Will Washington heed the marchers?


New York -- WITH A trembling voice and his face tormented by the hateful aftermath of an unjust verdict, Rodney King spoke to, and for, us all. He told us simply and poignantly that the violence must end, and that we must work this out together.

As the flames rose in Los Angeles, dust from the city's ashes fell on each of us. We deplored the violence but understood the outburst of a city filled with pain and despair.

The fires have stopped, but the destruction will take generations to fully repair.

New Yorkers commendably showed restraint. As I spoke with community leaders and with residents in Harlem and other parts of the city, anger and despair were vented. What was absent was the uncontrolled rage all of us have worked so hard to avoid.

But I was saddened by the few incidents of destruction last weekend. While injuries were minor and broken windows few, each act was one too many and accomplished nothing in response to the King verdict.

And I was troubled by the rumors that swept our city and shut down parts of it on Friday. Each time we created the imaginary "they" who were doing something to "us," we fed destructive fears that can only drive us further apart.

Now, heeding Rodney King's message of unity and peace, we can help link arms with our brothers and sisters in Los Angeles and march with them in Washington.

On May 16, New Yorkers and others will participate in a march led by America's mayors.

Osborn Elliot, chairman of the Citizens Committee for New York City, thought up the march as a response to the growing powerlessness of our cities and many Americans after 12 years of federal abandonment. Eliot wrote about it on this page last October.

We will have the opportunity to constructively place our anger at President Bush's doorstep, letting him know that Washington must prevent the chaos that erupts when desperate pleas for help are left unanswered.

And we must demand that every presidential candidate -- including Gov. Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown, who have agreed to march -- address the causes of the King verdict and offer specific means to create solutions to these problems.

Each time Washington has turned its back on the nation and abandoned its responsibilities by shifting tax burdens to our cities and states, the seeds of the Los Angeles brushfire took root.

A dozen years of government actions such as spending 25 percent of tax dollars on defense while reinvesting a paltry 1 percent in our cities and towns have forced people to accept only grief and despair.

If Washington had maintained the level of aid it gave New York City 10 years ago, we would have received some $3.9 billion more this year for operating expenses and capital construction.

The nation can no longer accept the empty promises of a government that has helped the top 2 percent of our population enrich itself at the expense of the middle class and working poor.

And New Yorkers no longer can be be asked to pay $1,178 more in federal taxes than they get back in services.

The buses to Washington will be filled with the elderly and disabled who have lost federal benefits, with young people who cannot find work or afford a college education and with middle class families who demand adequate health and child care.

The marchers will be vulnerable, frightened, angry and in need of hope; their faces will compose a national portrait that Washington chooses not to see.

Change can come about only by mobilizing our people, not the National Guard. A vast, peaceful march on Washington can be as powerful today as was the civil rights call to action by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

Sadly, the Los Angeles story has made it clear that the march begun that year still has miles to go before it is complete.

We can follow in the footsteps of Dr. King, who said, "We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools."

Or as Rodney King plainly put it: "We're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."

David N. Dinkins is mayor of New York City.

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