The week that Los Angeles has been dreading has arrived. Four L.A. Police Department officers charged with criminally beating Rodney King go on trial in federal district court. The officers were acquitted in a state court in a nearby suburban county last year of all but one minor count. That touched off the worst rioting in this century; the county coroner attributed 60 deaths to the fiery, bloody reaction to the verdict. Property damage has been estimated at $1 billion.
Many Californians -- many Americans -- believe the officers have been shown on videotape to be clearly guilty, and so they fear another acquittal will provoke another riot. But surely that is not so. That the police officers are being tried a second time -- and in federal court -- is clear proof the system is not supportive of white brutality against African-Americans. Many people believe Daryl Gates, the L.A. police chief when the beating took place, was a racist. He is gone. The new chief is a veteran African-American law enforcement officer from Philadelphia who has been working night and day to rid the LAPD of whatever culture of white racism still exists.
Police Chief Willie Williams also has been working to prepare his department for a more professional response to the first signs of rioting. Last year's riots might never have begun had the LAPD and other law enforcement units done their job in a timely fashion. One of the clearest lessons of the urban disorders of the 1960s was that massive force promptly employed stops angry, violent demonstrations from turning ugly. If Los Angeles, the state of California and the federal government did not re-learn that lesson last year in South Central Los Angeles, they never will.