as well as officer Powell's "jungle" statements, indicate that they were confronting an animal. If the jury treats the beatings as the restraint appropriate for a dog, the circle is complete.

Black people have thus been rendered vulnerable by that form of national politicking. But the least of us, if driven and desperate, can impose heavy costs on society, especially if we are willing to risk our lives doing it - thus Los Angeles and a few other cities become vulnerable to a small group of enraged, out-of-control citizens.

Perhaps if we can sense that mutual vulnerability and pain (which King expressed) we can use it to give up cheap, racially charged political rhetoric and address ourselves to the real issues of economic security, adequate housing, and health care that all Americans, if not irresponsibly diverted, care about.

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