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Our society's neglect returns to haunt us


You'd need cinematic genius, an instinct for perversion and a flair for vulgarity to come up with a plot line like this: An overwhelmingly white jury in an overwhelmingly white bedroom community 40 miles oAnd the nation reacts with shock and horror. Los Angeles starts burning. The nation reacts with more shock, more horror.

The president reacts with shock and horror, too. The man who helped make Willie Horton a household name and who vetoed a major civil rights bill suddenly wants a "listening session" on race relations in the United States. He wants to do that healing thing. Said so at a $1,000-a-plate dinner the other night. Next thing you know, he'll be asking to wear a baseball cap with an X on it.

Just tell me: Is this real life or a Spike Lee-Federico Fellini collaboration we're watching on CNN this week?

Here's something even more bizarre: When a Los Angeles judge is asked to move the racially charged trial of Rodney King's attackers to another jurisdiction, he relocates it to Simi Valley, a place where middle-class whites, including a lot of active or retired city cops, moved to get away from Los Angeles, its problems and burgeoning minority community.

Did this judge have a clue? Sounds to me like he needs some serious sensitivity training. By the time the trial commences, there are 10 whites, an Asian, a Hispanic on the jury. No blacks.

The victim doesn't testify. The jury never hears Rodney King say a word about the beating he took. Had this been an episode of "L.A. Law," I would have turned to my wife and said: "Never woulda happened in a real case. Victim's gotta talk."

To complete this danse macabre, the four cops who took part in the beating get off in the face of the powerful evidence of the videotape.

Amazing stuff. Jurors apparently believe the beating of Rodney King was a reasonable act of law enforcement, and they emerge to tell reporters -- not to mention Phil Donahue -- that, gee whiz, cops have a tough job to do and we can't go around taking their clubs away.

Has there ever been a more insane scenario on the American scene? And who knew it could get this crazy? Who knew that the climax of the Rodney King case would have greater shock value than the beating itself?

It doesn't appear that anyone, Daryl Gates and his puny million-dollar riot contingency fund aside, saw a nightmare of this dimension coming. Of course, no one knew the cops who beat King would beat the rap. Had they been convicted, there would not have been riots.

Sooner or later, however, Los Angeles was headed for a day of reckoning. There has been a problem with police brutality in Los Angeles for a couple of decades. The city paid $64 million in damages for abuses by its police department and county sheriff's office between 1989 and 1991 alone. A blue-ribbon panel found a pattern of racism within the LAPD, and it identified 44 officers who were never disciplined despite being the subject of numerous complaints.

Like so many problems in this country, this one was allowed to fester until it swelled and exploded. That's the way we do things. We live separate, isolated lives and only focus on what ails us -- in this case, racial tension and police brutality -- when it's too late, or when the networks get it, whichever is first.

We let things go in this country. It's a convenient form of denial.

We know that many cops are frustrated, overwhelmed and generally underpaid, but we still expect them to do their jobs.

We let millions of kids grow up in poverty, attend underfunded schools and drop out at alarming rates, then react with either sadness or anger when they end up as criminals. The crime problem escalates and, rather than address its root causes -- the tough sweat of real social progress -- we have an attorney general who says the solution is to build more prisons. We have a monstrous drug problem, but refuse to commit ourselves to treating addicts and curtailing demand; we fight a phony war against drug smugglers instead.

We watch cities decay while the federal government retreats from its commitment to them and politicians thumb their noses. We watch homelessness grow right before our eyes while public housing programs are in shambles. We allow our manufacturing-job base to decline, our development of new technologies to stagnate, then blast the Japanese for stealing U.S. markets. We allow the federal budget deficit to build.

We don't act. We react. We talk too much. We don't listen. We turn a deaf ear on people with legitimate complaints, and we try to go as long as we can without facing up to the problems that tear American society apart. What a life. What a mess.

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