A Lesson to Be Learned -- Again

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

May 02, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

We've been here before. Watts went up in smoke in 1965, in a blaze my Navy buddies out at sea saw as a sickening orange glow where they expected to see a skyline when they made port the next day. The underlying grievances then were the same ones heard this week: few jobs, no prospects, no respect. A small incident became the match.

It's no surprise that Los Angeles burns again in 1992. The events that led up to it are a textbook example of how not to keep the peace. No one can condone lawlessness that killed more than three dozen people and caused close to half a billion dollars worth of damage. Innocent people have been killed or maimed, police and firefighters sworn to protect lives were treated like occupation troops and thousands have lost jobs and homes. There is nothing to celebrate.

But there are lessons to be learned. Twelve years ago, Miami burned after a trial eerily similar to the Ventura County fiasco.

Miami's troubles sprang from the killing of businessman Arthur McDuffie. Somehow, after a traffic chase, uniformed men beat him to death, then tried to conceal it. Their trial was transferred to Tampa due to defense complaints of excessive publicity. Tampa's prospective jurors were as much aware of the unrest surrounding the case as Miami's, but no one seemed to think of that.

After the acquittal of Mr. McDuffie's abusers, 11 people died in a riot. Only a painfully honest examination of community grievances and of discrepancies in the treatment of non-white suspects, with a strong prohibition against excessive force, can prevent further outbreaks, but Miami endured three more bloody riots after still more questionable killings.

Rodney King didn't die, but Los Angeles surely repeated the pattern. The March 3, 1991, beating was videotaped by a horrified resident and broadcast to a shocked city, the nation and the world. Intense criticism forced the dropping of charges against Mr. King, who had led police on an eight-mile chase and allegedly ''lunged'' at arresting officers, and to a special inquiry and charges of widespread racism and brutality against Los Angeles' police. But Chief Daryl Gates, before he even reviewed the evidence, stoutly defended conduct that was indefensible, stirring loud complaints that eventually forced him to resign.

A California judge who should have known better transferred the trial of Mr. King's assailants out of Los Angeles to Ventura County, where only six blacks out of a total 400 prospects were summoned for jury duty. Two black jurors were stricken by defense challenges, then defense attorneys put Mr. King on trial, a convicted ex-offender and dire example of the danger to society held back by a ''thin blue line.'' That played well with the white Ventura County jury, but its effect on an angry black populace convinced there would be no justice was all but written on the courthouse wall.

Police cannot be held accountable for society's wrongs of discrimination. But no police force in a major urban area can keep order while failing to be sensitive to the issues of social inequality. People who have endured 12 years of castigation as ''welfare queens,'' Willie Hortons and irresponsible fathers while watching their communities be abandoned by an economy that valued ''lean and mean'' companies and stock-market tricks over compassion for their needs are never very far from a cascade of rage.

But the sad thing here is that L.A.'s blacks still believed the evidence would bring Mr. King justice. The men who beat him had seemed, rather than even-handed enforcers of the traffic laws, to be acting out their prejudices. They got caught on tape, as Marion Barry did in a Washington hotel, but the jury refused to convict them. No one rioted when the videotape was shown, because people thought the evidence would carry the day.

But defense lawyers blamed Mr. King, mainly for being big and black and ''menacing.'' The all-white jury's acceptance of this confirmed the worst fears of people already simmering over exclusion from the economic, political and cultural benefits of the society around them.

Much has been made of Mr. King's record, but even a convict has the right to fair treatment. Failure to respect his rights thus became a prescription for killing respect for the law. That's the saddest thing of all. People have died, while anonymous jurors and the King defendants' lawyers spent time on TV convincing themselves the blood on their hands was really none of their own doing.

As New York Rep. Floyd Flake has said, the anger goes far beyond California. It is a lesson we really shouldn't need to learn any more times.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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