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LEGACY OF A BEATING | Cover Story

Torn Between The Present and The Past

Was the King Incident a Discrete, Isolated Episode? Or an Event With a Thousand Links to Unseen Injustices?

March 04, 2001|SOLOMON MOORE | Solomon Moore last wrote for the magazine about parolees

The frame jiggles erratically. The coding at the bottom of the grainy black-and-white image says it is March 3, 1991. Now the camera rests and we see a black man writhing in the dirt. We see police officers, sometimes two or three at a time, swinging batons with full force onto his legs, his back, his head. We see him stretch out his hand; we see them strike it. Twice he attempts to rise; we see them stomp him down. The camera pans. We see another policeman on the edge of the frame, tugging on a cord attached to the black man.

There are other things to notice. It is night-time, but the scene is white-lit by headlights. As the frame widens, we may discern a certain boldness here: Other officers ring the action, their hands resting on their holsters as they look on. At least two cars pass along a street forming the base of the frame. One slows for a look. No one in the frame looks our way. The camera's distant gaze, looking down, trembling in and out of focus, sweeping the figures around the frame, seems unsanctioned. We are not supposed to see this.

Ten years later, the videotaped beating of Rodney King continues to be a lens through which we see Los Angeles and the rest of the nation. It has become, with time, far more than a brutal revelation of police misconduct. It looms instead as the crest of a two-decade-long racial cold war, the zenith of a culture of irreconcilability. What we could not see in 1991 as we argued about the implications of the beating is how recent history has prepared us for a series of televised racial embroilments. First came the Tawana Brawley rape hoax. Then King. Then the killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in South-Central Los Angeles, the O.J. Simpson debacle and, last year, the Florida ballot battle. These out-sized media events became the new arenas of ethnic struggle. A segregated society that long ago stopped talking honestly about race was consigned to engage in periodic, simplistic debates. Often the debate was framed by the rawest of video images, torn between the meaning of the moment and the history that caused the moment. In this culture, reality was always subject to interpretation and rarely was there any incontrovertible evidence, be it a videotape or DNA. The fact that these spectacles were televised should have made them our common ground, but instead it warped them: So obsessed is TV with the immediate that it obliterated the importance of the past.

The culture of irreconcilability pits two world views: Some of us are determined to see an event as burdened by a thousand links to injustices unseen and histories unwritten. Others see a discrete, isolated incident that has no context beyond the moment. So the Rodney King videotape struck Melanie Lomax, then the Police Commission president, as "reminiscent of a police force in the Deep South," a simulacrum of black motorists profiled, of marchers fire-hosed, of black backs flogged and black necks stretched. The L.A. police chief at the time, Daryl F. Gates, saw in the same video "an aberration," "a one-incident situation" with no symbolic power and no context beyond the moment.

That same cultural dynamic allowed Republican chieftain James A. Baker III to stand before the microphones in Florida last year and describe the presidential ballot squabble as "new, uncertain and controversial territory," while a civil rights attorney named Barbara Arwine appeared before a NAACP forum and said: "This is not new. Florida has a rich history of voting-rights abuses." One side claims the present, the other claims the past.

The side that claimed the present saw the state's electoral system as a relatively good system pushed to the breaking point by an extraordinarily close election. If there were "irregularities," they were random, evenly distributed and belied by the overall regularity of Florida's voting system. That poor areas had more problems with voting than wealthier areas was attributable to chance or, at worst, machine error. Manual recounts were prevented by strict procedures that preserved the level playing field. "We've had a vote. We have laws in this country," said Karen Hughes, spokeswoman for then-Gov. George W. Bush. "We have a constitutional process."

The other reading, championed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, extended the historical boundaries of the event as far back as outrage would allow. Election Day traffic stops were not coincidence--they "showed a pattern of targeted racial profiling" reminiscent of Reconstruction-era voter obstruction; disproportionate numbers of shoddy voting machines found in Florida's poor communities echoed the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, which upheld segregated public facilities. A "colorblind" law that disenfranchised ex-felons was part of a long legacy of racially skewed prison populations, poll taxes and constitutional slavery.

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