Camera's role as perplexing as L.A. verdict

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 05, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Last Friday afternoon, as he walked the streets of Northwest Baltimore and hoped people in his city would not mirror the violence seen on their television screens, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke spotted a 10-year-old kid named William holding a toy rifle.

"Oooh," the mayor said, "I sure wish you hadn't picked today to carry that thing around."

Everybody near the mayor chuckled, but nervously. Sometimes life imitates the stuff on our television screens. On TV, there were people carrying rifles that shot real bullets. In parts of this city, where there are weapons and there is anger, a sense of anxiety hung in the air.

We are now arrived at a Tuesday morning, and this city is feeling VTC a little relieved after a calm weekend in which hundreds of thousands of people happily went to downtown baseball games and Harborplace and the Mechanic Theatre, while the mayor of Baltimore worked the phones and walked the streets and held his breath.

And in Los Angeles, at the end of more than 50 deaths, at the end of 9,500 arrests, at the end of about $700 million in damages, that city of bad dreams will now begin to assess what happened.

As he walked this city's streets, Kurt Schmoke sometimes had reporters and TV cameras following him. We still haven't figured out what the presence of media means in this process.

In Los Angeles, the videotaped police beating of Rodney King set people's nerve endings on edge for a year. In the riotous aftermath of the acquittal verdict, there are some who blame TV coverage for involuntarily inflaming the violence.

The mind goes back 24 years, to the 1968 riots here, and a scene that has never gone away. On a little street in West Baltimore, a warehouse has been set afire. A city editor says, "See what's going on over there."

Maybe 9 o'clock at night, I pull up to see neighborhood people sitting on their front steps, calmly watching the warehouse burn. It's the third night of these riots, and they're exhausted.

A few minutes later, a TV crew pulls onto the street. A couple of guys get out of a van, turn on a bright light and a camera. People get up from their steps, pick up rocks, begin hurling them at the burning warehouse.

Some scream, "Burn, baby, burn," and other epithets of that era. This goes on for about a minute, at which point some remarkable things happen:

The TV light and camera turn off.

Everybody immediately stops yelling, stops throwing rocks, and walks back to their front steps to sit back down.

They had acted out their little part in the drama of the day, imitating what they'd seen performed on their television sets, and then they'd gone back to life as usual.

We do not yet know the power of the camera -- or its powerlessness. The Rodney King videotaping seems now to have counted for nothing in the judicial process.

But the coverage of the riots, some say, counted for a lot.

And on Sunday, at this city's War Memorial, here was Leo Bretholz with a perspective that brought chills.

"When I saw the Rodney King video," he said, "I was immediately reminded me of the police beatings I saw inflicted by the Nazis on the Jews."

He is a survivor of that time. Now 71 years old, now half a century removed from a night when he jumped out of a freight train headed for Auschwitz, he spent the war years in Austria, Belgium and France, in and out of captivity.

On Sunday, at the War Memorial here, the Jewish community marked its annual Yom Hashoah -- the Holocaust Day of Remembrance -- and there were cross-references to the race hatred of the Hitler years and the hatred of today.

L And Leo Bretholtz thought about police beatings and cameras.

"In Europe," he said, "during all the Nazi beatings, even in the early days, the police were there. Sometimes there were pictures taken. Part of it was the German mania for keeping records, and partly it was them saying, 'Look what we do.' "

He opens a book, in which are shown photographs of that time. In one, German soldiers sit about while naked Jewish prisoners are lined up nearby. The Jews are waiting to die. The Germans are waiting for official photographers to show up, so the act can be recorded.

"I wonder," Leo Bretholtz says now, "about the power of the photograph. I saw my mother and sister forced to scrub the streets. Old Jews' beards were set afire, and hot and cold water thrown on others, while the Germans played their martial music over loudspeakers.

"And there were pictures of these things, which the world never saw until later. On the train to Auschwitz, we felt abandoned by the world. If we had the media coverage of today, perhaps they'd have had cameras at the places of train embarkment.

"Take a picture, take a glimpse. But then you get back to Rodney King, which is the frustration of it all. We were left to our own devices, to say something and hope the world would believe it. Today, the world had the evidence, but the jury didn't believe it."

So what is the power of the camera? To incite imitation of television scenes, but not to rouse a conscience? To expose violence, but not to move a jury? We don't know.

A lens is pointed, a shutter clicks, a tape rolls. The camera is impassive. And, across the generations, in matters of hate and injustice, sometimes human beings are, too.

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