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New King Trial Starts, But Old Troubles Remain

February 07, 1993|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles" (Routledge, Chapman & Hall)

With the beginning of jury selection in the second trial concerning the Rodney G. King incident, a season of fear has officially opened.

Los Angeles, says the national press, is "a city in a race with time," "wracked with anxiety" and "braced for trouble." Time magazine warns of the armies of "idle and restless men" who may again set the city afire if "verdicts in two explosive new trials are not to their liking." Nightly news is saturated with images of the Los Angeles Police Department drilling with gas masks and shotguns in Elysian Park or test-firing their new rubber bullets against unruly supporters of the LA 4. Meanwhile, in casual conversations, friends confess elaborate preparations for fleeing the city at the first hint of new violence.

In our current state of growing apprehension, no one seems to have remembered Hegel's dictum that history repeats itself not as tragedy but as farce. Please don't misunderstand me: Tragedy is written large over too many lives--especially young ones--in Los Angeles these days. But the official scenario for the Third L.A. Riot suspiciously smacks of self-serving political theater.

By magnifying anxieties around the verdicts in the overlapping Reginald O. Denny and King-beating trials, all the institutions that failed so miserably last spring--the courts, the LAPD, the mayoralty--set the stage for their heroic vindication. In the Establishment's "win-win" version, a nobly "impartial" federal jury finally takes the LAPD's bad apples off the talk-show circuit, while Police Chief Willie L. Williams' new-model LAPD efficiently squelches any angry outburst at the corner of Florence and Normandie following the conviction of Damian Monroe (Football) Williams and the other men who allegedly beat up Denny. Despite dire predictions, a new riot is forestalled and the city is saved.

This happy ending is designed, like the current mayoral election, to thrill a primarily white audience--not those "idle and restless men" in the ghettos and barrios. The complex accumulation of grievances that fueled last year's explosion is reduced to a simple morality play in a federal courtroom, while the impossible burden of something called "justice" is shifted onto the backs of a nameless, sequestered jury.

What is really happening, of course, is that the politics of riot control have replaced the politics of reform. For all the brave words spoken over the ashes of last spring's uprising, we are in headlong retreat from its real issues.

The youth who instigated the rebellion are as ignored, vilified and unheard as before. There is no political leadership to resist the budget cuts that are dismantling the schools and public services of our inner-city neighborhood. And the slogan emblazoned over the current city election is "More Cops!" not jobs for kids.

Hanging Stacey C. Koon and convicting the three other policemen may assuage white guilt over the first verdict, but it is small recompense for all the false promises made to South Los Angeles over the past 10 months. There is no need to worry about the "next riot," because the city is still on fire.

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