Los Angeles. -- In the passions over "family values," Bill Clinton's draft record, and George Bush's denial of deep involvement in the Iran-contra scandal, we Americans get blinded to brutal reality: This country may be destroying itself from the inside.
I stand in the ruins of the Los Angeles rioting after the police acquittals in the Rodney King beating case, and I wonder how much more wanton killing, beating and destruction lies ahead -- especially with two or more explosive trials coming up.
I talk to soon-to-go Mayor Tom Bradley; to the new, black police chief, Willie Williams; to Peter Ueberroth, who, with black leaders, is pledged to "Rebuild Los Angeles;" to Judge Roosevelt Dorn, who was bounced from presiding over the case of the blacks accused of beating the white truck driver Reginald Denny because outgoing District Attorney Ira Reiner was disturbed by the fact that Judge Dorn is black; to the Rev. Cecil Murray, a powerful black minister who does not mince words. Each of them said that as Los Angeles goes during the next year, so will go this nation.
Los Angeles has become a frightening example of an America losing direction, and its sense of justice. Every one of the men named above told me that Los Angeles must stop "playing games with the law" and show in the trials of those who allegedly beat Mr. Denny, and in the federal trials of the Los Angeles police officers who allegedly violated the civil rights of motorist Rodney King, that racism does not override justice. The verdicts must seem to be fair.
Chief Williams emphasized that he could not guarantee that there will not be another violent eruption in L.A. if the trial verdicts, however they go, leave citizens believing that the court system has again been "manipulated." But he said the Los Angeles police would be prepared to stop violence immediately, which the ousted Police Chief Daryl Gates did not do.
You need to watch this city as its moments of fear and frustration roll in, because Los Angeles will become a barometer of both the destructive and healing potentials of the people of New York, Detroit, Chicago -- wherever the celebrated "melting pot" is boiling over.
Officials in L.A. tell me that the city has people representing 160 nationalities who speak 90 different languages. The "melting pot" is boiling over, but the people are not melting down into something that can be called "an American."
Los Angeles will be, in 1993, the possible symbol of everything socially cataclysmic that could happen to America.
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This was one of the bloodiest towns of the civil-rights movement. The Rev. George W. Lee was shot to death here; a great unsung hero, Gus Courts, barely survived a shooting. Both were attacked by whites who were trying to deny the vote to blacks in this Mississippi Delta.
Well, in this Delta I now find black members of Congress, black mayors and sheriffs, black school superintendents, white and black cops sharing patrol cars, blacks from the Delta wielding political power in the Mississippi legislature in Jackson beyond anything imaginable 25 years ago.
Don't misread me as saying that there is now more racial justice in Belzoni, Clarksdale, Mound Bayou or the other cities of the Mississippi Delta than there is in Los Angeles. What I am saying is that Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York and other great cities of the North and West are going backward, while the bloody, hate-scarred towns of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, are inching forward.
The anguished towns of the savannahs of Georgia, the bayous of Louisiana, the cotton-picking communities of Mississippi, need examples from Los Angeles, their state politicians and others that racial and ethnic diversity need not be a curse upon America.
Los Angeles is undergoing a mass change in political, judicial, education and other leadership. In the next few months, "the City of Angels" will either show America the way out of social catastrophe, or it will expose us all to a hell reserved for bigots and small-minded political leaders.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.