Bad feelings will linger long after King case

WILEY A. HALL

April 13, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Once again, 12 men and women have been asked to decide whether Rodney King deserved the beating he received in March 1991 at the hands of four Los Angeles police officers.

Last spring, a jury weighed the evidence, including a videotape of the incident, and decided that, yes, Mr. King deserved to be kicked and clubbed and shocked with electronic stun guns. That jTC decision shocked the nation and led to one of the country's worst riots this century.

Now, the setting has changed. The officers are being tried in a federal court under federal civil rights provisions rather than under the state criminal code. But the officers' defense remains the same, that Mr. King received his just desserts. The videotape has robbed the defendants of the ability to deny that the incident occurred. Medical testimony makes it clear that Mr. King was severely injured.

The officers have claimed in both trials that Mr. King, who had led them on a high-speed auto chase, acted in a bizarre and confrontational manner after he was stopped. His eyes watered. He swayed. He laughed at a helicopter circling overhead. He has been described as a big man with a threatening demeanor who sweated heavily and shook his buttocks at a female officer on the scene.

These actions, coupled with Mr. King's initial refusal to obey their commands, led the officers to fear him, to want to subdue him by any means possible.

In closing statements last week, one defense attorney described the officers as "sacrificial lambs" and another described them as part of a "thin blue line" who have been called upon to defend society from the "criminal predators that prey upon victims in our community every day." Mr. King, presumably, was perceived by the officers on the scene as a predator.

Mr. King would never have been harmed if he had not fled from police and if he had obeyed their commands after he was stopped, argued attorneys for the officers.

So let's not kid ourselves. Mr. King is the one who is really on trial.

A jury accepted the officers' defense once before. A second jury might very well buy it again. Los Angeles police and units from the National Guard are poised to combat a new round of rioting should the officers be acquitted again.

But whatever the verdict, the Rodney King beating and the nature of the officers' defense have fueled the notion that there are two standards of justice in this country, separate and unequal; a standard for blacks and a standard for whites; a standard for the rich and the middle class and a standard for the poor.

The incident has been permeated with racial overtones from the very beginning. Mr. King is black. The officers on trial are white. Would the officers have felt so threatened or enraged had Mr. King been white? Would the first jury have been so willing to let the officers off?

Riots often are sparked by anger and frustration and an on-going sense of powerlessness. Even if a heavy police presence manages to suppress violence after a second acquittal, the sense of injustice will continue to seethe.

And even a conviction will do little to reverse the perception among many blacks that their police departments behave more like an occupying army than a part of their community.

A few weeks ago, the NAACP released the results of a study that found that racism and the excessive use of force are widespread among the nation's police departments. But the researchers put as much emphasis on perceptions and feelings as on actual incidents.

Said Benjamin L. Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP, "We found a situation in which the police and minority communities seem to regard each other with deep-seated suspicion, so that neither trusts the other."

Two years ago, a national survey reported that even most whites believe blacks and Hispanics are treated more harshly by police and the courts.

All of this is to say that a verdict in Los Angeles, however it goes, will be both momentous in its effect and ultimately meaningless. The Rodney King case called to our attention some deep divisions in our perception of justice in this country. The jury can deliver its verdict but it cannot heal the rift.

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