Society learns hopelessness is starting to grow

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 03, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Three thousand miles from the city of Los Angeles, a charred photograph of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stared up from a dreadful pile of burned books at Garrison Boulevard and Park Heights Avenue.

"Look at this," said Troy Jones, 29. "It don't make no sense."

Jones lives right up the block. He was standing outside the Pimlico branch of the Enoch Pratt Library Friday morning where somebody had thrown a Molotov cocktail the night before and set off a blaze that gutted some of the building.

Immediately, the police were bending themselves into various contortions to say, "Los Angeles? Rodney King? No, this fire had nothing to do with that riot stuff."

Right.

Strictly by chance, some lunatic torches a library, and nobody's supposed to connect it with the fires that have burned across our television sets and our collective consciousness ever since the Rodney King verdict.

The whole thing makes you want to weep: first this Rodney King jury, consisting of maybe the only 12 people in America who could have decided unanimously that the thing they saw with their own eyes was not what actually happened; and then the violent, convulsive rage of the rioters; and then the air of freaky holiday as the second wave of looters takes advantage of communities with their defenses down.

And, worst of all, the confirmation of our worst fears: for blacks, the in-your-face verdict that says justice turns its back on them; for whites, the helicopter videos showing that their fears of black violence are not unjustified.

See, that's the problem: Everybody's been reduced to stereotypes here. It's what we do in America, where we have no memory of the past and no patience to face problems until the problems are fixed.

Does anyone still remember 1968? In the wake of the riots following Martin Luther King's assassination, everybody asked: "How could such a thing happen?" In those days, nobody in white America paid attention to problems in black America. It was not only another country but another mind-set.

But in the aftermath of those riots, we suddenly had federal money by the truckload and anti-poverty programs sprouting on every street corner. Some said it was blackmail money; they were right. It was government saying, we can't afford another outbreak like this, so let's throw some money around and hope it looks like we care.

But we have no attention span in this country. When things got quiet in black America, everybody in power heaved a sigh and turned away, and hoped nobody would notice. The money began to dry up. The poverty programs disappeared. The poorest school systems somehow wound up with the least help.

And the anger festered. "What are they angry about?" white America asked, when it thought about black America at all. Black complaints about unequal justice seemed paranoiac mutterings. Until Rodney King.

Complaints of unfair job opportunities sounded, on the surface, similarly ludicrous. Much of white America stewed over affirmative action programs, grew apoplectic over talk of quotas. And only occasionally, such as last month when the arithmetic appeared, did anyone make connections: The arithmetic said black poverty is three times as high as white poverty, and it said the very young and the very old are suffering the worst.

In Washington, we were advised on Thursday, the president was waiting for his advisers to draft a statement. The imagery was perfect. This is a man who has now been in the White House for 11 years and his major contribution to the racial climate of the country remains the Willie Horton ads.

In the morning, he indicated he was shocked by the jury verdict. Whoops, don't want anybody misinterpreting that. A few hours later, he was backing off and issuing another, softer statement. By evening, he'd changed again, giving a straight law-and-order speech.

Well, we're all in favor of law and order. And we're all in favor of fairness, too. And, in America, in the time of George Bush, we are longing for both. We have a president who can look at the arithmetic, or he can look at the decaying cities, and the evidence of trouble is everywhere.

It does not move him, as it did not move Ronald Reagan before him. They were hoping to skip town before any trouble broke out.

And so, as the weekend dawned and cities everywhere braced themselves, here was the burned-out Pimlico Library at Garrison and Park Heights, and here was Troy Jones, shaking his head sadly.

"This is making me sick," said Jones, an unemployed hotel worker. "This is the library my son goes to."

Nearby stood Aaron Morgan, 24, a nursing assistant who lives in the neighborhood. He wore a sport coat and a look of disbelief.

"Why burn a place that holds knowledge?" he said. "Education is our only way out."

"That's it," said Jones.

"Hopeless," Morgan said now. "That's all this is. See, it's this sense that nothing's gonna get better, so what the hell. And I don't think society knows how much it's starting to grow."

By society, he meant white society, which now knows.

And now Aaron Morgan looked down, and in the pile of burned books was the biography of Martin Luther King. The biography said he talked of peace, but now the biography was destroyed. And, for the moment in America, so was peace.

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