Comedian Chris Rock, of "Saturday Night Live" fame, was on a roll on his visit to Baltimore just over a year ago when the topic turned to Rodney King, the motorist who was fresh off his severe beating by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department -- an assault that was videotaped and watched by millions of shocked viewers.
"He got the ass-kicking of the year -- he should be on the cover of 'Ass-Kick Magazine,' " Mr. Rock said, his crowd in hysterics. Then, somewhat seriously, he added that because of the tape justice had to be done. "A lot of people would love to be him now," he said, as the crowd nodded in approval, "because Rodney King is about to get paid."
It was funny then, but I don't think that routine would play quite as well today -- not after the events of Wednesday when a Ventura County, Cal. jury acquitted the four officers. There was no justice, and there's a chance that no one will get paid. Instead what the stunning verdict did was lead to rioting and killing in the streets of South Central Los Angeles and has left many to wonder -- just how valued is the life of a black person in this country?
I don't feel that my life -- or that of any other African-American -- is worth too much if it is possible that 12 jurors -- none of them
black -- could watch the 81-second tape of a defenseless Mr. King being viciously struck over 50 times with batons -- and then find the officers not guilty.
"Rodney King was not being abused, Rodney King was directing the action," said one juror on the NBC "Today" show. Another told the Los Angeles Times, "I know the film was horrible, but there's a lot more to it than the film."
What more could there be? That Mr. King led the police on an eight-mile chase at high speeds? That Mr. King may have said something to upset the officers? That Mr. King appeared to the police to be so dazed on PCP (which, tests showed, he was not) that one of the officers testified he felt so threatened that he almost fired at the helpless man?
Mr. King could have been guilty of all of the above, and still should not have to have endured -- while prone -- the brutal attack that led everyone from politicians to members of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, to call for a full judicial inquiry into a verdict that has left many dazed.
Dazed because for years, with little to go on but one person's word against another, white officers have been acquitted of killing blacks in violent confrontations from Teaneck, N.J. to New York to Los Angeles. And the one opportunity where the real criminals are exposed for millions to see, the officers still are able to walk out of the courtroom with a victory and a smile. It seems like every year it's a different city and -- despite the existence this time of a videotape -- the same results.
The verdict just sets the stage for a long, hot summer in Los Angeles, where relations between the police and blacks are already at an all-time low. After the verdict, some 5,000 concerned black citizens sought peaceful solutions at the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles.
"There is nothing but frustration and anger," said Joy Boyde, 25, a Howard University graduate and a resident of Inglewood who attended the meeting. "We're trying to encourage people to get out and vote, but how do you convince people who have never voted before that if they do, the justice system is going to work for them? How do you tell a little boy or girl that the police will protect you?
"There's no value on black life," she added. "And we're tired of it."
Others have taken their frustration to the streets, where more than hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property has been burned or looted and people have been beaten to death and shot. I don't condone the actions of the rioters, especially when innocent people are killed. But having grown up in an area that mirrors the despair of South Central L.A., I've lived through the frustrations of being poor and having society view you as if you were from another planet.
I'm far removed from my days growing up poor in Brooklyn, N.Y., but it's all too often that society -- in its subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, ways -- steps up to remind me where they think I stand. The Rodney King verdict is an example of society stepping up in a big way.
Unfortunately there are no signs of attitudes and relations getting any better. It definitely doesn't help when the leader of our our nation reacts in such a meek fashion, as President Bush did on the day that the verdict was handed down.
"The court system has worked," was the president's initial response, "and what's needed now is calm and respect for the law until the appeals process takes place."
No, the system did not work, and it hasn't worked for years. It doesn't work even if you do the right thing. Rodney King did the right thing when he was pulled over by police -- nothing at all. And look where it got him. (By the way, Mr. President, there is no appeal process with a not-guilty verdict).
If blacks really want justice, it seems like we might have to travel to South Africa to get it. The day after the jury acquitted the police officers in the King case, a white police captain in South Africa was sentenced to death in a Johannesburg courtroom after he was convicted the previous week of killing 11 blacks.
It's satisfying to know that that there is some justice somewhere. Unfortunately in America, justice just amounts to one big joke. And it's no laughing matter.