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Deceptive feelings of powerlessness can be purged by voting


My dictionary defines riot as "disorderly behavior, a disturbance of the public peace, a violent public disorder."

The last great urban riots -- Watts, Newark, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington-- occurred generally between my 12th and 15th birthdays, and I thought they were neat.

I had grown up watching televised scenes of whites rioting in response to the peaceful demonstrations of the civil rights movement. The scenes showed elderly men and women, housewives, fathers and children, suffering in silent dignity while they were assaulted by bricks, cannonaded with water, screamed at, spat upon, kicked and clubbed. The scenes showed cool, calm black faces surrounded by a sea of bulging eyes and twisted mouths.

Each riot in the South strengthened the nation's resolve to do something about racial segregation, moved us closer to the major civil rights legislation of the mid-'60s.

But each of those riots also fueled the anger and frustration of my generation and pushed us farther away from the strate

gy of non-violence espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Sociologists say the urban riots of the late '60s grew out of the powerlessness, frustration, anomie and despair of blacks in the big cities.

I believe revenge also played a role, the hunger to trade a blow for a blow, to confront what we regarded as white power with what we regarded as black power.

I know now how wrong those rioters were.

Riots -- be they of blacks or of whites-- are profound expressions of impotence, the last resort of losers.

The whites who rioted in the South felt powerless to stem the onslaught of change that the civil rights movement represented. The blacks who rioted in the cities had lost faith that change would ever occur.

We are, in very many ways, a nation of impotents.

History has repeated itself in Los Angeles.

On March 3, 1991, a gang of L.A. police officers engaged in a violent disturbance of the public peace after they stopped motorist Rodney King.

During their trial in Simi Valley last month, the officers admitted that they were frustrated and afraid -- and well they should be.

They have been thrust onto the front lines in our war against crime with orders to "take back the streets" by force.

The experts, the nation's police chiefs, have said repeatedly that such a strategy is doomed to fail.

They have warned that until efforts are made to improve urban schools, health care, alcohol and drug treatment programs, and employment through job training and opportunities, crime will be self-regenerating. New criminals will replace the old faster than police can arrest them.

But the past five Republican administrations have refused to listen to the generals in this war. Instead, they played on the nation's fear. They convinced voters that America can win a shooting war with itself. They lied.

Frustrated and impotent then, losing a war they were told they could win, four officers on the front lines rioted and were caught in the act on camera.

The Simi Valley jury's verdict of not guilty might also be described as a disturbance of the public peace, a violent public rejection of our sense of right and wrong.

They, too, look around them and find that the social policies they have supported since 1968 have failed miserably.

Finally, on cue, some blacks in L.A. and other major cities matched the anger and frustration and powerlessness of whites with their own anger and frustration and powerlessness -- a classic case of impotence imitating impotence.

The tragedy is, no one here is as powerless as he or she thinks.

By every possible measure, the programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society made dramatic inroads in the poverty and despair that breed urban crime. But we abandoned, and began to dismantle, those efforts almost before we launched them.

If whites feel besieged by crime, they might begin looking anew at the policies that feed on this fear but don't resolve it.

Similarly, the blacks who rioted apparently fail to see the power of their own vote, their own concerted effort. They are isolated and powerless because they have allowed themselves to be.

Immediately after relative calm had been restored in L.A., civil rights activists roamed the streets, passing out voter registration forms to everyone they encountered.

If blacks vote, if whites vote wisely, rejecting policies that have been proven ineffective, neither of us would feel compelled to engage in periodic expressions of impotence.

Neither of us would be moved to riot.

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