LACEY: Christine, he was the second black kid killed in that neighborhood this year.
CAGNEY: So what was he doing there?
PETRIE (the squad room's black detective): Maybe he thought it was America.
Tonight at 10, in the second episode of its sixth season, "Cagney & Lacey" once again tackles one of the nation's politically and socially relevant issues. From abortion and abortion-clinic bombings, medical treatment of women with breast cancer, to toxic waste dumps, the CBS series has handled a range of provocative material.
Tonight, in "The City Is Burning," the subject is racism.
Its inspiration, though not the actual plot line, was last December's incident at Howard Beach--the neighborhood near Kennedy Airport in Queens where a gang of white youths attacked three black men who were strangers. One of the victims, 23-year-old Michael Griffith, fled onto the Belt Parkway in the early morning darkness where he was struck by a car and killed.
As jury selection in the Howard Beach trial of four white teen-agers charged with murder or manslaughter began three weeks ago, defense lawyers moved to block the airing of tonight's episode. N.Y. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Demakos dismissed the motion: "I'm not going to tell a TV station not to air a show."
"The City Is Burning" deals with what happens to the officers of "Cagney & Lacey's" folksy squad room when the outside pressures and internal conflicts of racism intrude. The segment was written by playwright and actor Samm-Art Williams (recipient of a 1980 Tony nomination for "Home") and directed by Helaine Head, who did two other episodes for the series last season.
Actress Tyne Daly, who plays Detective Mary Beth Lacey, suggested the episode. About a week after the Howard Beach incident, executive producer Barney Rosenzweig recalled, Daly grumbled that what they were working on was "lightweight" compared to what was "really going on" in New York. Out of that conversation, he said, came the story of "what we perceive to be the real issue of the Howard Beach syndrome: racism as a disease in America. Each of us has that monster inside of us."
"I thought we fought all those battles in 1968 and 1972 and that these matters were resolved," Daly said last week. "My sense of history gets disappointed by events . . . . Once you entertain some questions, you get people thinking for themselves."
In his living room in a Los Angeles apartment complex, Williams noted that while "Burning" "certainly touches on a lot of aspects of Howard Beach," the episode goes further and deals with "the adult mentality when these incidents occur. Not only people in the street, but even rational people become irrational when this thing is blown out of proportion.
"I mean you cannot be a cop and someone is constantly calling you a 'dirty (this)' and 'dirty (that),' and not have that affect you. When someone throws bricks at your car and is screaming 'police brutality' when the facts are not even in yet, that has to affect you . . . and they began to call each other the same names that the people in the street were calling each other."
Williams' script significantly departs from Howard Beach at the start. Detective Al Corassa's gun is found to be the murder weapon. Although it's clear that Corassa has the best of alibis, emotions are ignited. Racial slurs are tossed about.
And attitudes surface. Sgt. Cagney (Sharon Gless) proclaims: "Do you know what they did to Irish Catholics at the turn of the century in this country? We suffered. We were killed. We didn't scream police cover-up and throw rocks at people . . . ."
There is also introspection. Lacey questions why she had once stopped a black lawyer with a briefcase after a bank robbery. Husband Harvey Lacey (John Karlen) suggests that perhaps she was simply following her instincts. "Yeah, but are they cop instincts," Mary Beth responds, "or somewhere in the back of my head am I still this little girl from a lily white neighborhood in South Boston?"
"City Is Burning," a rather strong title because there are no majorriots, makes connections to other real-life events. In Williams' script, black civil rights attorney Joyce Richards blames the homicide of the black teen-ager on what had been happening in the case involving Bernhard Goetz. (In December, 1984, Goetz shot four black youths who accosted him in a subway car; in July, 1986, New York state's highest court ordered him to stand trial for attempted murder; last June, Goetz was acquitted of all major charges.)
"Racism is subconscious," suggested Williams, who attended a segregated high school in North Carolina. "You don't have to consciously think about it. If you come from a home where someone is constantly saying it's them and us ," -- which he did not--"pretty soon they will begin to accept that as the truth."
Williams blames "politicians who blow things all out of proportion for their own good. I could name a thousand, black and white," he said, declining to cite any by name.