St. Petersburg's Message

Last week, after a second bout of racial violence erupted in St. Petersburg, Fla., many people took to the Internet to talk about the grand jury's decision to clear a white policeman of killing a black youth.

"As long as the police ... continue to abuse their power, and government officials continue to condone their actions, there will be civil unrest," one Internet user wrote.

"White people have no understanding of how black people feel," another wrote. "You depend on the police, and we have no one to depend on."

Yet another asked, "... how are we helping to keep our communities together and unified if we are burning the very places we live and shop?"

In 1992 a jury verdict in the Rodney King beating case sparked riots in South Central Los Angeles. This time, in St. Petersburg, city officials say the uprising was not spontaneous. It was partly incited by a black militant group that threatened violence if the white police officer was cleared of charges.

But it may be less important how the rioting started than that it started at all. Have we made any progress since the Rodney King incident four years ago? If the Internet opinions are any indication, some Americans would reply "no." Yet in Pittsburgh last week, calm prevailed after the acquittal of a white officer charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a black motorist. Protesters marched and chanted, but they didn't resort to violence.

Rioting is never a productive response. Indeed, as the individual quoted above asked, what good is it for people to loot and vandalize the places where they live and work?

Protesters in Pittsburgh, as well as those commenting on the Internet, talked about other recent cases where police officers appeared to abuse their authority. They said too many inner-city dwellers feel they lack any stake in "the system," or any opportunity of finding success. Hence such people see that "system" as unfair and unjust.

The protesters offered suggestions too. As a nation we must reject generalizations like "whites are our enemy," or "blacks are all criminals." A community-connected police force would help, but so would a more cooperative attitude toward the police. And finally, they said, "race still matters" - that is, the nation needs a soul-searching public dialogue to air, nonviolently, issues of racial tension and inequity.

That dialogue was notably absent from the recent campaign. St. Petersburg was a reminder that it can't be put off indefinitely.

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