Trying to prevent a riot is not a provocative act

MIKE ROYKO

April 16, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Sometimes there is just no pleasing people.

A few days ago, the police chief in Los Angeles was being interviewed on public radio about his strategy for preventing another big riot.

His strategy includes putting a lot of police on the streets before the Rodney King verdict comes in.

The reporter asked him if such a show of force wouldn't be seen by some people as a "provocative" act.

Instead of saying, "You are a screwball, and I don't talk to screwballs," and ending the interview, the police chief had to patiently explain that, no, he wasn't putting cops on the streets to cause trouble; he was doing it in hopes of preventing trouble.

The reporter didn't sound totally convinced. Maybe the police chief should have said he was going to put 1,000 sociologists on the streets to gather statistics on frustration, hopelessness and the need to enter stores through the display window.

Then there are the concerns expressed by Ben Chavis, the new head of the NAACP.

Chavis noted that the governor of California has called up National Guard troops and is sending them into areas where rioting occurred after the first trial of the cops who beat Rodney King.

And the governor is mobilizing before even one disorderly act fTC has occurred.

The sight of the troops, Chavis said, reminded him of this country's preparations for the Desert Storm conflict.

"I want to make sure," Chavis said, "that we don't go too far and wind up doing something provocative."

That word again: provocative. It is from the word "provoke," which my dictionary says means: "To excite to some action or feeling; to anger, irritate or annoy; to stir up; to call forth, evoke."

I'm not sure what Mr. Chavis or that public radio reporter find "provocative" about the police and National Guard presence.

About a year ago, the first trial of Rodney King took place. The jury found the cops not guilty of undue zeal in flailing him.

(Had I been a juror, I wouldn't have voted to acquit. One of the cops seemed to be far too enthusiastic. I admired his swing, which appeared as compact and powerful as that of Bernhard Langer. But any golf pro could have told him to practice a few putts or chip shots, which would have improved his game and kept him from being indicted.)

After the first trial, the police chief of L.A. went to a cocktail party, and his police department appeared to have gone out for coffee.

I don't know what the governor of California did. Maybe he went out in the yard and picked some oranges.

But the result was that nobody with a badge and a gun was within sight or hearing when thousands of unruly people took to the streets for their own purposes. Some for serious violence, others to grab a new car battery.

And when it was all over, 54 people were dead, many more were moaning from bumps and bruises, and more than $1 billion in property had been destroyed.

That, I believe, is what any reasonable person would consider provocative: 54 dead bodies and dozens of burning buildings.

Considering the death toll of the last L.A. riot, I don't know how anyone can consider a large police and National Guard presence provocative.

Mr. Chavis says it reminds him of preparations for Desert Storm? Fine. If I were in charge of deflecting a possible riot, I would consider that the minimal desired effect. If anything, I would want my preparations to make people think of General Eisenhower, talking to the troops before the invasion of Normandy, or General Patton stirring the blood lust of his tank divisions.

Only one thing discourages rioting. It is the possibility of swift, firm and remorseless bodily harm. For all the media and political talk about the motives of rioters, nobody can be sure why people riot.

Yes, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, riots broke out all over urban America, and it was probably a collective outburst of grief and rage.

But less than a year ago, we had a riot in Chicago. What provoked them to burn and loot? The Chicago Bulls won their second championship.

So what was their motive? Michael Jordan didn't get a triple-double?

The only thing we know for sure about riots is that when there are cops and troops in sight, about 98 percent of the potential rioters stay home and watch it on TV.

They are not dummies. Nobody wants to get shot for stealing a bag of onions.

Which means that this time there won't be 54 people dead and $1 billion in destroyed property.

That might be frustrating for those who think that everybody who burns a building or loots a storefront is a victim of social injustice.

But it will make for a better next morning for the 54 and their families.

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