Blacks, whites here confounded, angry over King case


For many whites, the Rodney King verdict revealed an ugly reality they ordinarily do not confront. For blacks, it confirmed a humiliating injustice they cannot escape.

For once, though, the races in Maryland yesterday seemed to share the same viewpoint.

"If it had been a white man," concluded Debbie Nyborg, a 41-year-old white woman from Forest Hill, "I honestly think it would have been a guilty verdict.

"That's sad, but unfortunately, I think it's true."

The events in California seemed to compel Marylanders to look unsparingly at the country's racial wounds. They watched CNN in barsand fire stations. They flooded talk shows with calls. They gathered outside schools and universities to air their disgust.

About 200 students assembled for an impromptu rally at the University of Maryland's College Park campus. When a figure representing Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was produced, the crowd took up the chant: "Burn it! Burn it!" Within moments, the puppet was ablaze. Cheers erupted.

About 20 students walked out of Baltimore County's Milford Mill High School, "in honor of Rodney King," said a student who organized the walkout. The school has an 87% minority enrollment.

"When I woke up and heard the news, I was very angry," said Noree Johnson, a 16-year-old sophomore who is black. "This was a great injustice and I felt that something had to be done."

On the King verdict, blacks and whites in Maryland seemed to bridge the otherwise wide gulf that separates them. The famous videotape seemed equally compelling to nearly all, leaving most confounded with the jury's decision.

Yet, even if they agreed an injustice had been committed, blacks and whites reacted with differing degrees of emotion. Whites interviewed analyzed events in California with a remote detachment.

For blacks, the verdict aroused passions.

Irene Cobb, a 41-year-old black personnel clerk in the state Department of Personnel, first heard about the verdict when she switched on the radio at 7 a.m. yesterday. "I cried," she said. "I was shocked."

At Baltimore's Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, one student told Principal Elzee Gladden that he could no longer bring himself to stand up for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

To some blacks, the King verdict will give police officers permission to abuse their powers. Already, inner-city blacks say they are targets of police harassment.

Frank Wills, an 18-year-old Lake Clifton High School student, said he had been harassed by police officers while visiting his aunt in East Baltimore.

"I can't even sit on her step without the police asking me: 'What are you doing here?' " he said. "I don't think this'll be the first time or the last time it'll happen."

Charles Moore, 15, sitting in a light drizzle outside the Chick Webb Recreation Center, said he, too, had been bothered by police.

"They do unnecessary things," he said. "They put you up against the wall, calling you names, nigger, everything."

Whites who never had those experiences seemed to have a new appreciation for them. Tom Torbit, a white, 41-year-old postal worker from Harford County, said, "This brings up how absolutely powerless [blacks] are."

Not all whites felt the same sympathy. Whites, for example, seemed much more likely to condemn the rioting in Los Angeles.

"So you had one guy beat up," said Gary Winkler, a carpenter lunching yesterday at the Bromwell Inn in Perry Hall. "Now you got five people dead. How does that make sense?"

Bill Long, who was nursing a beer, said, "I think they should put the National Guard in there and shoot the people who are burning and looting."

Hundreds of Baltimoreans dialed radio stations to put their anger, fear and frustration on the airwaves. Talk show hosts said the callers felt so strongly they'd wait on the phone for an hour for a chance to express their views -- an extraordinary backup for local radio.

"It never let up," said Tom Marr, host for talk shows Wednesday night and yesterday morning on WCBM. "Never an open line. It started [Wednesday] night. When I sat down at 7:05, all five lines were lit up. They never went out last night and they never went out this morning.

"I heard sadness from both blacks and whites. I heard anger. I heard all the emotions."

At WBAL Radio, Allan Prell found all five phone lines blinking as he sat down at 9 a.m. to begin his call-in show. "That's the first time it's happened since I've been there, in almost 10 years," he said. "This was unheard of."

Ron Smith, another WBAL host, said, "There was heavier than normal black participation," particularly black men. "Some were angry. Some were sad. Some were frustrated. There was an interesting insistence that whites could never understand what it means to be black."

Mr. Prell said he had a few callers who believe "no matter what the police do, it's all right. Then there was just outrage at the verdict. And as the morning wears on, it's the age-old story: Are we ever going to be a race-free society? Are we going to get to the point where race doesn't matter?"

"I think both black and white callers to talk shows are in agreement on one thing: Race relations have worsened over the years," Mr. Smith said.

A few callers said they feared for violence in Baltimore. The hosts cut those calls short for fear of fueling trouble. Although there have been reports of violence in cities other than Los Angeles, Baltimore has not experienced any apparent violent reaction to the King verdict.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke angrily compared the verdict to the Dred Scott decision, the 19th-century Supreme Court case that affirmed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. Because of its symbolic value it is almost as devastating for our time as the Dred Scott case was," Mr. Schmoke said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who vividly remembers the riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, labeled the jury's finding "not the right verdict. We do have a system of justice that sometimes we don't understand."

Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume called the verdict "one of the most disgusting displays of courtroom injustice in a long, long time . . . racism at its height."

For him, the news of the disturbances in Los Angeles recalled the 1968 riots.

"I was a 19-year-old kid in my bedroom that night listening to the radio, hearing the confirmation that Martin Luther King had been shot dead. I remember the adrenalin and the hurt, and I remember runninginto the streets and seeing people crying and running and shouting."

Wednesday night, a call from his 21-year-old son opened an old wound. "He was extremely upset that this could happen in America in 1992. It hurts to see you can go to your grave, and these things may still be happening."

Rabbi Murray Saltzman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1975 to 1983. He said the verdict and the rioting in Los Angeles "portend a gruesome future. This is an alarm bell. For too many years now, we have overlooked the problems.

-! "We ought to be embarrassed."

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