King trial is affront to the Constitution

William Safire

March 02, 1993|By William Safire

ON three stories of urgent concern to blacks, gays and women, I find myself turning into a right-wing troglodyte.

* 1. The second trial of the L.A. police officers for their beating of drunken driver Rodney King is an affront to the Constitution.

The individual in this country has a protection from prosecution called "double jeopardy": once freed by a jury, a defendant cannot be retried for the same offense even if new evidence or a confession establishes certain guilt.

Nearly two generations ago, whites were regularly getting away with murder in state courts in the South. In that emergency, federal prosecutors used federal civil rights laws to punish criminals set free by a corrupt state system. Double jeopardy was rightly overlooked because white defendants were not really in jeopardy the first time.

The emergency is over. A California jury found the police not guilty of using excessive force in the subduing of Rodney King. Now the officers are being tried again, on the outdated legal pretense that they broke a different federal law.

But the plain truth is they are being tried again for precisely the same act under another name. That's double jeopardy; the trial diminishes a fundamental right of every American.

* 2. The organizers of New York's annual St. Patrick's Day parade -- Catholics who believe homosexuality is a sin -- should not be coerced by the city into including an Irish gay-rights contingent in their parade.

The mayor held that a parade calls for a city license, and that since New York law prohibits discrimination, no parade can be held that precludes participation by gays. A federal judge angrily disagreed.

By the mayor's logic, every city-licensed gay gathering would have to permit participation -- and publicity domination -- by gay-bashing skinheads. A parade is a traditional exercise of the people's right to assemble for the purpose of asserting some group pride or point of view. Short of stopping incitement to riot or interminable traffic tie-ups, government should butt out.

If gays want to join the parade as individual celebrants of St. Patrick, fine; if they want to parade as gays, give them a parade of their own, before or behind the Hibernians; if city officials want to boycott one or the other to take a position on intolerance, that's their choice. But the government's power to license should never be twisted into a power to enforce conformity to one opinion.

* 3. Senator Bob Packwood is being turned into a scapegoat to absorb blame for generations of male rudeness and to give nervous senators a chance to align themselves belatedly with Anita Hill.

The Oregon senator is charged with grabbing and kissing women against their wishes on the average of once a year. In the general revulsion at this type of misbehavior, his longtime, lonely stand on behalf of abortion rights -- which, along with his resistance to tax loopholes and unwavering support of Israel, made this Oregon Republican anathema at the Bush White House -- is dismissed as hypocritical.

As only Erica Jong noted, the danger to women today is far less from the gauche groper who retreats when rebuffed than from the office smoothie who backs up his proposition with the threat of blocking career advancement.

Washington can profess mock shock at his unexpected kiss of a female reporter, surely beyond the pale of press relations, but the senator did not control her destiny. Such hassling is offensive, demanding the apologies and admission of alcoholism already offered; but harassment is an offense, an abuse of power.

The Senate Ethics Committee should focus on real sexual harassment. Were female employees hired, promoted or fired depending on their reaction to his advances? Or did Senator Packwood set an exemplary Senate record in hiring a majority of women for his staff long before others awoke to sex discrimination, and did he help advance their careers on merit?

That requires a serious survey of all who worked in his office over 18 years, with fair comparison to other Senate offices. The ridicule of late-night comics and cartoonists, orchestrated protest from political opponents and the lust for a scapegoat to carry away the whole Congress's guilty conscience are no basis for reprimand.

As Mort Sahl used to say, is there anybody I haven't offended?

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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