In Los Angeles, the Haters Didn't Have the Last Word

CLARENCE PAGE

August 31, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Watching the drama of the Reginald Denny beating trial unfold on cable television, I was pleasantly surprised.

I was not surprised at the horror. I expected the bloody scenes of Mr. Denny's beating during the Los Angeles riots, captured by a minicam on a hovering news helicopter at the now-infamous corner of Florence and Normandie avenues, to be brutal as ever, and they were.

But, after his testimony, in which he was unable to recall who his assailants were, I didn't expect to see Mr. Denny walk over to the mothers of Damian Monroe Williams, 20, and Henry Keith Watson, 28, shake hands with them and give them each a hug.

Messrs. Williams and Watson are the two men charged with attempting to murder Mr. Denny and with assaulting or robbing five other motorists and two firefighters as they passed through the intersection in the early hours of the riots.

Leave it to Californians, I thought, my cynical Rust Belt sensibilities percolating, to dilute an occasion for unbridled racial resentment with a hug. How disappoint- ing it must be for the haters of all races to see Mr. Denny, beaten into a near-fatal coma, his face so swollen that witnesses said ''It seemed that he didn't have nose,'' to be so gracious at the trial of his suspected attackers. For the haters, it must have been a moment as disappointing as the one in which Rodney King, beaten to a bloody, swollen heap by Los Angeles police officers, last year asked his melting-pot city, ''Can we all get along?''

And, as if all that good feeling wasn't too much, it was followed the next day by the courtroom appearance of four good Samaritans, all of them African-American, who came forward to help Mr. Denny get to a hospital.

Lei Yuille, 38, a registered dietitian, testified that she and her brother were watching Mr. Denny get beaten on live TV when her brother told her, ''We're Christians. We need to go to help.''

Sitting in my own cozy home a continent away, watching the horrible scene play itself out again on my own TV, I wonder how many of us would have done what Ms. Yuille did next: Get up off our comfortable backsides and rush out to help save Reginald Denny from the mob.

Engineer Titus Murphy, his friend Terry Barnett and Ms. Barnett's 8-year-old daughter were watching the same scenes on television when they, too, decided to go help, Mr. Murphy testified. Bobby Green, a truck driver, testified that when he saw Mr. Denny hit in the face with a brick on TV, ''It felt like I was getting hurt. I thought he might die. I went to help.''

Lei Yuille arrived first to find Mr. Denny, his face a bloody, puffed-up mess, his skull depressed by a fracture on its right side and almost a hundred other fractures in his face, had managed somehow to get back into his truck and slowly drive a block past Normandie.

''I told him I was there to help,'' she said. ''He said he couldn't see, and I told him I was there to guide him.'' When Ms. Yuille and Mr. Murphy, who had arrived, saw a man running toward the truck, they thought it was another member of the mob come to finish Mr. Denny off, Mr. Murphy said.

It turned out to be Mr. Green, who volunteered to drive the truck while Ms. Yuille comforted Mr. Denny, Mr. Murphy remained on the outside running board and Ms. Barnett, with her daughter in the back seat, ran interference in her Honda Civic with her emergency flashers on all the way to the hospital.

The four good Samaritans have been honored by the city of Los Angeles, but, in a typical pathology of the press, little attention has been given to them. That's too bad. A great deal of moral capital was lost at Florence and Normandie. The good Samaritans have helped us get at least some of it back.

In a way, Reginald Denny, like Amy Biehl, the young white American killed by a black mob in South Africa last week, and the starving Bosnians in Sarajevo, marks a milestone in American history. He was a victim of a war of succession.

Like white Balkan ethnics or black South African nationalists fighting over the future of their homelands, black Americans are engaged in an internal conflict over what kind of future we see for ourselves and how those left behind by the civil-rights reforms of the '60s might best be helped.

One side of that dispute is represented by the hot-headed rioters and looters who took advantage of a chaotic situation to steal goods, burn property and break some heads. Offering them aid and comfort are the many bystanders who insist that the riot be called a ''rebellion,'' as if it actually had order and an agenda. You might as well call it a massive shopping spree.

The other side of the dispute is represented by those who, like Mr. Denny and the good Samaritans who came to his aid, are willing to stand up and say, ''Enough.''

As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. We African-Americans made our greatest progress in this country when we banded together behind common goals and pursued them with the power of moral persuasion. Can blind, stupid rage ever substitute for good sense? Hardly. It can only lead us down a blind alley.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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