A year before Rodney G. King, there was Oliver R. Beasley.
The 27-year-old Nation of Islam member, slain by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies after a traffic stop erupted into a melee, came to symbolize the brutality many blacks say they suffer at the hands of law enforcement.
His death provoked outrage, inspired protests and captured the attention of Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan--who labeled Beasley a martyr at his funeral, then called for an investigation of his "murder" before a crowd of 16,000 at a Sports Arena rally.
But as the case drifted from center stage into the more complex and cumbersome realm of the judicial system, the furor fizzled.
Without fanfare, the district attorney's office cleared the two deputies of criminal wrongdoing. This month, a $15-million lawsuit brought by Beasley's daughter ended quietly in Norwalk Superior Court with the officers exonerated by a unanimous verdict.
"It just sizzled out," said Beasley's mother, Doris.
Two years after his death became a rallying cry, the Beasley shooting demonstrates how even the most notorious cases of alleged brutality can slip into obscurity, relevant only to those most touched.
Black leaders, many of whom did not even know the matter had gone to trial, say it is a constant struggle in such cases to keep the spirit of protest alive. As time passes, passions subside, witnesses vanish and the slow grind of the legal system sours hopes for justice.
"This is unfortunately what happens," said Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bakewell, conceding that he was not aware of the case's outcome. "That is what is so difficult. How do you keep the fire lit in order for the public outrage to continue?"
From the perspective of sheriff's deputies, the incident offers a different lesson. In the heat of the moment, they say, conscientious officers are often subjected to wild accusations. Yet when their actions are vindicated, the headlines have disappeared.
"I saw the initial blowup as propaganda, something for the newspapers to report," said Deputy David Dolson, who fired the shot that killed Beasley. "But people like that stuff. They like the meat. They like something that's an outrage."
Even when the legal system functions as designed, the underlying conflicts in such cases remain wrenchingly ambiguous and difficult to resolve.
Law enforcement sees these incidents as the unfortunate consequence of policing high-crime areas. Yet many blacks say authorities have used that explanation for centuries to justify the taking of life in their community.
Without a videotaped account to provide a documented view, allegations of police abuse are ultimately clashes of those competing realities--often fueled by beliefs that remain unshaken, regardless of the evidence at hand.
"It almost gets into a philosophical question of what is real," said Halford H. Fairchild, a Los Angeles social psychologist who edits the journal of the Assn. of Black Psychologists. "Reality is very much dependent on the vantage point of the observer . . . and race is often a line of demarcation for how one defines reality."
The death of Oliver Beasley is a study in those realities.
The man remembered by his family as a "halo kid" became front-page news on Jan. 23, 1990, in the 1100 block of West 106th Street--a slice of county land known as Athens, wedged between Inglewood and South-Central Los Angeles.
The address is home to a 20-unit apartment complex that was the headquarters for a Nation of Islam "God Squad," a team of young Muslims who had come with a message of unity and pride, preaching strict dietary codes and self-defense skills as antidotes to drugs and violence.
That night, the talk was about Farrakhan, the inspirational and often controversial minister, who was scheduled to appear at the Sports Arena in 10 days. Beasley was with friends in Apartment 4, discussing their strategy for selling tickets, as well as the bean pies that are the organization's signature product.
On a window facing the street, a poster advertised the theme of the rally. "Stop The Killing," it said.
David Dolson, then a 24-year-old trainee with an almost cherubic face, was 1 1/2 hours into an overnight shift with his training officer, Deputy William Tackaberry, an imposing man with the look of a bulldog.
The officers, both assigned to the Lennox station, were cruising down 106th when they spotted the headlights of a car rapidly approaching in their rearview mirror. "This guy must be crazy," thought Tackaberry, as he watched the car swerve into the next lane and swiftly pass.
Believing it might be stolen, the deputies hit their siren and flashing lights. But the driver--an 18-year-old Culver City high school senior named David Hartley--continued on for about a block, finally pulling into the apartment building's carport.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Hartley later told sheriff's investigators. "I don't know why they stopped me."