No Justice, No Peace

May 01, 1992

It is time for Americans to re-learn an old lesson. What happened in California in the Rodney King case is an old story. Study after study of urban race riots in the 1960s and 1970s warned against letting such episodes occur again. And yet they did reappear, in Los Angeles this week.

The experts agreed that people riot out of a sense of fear, anger, lack of confidence in the administration of justice and a sense of political impotence. A riot is not only a lot of criminal violence occurring at once. It is also a wrenching cry by African Americans who want the same control of their lives that most Americans take for granted.

Those early studies of riots found white police violence against blacks as the most likely precipitating factor. Out of those studies grew better, if far from perfect, police-community relations in most big cities. The tape of the King beating -- a textbook riot-precipitating act -- was shown over and over on Los Angeles television for months. Yet this did not precipitate a violent reaction. The black community expected, or at least hoped, that in the 1990s justice would be done.

It was not. Even if the officers who beat Mr. King behaved legally and reasonably in the circumstances, as the jurors decided, justice was denied because of the way the case was tried. It was removed from the racially mixed community in which the beating occurred to a practically all-white exurb, where a jury with no blacks was assured. Why was it moved? Because the California courts bought that tired, old, discredited argument of the criminal defense bar that pre-trial publicity in famous cases prevents a fair trial in the locality.

Had this same verdict come from a jury that included blacks, it probably would not have provoked riots. The blacks in Los Angeles who reacted so violently would still have disagreed with the verdict, but they would have felt a part of the process that produced it. The leaders of every city in which there are whites and blacks trying to live together must re-dedicate themselves to seeing that all people are included in the process whereby law and order and justice are achieved.

"Is this the Deep South -- and are we back to the '60s?" the Los Angeles Times asked yesterday. No, but there are similarities. Thus it was good to hear President Bush say the Justice Department had "accelerated" its investigation to see if the police officers violated federal laws that prohibit officials from depriving citizens of their rights -- specifically if they did so because of their race. Federal prosecution has the advantage in cases like this of drawing from a larger, more diverse jury pool and avoiding elected state judges who are politically skittish. It was a useful approach to the administration of justice in the South a generation ago.

"No justice, no peace!" the rioters shouted. It is in their hands to deny peace. It is in the hands of the rest of us to provide justice.

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