The verdict: our reactions say a lot about us

September 28, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Most foresighted communities are already getting ready for the riots that will follow the verdict in the O. J. Simpson trial, and ours is no exception.

Proper preparation takes a lot of planning. Obviously, the nature of the Simpson verdict will determine who riots, and where, so because the verdict isn't in yet a lot of contingencies have to be anticipated. But thanks to a spirit of goodwill and democratic cooperation among the prospective rioters, we think we have our local bases covered.

First, our political leaders held a proactive community meeting so that representatives of all groups planning to riot could come in and share their concerns. This process was inclusive and not exclusive. Because, as the elected officials explained, if we weren't all part of the process we might become part of the problem.

Orderly chaos

From the start, everyone agreed that there had to be certain standards or the rioting might become dangerously disorderly. So delegates from all groups intending to participate received official riot credentials to distribute to their members. There was a consensus that we should not allow any rioting by the unaccredited.

We have also tried to make sure that whatever the verdict, all those who have been properly accredited in advance will have an equal opportunity to express themselves. This means planning for riots of celebration as well as for riots of protest. We just won't know until the verdict is actually in who will be doing what to whom.

At the community meeting, we set up two ad hoc umbrella organizations. One, the Bigotry Alliance, will represent all those planning either protest riots over an O. J. acquittal or celebratory riots over an O. J. conviction. The Alliance will supply its members with Confederate flag lapel pins to be worn on Riot Night.

The other umbrella group, Equality Plus, will represent those planning to riot either to protest an O. J. conviction or to celebrate an acquittal. Each of its members will receive a striking red, black and green lapel pin.

Pinning down bias

We agreed for the record that there was no significance whatsoever to the design of these lapel pins. They would be for identification only, and could be retained after the riots as souvenirs. We also agreed that both umbrella groups would accept prospective rioters in keeping with federal guidelines, regardless of color, creed, national origin or breakfast-food preference.

It's true that we expect the conduct of many of our local rioters to be race-specific. Our analysts tell us that racist white people are the ones most likely to want to join the Alliance and use O. J. as an excuse to beat up on black people in black neighborhoods, and that racist black people are more likely to join Equality Plus and use O. J. as an excuse to beat up on white people in white neighborhoods.

But as social pathologies tend to be unpredictable, we're trying to stay flexible. We want to be sure that our citizens, whatever their opinion of the verdict, have ample chance to demonstrate their views on this matter of national importance in any way they choose. A constitutional right can be exercised in many ways, we agree, and a rampage is just another form of referendum, as the saying goes.

But we're also on guard against any miscreants who may seek to participate in the riots for insincere reasons. Some people, it's sad to acknowledge, are driven more by opportunity than by principle. These are the ones who might use the O. J. verdict as an excuse to break into an electronics store and steal a new VCR not as a form of free expression, but simply because they want one.

Behavior of this sort, our law enforcement officers have made clear, cannot and will not be tolerated.

''If you're going to riot,'' warned our chief of police at the community meeting, ''it had better be because you are expressing your uncontrollable rage over social injustice, and not out of criminal intent. If an officer stops you while you're walking out of a smashed store window with a toaster under your arm, you'd better look both angry and sincere, or he's going to be very suspicious of you.''

One question

Near the end of the community meeting we held to prepare for the riots, a man in the audience suddenly asked a perplexing question.

''You have it all worked out what happens if O. J. is convicted or acquitted,'' he said. ''But what's going to happen if there's a hung jury? How will we know where to have our riot?''

There was a long silence. Nobody had thought of that. But then the leaders of the two umbrella groups, white and black together, came up with a Solomonic solution.

In our community there's a store owned by a Korean-American family. They tend to their business and stay out of local politics. Everybody likes and respects them. And so, if there's a hung jury in the O. J. case, we're planning to have our local riot at their place. They'll probably be very proud to have been selected.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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