Brutality is here to stay

Gregory P. Kane

May 04, 1992|By Gregory P. Kane

FOR THOSE who were shocked by the not guilty verdict in the Rodney King trial, I have a suggestion: Get a grip on reality.

I knew for a year the four cops who beat Rodney King would lTC walk. I knew America's love affair with police brutality would not permit a verdict of guilty. With much of the industrialized world gaining on us economically and educationally, police brutality may be the one thing left that Americans do well.

Let's face it. The King trial was moved from Los Angeles to the conservative, nearly lily-white suburb of Simi Valley so that a jury with a predisposition to acquit would be chosen. The odds were stacked in the defendants' favor, and that should not surprise us. Indeed, compared to some cases of police brutality, the four cops in the King case were almost pacifists.

Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader killed in a "shoot-out" with police in 1969, was in a comatose state when police riddled his body with bullets. None of the officers involved was ever indicted, much less tried. Miami went up in flames in 1980 after officers on trial for killing motorist Arthur McDuffie were acquitted. Teaneck, N.J. erupted in violence after the acquittal of a white police officer in the shooting death of a 16-year-old black youth. If we don't convict cops for killing suspects, should we reasonably expect them to be convicted for pummeling suspects into submission?

Police brutality, I'm afraid, is here to stay. It certainly does not seem to have abated since the days when my father was a young man. He frequently made it a point to caution my brother and me about how brutal some cops could be.

One day when he was slightly inebriated, he gave us a graphic portrayal of what to expect should we have the misfortune to fall into the hands of unfriendly Baltimore policemen. "Let me show you," he said, "how they do it. They hit you where it doesn't show. They hit you right here!" He proceeded to give my brother a not-very-soft punch to the private parts.

My brother jumped in pain, and we both stared in stunned silence at each other and at my father, who sobered up enough to apologize. In the years since, I've often wondered what possessed my father to give my brother that vicious shot to the family jewels. I can only conclude that he was hoping that one punch from him would make us both avoid a worse beating by police later.

But if police brutality is here to stay, then so are the violent conflagrations that are so often its aftermath. Both, in fact, are symptoms of an American culture that all but worships violence. As reprehensible as are the violence and looting in the aftermath of the King verdict (a boycott and general strike would have been much more effective), history shows that they usually follow real or perceived police misconduct.

We simply don't seem to be able to practice what we preach. What we practice is the injustice, racism and violence that we cannot seem to purge from our society.

The Rodney King verdict isn't the only reason Los Angeles went up in flames. Black people there no doubt were still smoldering about the five years' probation given to an Asian store owner who shot dead a teen-age black girl for stealing a container of juice. They are probably asking themselves why Mike Tyson and Marion Barry went to jail while Oliver North and the cops who beat Rodney King are walking free. I doubt if anyone will be able to give them a satisfactory answer, but it appears that justice in this country is still not as color-blind as we'd like to think.

The racist banter among the officers who arrested Rodney King is probably still fresh in the mind of the blacks of Los Angeles, and no doubt they've heard the spate of racist Rodney King jokes that made the rounds after the beating. Do white people really believe this idiotic behavior doesn't get back to blacks?

But when the fires of L.A. die out, black people there and across the country will still be faced with the grim realization that most of the violence committed against black people does not come from the police. It comes from other blacks. And no black person in the country will be genuinely safe until we attack violence with the same passion we display when we attack racism.

Gregory P. Kane writes from Baltimore.

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