The federal indictment of four white Los Angeles police officers in the beating of the black motorist Rodney King has become the biggest of all urban time bombs. You'll understand why if you were watching "CBS This Morning" on Thursday.
There was former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates calling the federal prosecutions "an outrage," arguing that the Bush administration is trying to "wreak vengeance upon four officers . . . who have been harmed, prosecuted, persecuted." When CBS's Paula Zahn suggested it was necessary to "restore credibility to the system of justice," Mr. Gates asked, "Why do we have to restore credibility?"
Then came the Rev. Cecil Murray, a black cleric, calling Mr. Gates "a problem masquerading as a solution." He said the ex-chief is "bad history -- and bad history always leaves a mess for someone else to clean up." Mr. Murray suggested that the tensions that led to the torching of parts of Los Angeles, leaving 60 dead, when the four officers were acquitted by a local jury would be "exacerbated" by another refusal to convict -- especially if the blacks accused of beating white truck driver Reginald Denny are convicted. He said the violent outrage would become national.
Passions are further inflamed by the charge by Laurence M. Powell, the officer seen on videotape repeatedly striking Mr. King with a baton, that President Bush asked for the federal indictments to help his re-election campaign.
It might ease the anger and hatred if citizens of Los Angeles and the nation learn that the federal laws under which the four white policemen are indicted were not concocted for this case by Mr. Bush or any other politician. These vital laws go back to a racial outrage at the end of World War II. They became laws of the land because Harry Truman risked his chances in the presidential election in 1948 to get them passed.
Truman was outraged to read that a black GI named Isaac Woodard, en route home after fighting in the South Pacific, had been blinded during a beating he received from two cops in Batesburg, South Carolina. Woodard's "crime" was that he got off the back of the bus at one stop, went into the toilet, and stayed there longer than the white driver thought necessary. The driver, angered by the black man's "sass," asked the Batesburg cops to pounce upon him.
Truman named a blue-ribbon commission to tell him how to stop such atrocities. The commission told him to ask Congress for an anti-lynch law, a law forbidding a law officer to violate the civil rights of any American, the creation of a Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department and more, including statehood for Hawaii and Alaska.
Despite warnings that such an appeal to Congress would so infuriate white Americans that he would guarantee the election of Thomas Dewey, Truman made those requests. He won the 1948 election and saw the civil-rights laws he asked for come to fruition.
Truman found that local racial passions still overrode the law. One policeman was almost by blood oath forbidden to tell the truth about the abuse and brutality of another officer. White witnesses were intimidated; black witnesses were dismissed as unreliable.
Those problems still exist in Los Angeles. A bigger legal liability for the federal prosecutors will be a demand that they prove that the four officers "intentionally" violated King's civil rights. The videotape may show brutal beatings of King, but it cannot show the "intent," the mindset, of those doing the beating.
Convictions are far from guaranteed, as should be the case in our adversarial system where defendants have basic rights and a jury has the last word.
No one should forget that the racial tensions in Los Angeles are intensified by a statewide economic crisis. One person out of ten is out of work. Millions of state employees are being given IOUs that banks, grocery stores, landlords will not honor. California is an unhappy hunting ground for every demagogue, every provoker of racial and ethnic conflict, that one can imagine, even in a society where we've had an incredible variety of merchants of hatred.
Some say "It's all in the hands of two juries." Wrong. The outcome of this tragedy really will be determined by the wisdom, and most of all the guts, of the city's and the state's political and social leaders.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.