The Fire This Time


Los Angeles. -- "Shocked" was the word of the day. I can't imagine why. A bunch of Los Angeles cops beat the hell out of a black guy who was driving funny in the early hours of a morning, and an all-white jury in a suburb called Simi Valley said the policemen involved acted appropriately. So what else is new?

The video of Rodney King being beaten was today's equivalent of the photographs of fire hoses and police dogs attacking Negroes, as they were called then, in Birmingham, Alabama, in May of 1963. The nation was shocked -- not that the Negroes were being attacked, but that we all could no longer deny the obvious.

That shock led us all to do some good things. The mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, and the city's next police chief, Willie Williams, are both where they are because Americans in 1963, black and white, turned their shock into affirmative action, reaching out to make America a little more like what we said it was.

If anything good comes out of the shock of 1992, it might be public truth-speaking about race in America. Those of us who live on the hill woke last week to the smell of the smoke of the fire this time. And the truth was in the words of the shocked president in 1963, John F. Kennedy. "Who among us," he said, speaking of white Americans, "would be content to have the color of his skin changed? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?"

Who? Me? You? What would we think, what would we do, if we were black and young, sitting in south-central Los Angeles without a job or prospects, and we saw pretty convincing evidence these past few months of what awaits black Americans in the American system of justice?

It was not only the beating of Rodney King that was photographed here. Three months ago it was the murder of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black student, a girl, shot in the back by a storekeeper who falsely accused her of shoplifting -- security cameras in the store recorded the event -- and the storekeeper was sent home on probation by a judge, saying she understood why the storekeeper did it.

Everyone understood why the storekeeper did it. She did it because she was afraid of young blacks. Not "some" young blacks, or young male blacks -- all young blacks; frightened people have trouble telling the difference between medical students and thugs on dark streets.

And everyone understands, too, why the policemen did what they did on the freeway that night. They were taking out the fear and frustration of dangerous and unappreciated service on the front line between criminal and law-abiding America. They got caught this time, and they should have gone to jail -- but they didn't.

I heard the news in the most benign of settings, at a church dinner for the parents of children about to make their First Communion. We were all white there and, yes, we were all shocked, and we all knew there were going to be riots.

There were tears in the eyes of a couple of people at news of the verdict in Simi. Cry, the beloved country. Crying, I think, because what seemed to be one of the great achievements in our lifetimes was being revealed as a great deal less than we thought it was or wanted it to be.

What went wrong? I don't know. But I do know that in many ways, American race relations are worse than they were in the 1960s -- certainly guns and drugs and rage have made them more dangerous than they were back in the 1960s. At least we had ignorance and illusion then.

Now, everyone knows what is going on. The old Southern white " prejudice is gone. People in Birmingham then did not care how close Negroes got as long as they didn't get too high. In Los Angeles and the rest of the country these days, whites don't care how high African Americans get as long as they don't get too close.

The nation has to talk openly about race. That includes the brutality that is at the core of American race relations -- both the official brutality and neglect of the state and the random and criminal brutality of the alienated.

"The alienated," of course, is a semi-polite way of saying anti-social blacks -- "gang members" is a euphemism here -- who are terrorizing the society, black and white, moving into useless lives of killing each other or their innocent neighbors or the rest of us, who are not as innocent of all this as we like to pretend.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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