The outrage was immediate and the response of government was swift to the widely viewed videotape of the mini police riot by white Los Angeles Police Department officers against a black suspect they had stopped, allegedly after a high-speed chase.
The amateur photographer's pictures of Rodney King writhing on the ground while being clubbed with police batons and shocked with a stun gun were powerful symbols that the Los Angeles district attorney, federal officials and opinion writers, liberal and conservative, could not ignore.
A grand jury quickly indicted four officers. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh promised a supplemental inquiry into the incident which some Justice Department officials say probably will result in additional indictments under federal civil-rights statutes.
"We in the Justice Department have responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act to take action against anyone who abuses their official authority against the citizens of this country," said Mr. Thornburgh.
Anyone? Apparently not anyone, because as offensive as this incident was, it is by no means an isolated affair, nor is it the only instance of excessive police force that has been recorded on videotape or by still photographers.
Two years ago, Los Angeles police officers were involved in breaking up three peaceful demonstrations that resulted in injuries and degradation to the protesters. Some of those arrested told their stories in court and in transcripts immediately after the incidents. One, Debbie Grumbine, who did not know she was pregnant, said she miscarried the day after police wielded against her an Oriental martial-arts weapon known as nunchakus.
Others arrested during the demonstration said they suffered nerve and tendon damage, contusions and other injuries that required medical treatment. Tim P. (most demonstrators would not volunteer their last names to police) said he was punched in the face by a police officer. After he was handcuffed and placed on a police bus, he said, he was repeatedly kicked in the shins.
Janet A. said an officer fondled her. Ken F. said his arm was broken at the wrist and elbow and that an officer dragged him by his broken arm. Several demonstrators testified to other "excessive" procedures. Mike M. said police put a bag over his head and then dragged him through horse manure. He said he witnessed five others dragged face-down through manure.
Other demonstrators said police dragged them by their eye sockets and hair.
A photograph of Mark B.'s face being slammed into the ground by a police officer was on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and videotape of these incidents was broadcast on Los Angeles television stations.
But there was no national outcry. No police officers were indicted or even officially reprimanded. The attorney general of the United States showed no interest. Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., wrote to police chief Daryl Gates and threatened to withhold federal funds under Title II of the Community Planning and Development Act. In reply Mr. Gates called the letter "absurd" and "stupid," and accused the demonstrators of being part of a "special-interest fringe group."
What was the purpose of the demonstration? Should it matter? No more than it should matter that Rodney King, the "star" of America's unfunniest home video, has a criminal record.
The abused demonstrators two years ago happened to be members of Operation Rescue, the pro-life group that works to persuade women to seek alternatives to abortion.
Peculiar, how quickly government moves when white police officers beat a defenseless black man, but moves not at all when officers mistreat demonstrators who are not in accord with the liberal view of abortion, an issue that most gutless politicians wish would go away.
The focus in each of these cases ought not to be solely on the behavior of the victims of police violence, because none appeared in the pictures to be resisting arrest. The focus ought to be on whether the police employed excessive means to make their arrests. In the case of Rodney King and in the view of a grand jury, the answer appears clear. Why was it not also clear in the case of the Operation Rescue demonstrators? Perhaps the vision of most politicians and government officials has been clouded by a political bias that has led to a view that some people are more deserving of police abuse than others.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.