On the evening of the Rodney King verdicts, as they have become known, some friends and I went to the Paul McCartney concert at Anaheim Stadium.
It was supposed to be girls' night out--a chance for four Beatles fans of years past to relive their childhood crushes uninhibited by the wisecracks of jealous husbands. But at the last minute, one of the women had to drop out, so we brought along a male infiltrator to fill her seat.
We were feeling good. Two of the police officers involved in the horrible beating finally had been brought to justice. A sense of order, of right prevailing over wrong, replaced the bewilderment and anger we shared in emotional conversation a year before.
Southern California was at peace. There were no burning buildings, no looting, no curfews--nothing to stand between us and a nostalgic rendezvous with the ever-adorable Paul.
We exited the freeway at a snail's pace, caught in a crush of traffic headed for the concert. Bumper-to-bumper, we inched along an overpass toward the stadium--close in proximity, but distant in accessibility. Vendors peddling T-shirts and tickets weaved through the cars.
Suddenly I glimpsed a skirmish off to my right side, one lane over, against the rail. "What's going on over there?" I said. We all turned our heads to peer between the cars next to us. We already were past the melee, but for a second we could see it clearly: four white guys pummeling a black man.
The outnumbered man, a helpless punching bag, was pinned against the wall. Fists flew. Countless witnesses rolled by, yet these men pursued their prey with unabashed vengeance.
"What shall we do?" we kept asking one another. Getting out of the car and attempting to intervene was out of the question, even if we'd had more than one man among us. No one even bothered to mention that as a possibility. We were no match for four young thugs.
And handguns, handguns, handguns--those dime-a-dozen gadgets that give mere fools the power of God. Their threat is increasingly on our minds, we had been saying just moments earlier.
We were trapped on the long bridge, no pay phone in sight. "Maybe someone with a car telephone has called the police," we mumbled repeatedly. A taxi cab pulled up beside us and we signaled the driver to unroll his window.
"Did you see what was happening? Can you radio the police?" we pleaded.
"I can't do nothing about it," he said, with chilling indifference.
"Can't you radio your desk and have them call the police?" one of my friends asked. But he moved ahead of us without responding.
I tried to get the attention of a Mercedes driver, thinking the car a good candidate for a phone, but he didn't see me. I continued in vain to make the effort with other cars.
Minutes passed--at least five, maybe 10--and there we sat, stuck in slow motion. We fell silent.
By now it must be over, I thought, either through intervention or simply playing itself out. It might have lasted only a few seconds, for all we knew. What could we have done differently? Were we guilty of abetting a crime, like the officers who stood by and watched their colleagues beat a prone suspect?
"We can only hope that someone with a car phone called the police," one of us offered as we pulled into the stadium's parking lot.
I considered calling 911 once inside the stadium. But by then it seemed an empty gesture--more for myself than for the man, so that I could pretend I'd done my part.
"We have something to celebrate tonight!" Paul announced during the concert. But I didn't feel celebratory.
The verdicts had not put an end to the violence so deeply embedded in our society--not even for a few hours.
I had no way of knowing what sparked the incident I'd just seen. It could have been a racial slur--or something mundanely colorblind, like a dispute over money. Whatever, there were four against one. Four white bullies against one black man.
And perhaps even more disturbing, there were dozens of passersby--people like me who told ourselves, someone else will take care of it.
On Sunday morning I finally telephoned the police--12 hours after the fact. To ease my own conscience, I wanted to find out if the guy was all right.
"We didn't receive any calls last night about an assault," an officer told me. "No calls at all."