A White Jury Got the Picture -- and Didn't Get It

TOM TEEPEN

May 01, 1992|By TOM TEEPEN

ATLANTA. — Atlanta -- This time, most African-Americans thought, whites finally would understand what blacks had been trying to tell them all these years. The videotape was so horrifying, its testimony so compelling that surely no jury could deny the plain evidence of its eyes.

But the jury did precisely that. One of the jurors who acquitted four Los Angeles policemen for beating an obstreperous motorist to a pulp insisted, astoundingly, that the brutalized Rodney King had actually been in control all the time; that, in effect, he was directing his own victimization.

Almost every black person in this country carries a tale of misadventure with police that happened to him or to a relative or close friend. Few white people are comparably burdened. In this difference lies a chasm of social distance, aboil with a confusion of strikingly different assumptions and of mutually alienating conclusions.

The King verdict pushes us far beyond past black worries. Those focused on the frustrating inability of African-Americans to make their white fellow citizens realize what black life can sometimes be like. If only whites could get the picture, then understanding and, so, inevitably, change would follow.

But the King jury got the picture -- as literally as it could ever be shown -- and it shrugged the picture off.

It may not be true that white authority is now free everywhere in the country to violate blacks with impunity, but it would be unreasonable for blacks to assume it is not.

The policemen, we can now see, won their case when their lawyers got it moved to a suburban county where no blacks were likely to serve on the jury and where, in fact, none did.

Suburbia is in more than casual danger of becoming the Old South of the new America. It is in most cases physically and emotionally distant from all blacks and certainly from the black poor. It is fearful and uncomprehending, politically disdainful of black concerns and contemptuous of black leadership, and it blames the increasingly isolated blacks of urban America for the inescapable traumas of their isolation.

There is little to choose between the King verdict and scores like it in which all-white juries in the tintype South excused racist thuggery and worse. (Indeed, if the U.S. Justice Department now charges the officers with federal civil-rights violations, trying at least for partial justice, the parallel will be almost exact.)

The Ventura County jury had an opportunity to interrupt the cycle of violence. But it gave no weight to the racist badinage in which some of the officers themselves cast their actions. It would not even, as at least a few of its members wished to do, draw the line against the most extreme excesses of one officer, so plainly beyond what was needed to subdue a resisting suspect.

So before the image of Rodney King being beaten mercilessly could fade, it is overlaid with the images of anonymous whites being pulled from their cars and being viciously beaten, too.

In its blanket exoneration, and with a speed that suggested blitheness, the jury, far from slowing violence's wheel, gave it another bloody shove. Is it really necessary to say we can't go on this way?

Tom Teepen is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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