More than a verdict

LAST FRIDAY night I set my alarm to awaken me in plenty of time to hear the relay of the jury's verdicts at 7 the next morning. TTC Although I was well aware that the trial results would be rebroadcast throughout the day, my internal Geiger counter, the one that measures moments of historic significance, was clicking away.

So I listened intently as the verdicts were handed down, and, as I heard various reporters' on-the-spot analyses, I thought of other courtrooms:


I thought of a modest, whitewashed courtroom in Mississippi, when Emmett Till's uncle, Mose Allen, rose to point his finger at each of the men accused of murdering his nephew. And I thought of the silence, as Allen, trembling but with audible voice identified the men who tortured, then killed 15-year-old Emmett, placing a fan from a cotton gin around his neck and pushing him into a river under cover of night.

"There he," Mose Allen said, as he pointed to each defendant, and, because he was willing to testify, history changed forever. It was no longer impossible to imagine that the eye of justice would be turned toward white-on-black crime in the Deep South. And although Till's murderers were acquitted (as virtually everyone, white and black, assumed they would be) and Mose Allen had to slip away North, just in case a lynch mob sought to penalize him for his courage, the rudder of the ship of justice had moved just a bit, and legal administration in the South, ultimately, would tack a different course.


I thought of a courtroom farther north too, much more elegant than the one in rural Mississippi. This room had not one judge but nine, sitting in splendor behind an imposing mahogany dais, and surrounded by marble columns and burgundy velvet drapes. And before the nine white men stood one who was black, who argued that the administration of separate educational facilities for colored children was inherently unequal, and a violation of the Constitution of the United States. The judges agreed, and Brown vs. Board of Education (and Thurgood Marshall) entered into the annals of history. The rudder had moved again, significantly, and with the course of the ship, America's course was again changing.

Saturday morning, the King jurors in Los Angeles moved the rudder again, and one has the feeling that once more America's course is changing. And the ultimate effect will, like the Till and Brown trials, determine how America moves forward. It is, for those who were beginning to abandon hope, a glimmer that there is truly interest (on the part of the federal government, anyway) in seeing each citizen receive equal justice under the law, regardless of race, sex or economic condition. It is a message to police departments nationwide that excessive use of force, especially when coupled by racial prejudice, is unacceptable and actionable. And it is a message to a city still stunned by last year's violence and wearied by a constant, nearly palpable racial tension, that it is time to begin again. And if we are smart, we will not make the same mistakes when we begin, together, to rebuild L.A.

That means some frank and painful admissions: The "haves" must admit that they and the "have-nots" are tied together inextricably, and that their interest in conceding a change in the power base that administers the city and improving the quality of life for the poor -- including our immigrant communities -- is not noblesse oblige. It is enlightened self-interest.

The media (especially television) must admit that their portrayals of so-called daily life in communities about which they know very little should change, and quickly. If, in this city of Balkanized neighborhoods, what we know of each other comes mostly from what we read and see and hear through the media, we need more accurate images. That will begin to happen only when newsrooms and those who run them reflect the communities they purport to cover.

And citizens (including this one) need to admit that some of the responsibility for whether we succeed or fail in our attempt to build a stronger and better new Los Angeles from the ashes of the old one is squarely on our shoulders. Whether it's participation in a community organization, organizing a letter-writing campaign to make sitting officials aware of our suggestions, grievances or points of view, maintaining a truce -- as the Crips and Bloods have managed to do against predictions to the contrary by all conventional wisdom -- or simply speaking pleasantly to someone different from you (who may, in fact, be looking for a way to do the same), there is room for everyone's contribution.

On Saturday, the jurors in the federal Rodney G. King civil-rights trial handed Los Angeles more than a verdict. They handed the city a second chance. And we should not blow it.

Karen Grigsby Bates writes frequently on modern culture, race relations and politics for several national publications.