In the end, verdict in King case doesn't change anything

MIKE LITTWIN

April 19, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Most people are feeling pretty good about the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Maybe too good.

It was almost as if the jurors wanted to make everyone happy.

If you think about it, the verdict offered something for just about everybody. Those who believe police are too often out of control got two convictions. Those who believe police face a tough job that many don't appreciate saw two cops go free. Most of all, L.A. avoided a riot.

The jury did its job. Peace came to the land. And justice was done.

Right?

Well, I'm a little worried about justice just now. Not because of the verdict. You don't have to be able to define excessive force to know it when you see it. As one juror said of his decision, it was as easy as watching the tape. The only mystery is how any jury could have reached a different conclusion.

The problem is the suggestion that the Rodney King episode proves something good.

That's the official line. Prosecutors, politicians and the rest were lining up to sell it, too, on all the Sunday news shows. It's a remarkably easy sell. It's what we want to believe -- that in our system, justice will inevitably prevail.

Do you really think so?

First of all, there's the matter of the videotape. Without the videotape, there's no trial. Meaning King is just one more alleged parole violator who led police on a high-speed chase and ended up on the wrong end of a clubbing for his troubles.

Even in the era of the apparently ubiquitous camcorder, we can't expect every crime to be captured on tape.

Secondly, if we learned anything, it was that, yeah, you can get a conviction in such a case -- after two trials, a riot, 53 dead, millions of dollars and much hope lost -- so long as the resources and prestige of the U.S. government are brought to bear and the jurors are faced with the knowledge that their decision could lead to another riot.

That is not a particularly hopeful scenario. And it isn't the worst of it. The worst of it was last year's riot.

The riot told us a lot of things about ourselves -- few of them good. It showed how deep are the divisions in our society. It showed how fragile is the social compact in our society.

As the riot began, African-Americans erupted in rage against an injustice that seemed to be one more chapter in a long book brimming with injustice. Then, however, the rage turned against peripheral targets -- Korean grocers, white truck drivers. Finally, in the glow of still-burning fires, the looting began and, with it, the parade of color TVs.

Those who wanted to call the riot an uprising were hard-pressed to explain what role stealing appliances played in creating a new social order.

In any case, civilization took a beating. As a result, we took a long look at ourselves, made some promises using words like renewal, and kept very few of them.

We held another trial instead.

The trial was easier than addressing real problems. The trial -- with the right verdict this time -- was easier than examining the racial divide that haunts our country.

In many ways, the divide is greater than ever. There was a time when hope for better race relations seemed realistic. Back in the civil rights days, people would say that after a generation when children went to school together and people lived next to each other that fear and hatred would inevitably decline.

A generation has passed. Blacks and whites still don't routinely go to school together or live next to each other. In fact, many blacks no longer see integration as a worthwhile goal. And many of our cities have settled into violent decline.

Who today is willing to predict a time of racial harmony?

On one of the TV networks, a reporter watched the verdict with a middle-class black couple in Los Angeles. The man and woman were both shocked at the verdict. Neither believed that the jury, with nine white people, would convict the two officers.

At the same time, on another network, there was an interview with Willie Williams, the new and now wildly popular L.A. police chief, about the 6,000 officers he had deployed to keep the peace in case the verdict had gone wrong.

That's the violent and mistrustful society in which we live.

A verdict didn't change any of that. And maybe the only lesson we can take from the Rodney King episode is that there was no lesson at all.

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