I grew up in Miami in the 80's, which means that I lived through three major race riots before I was 20-years-old. All were the result of police either killing black men or being acquitted of killing black men. The largest of the three, the 1980 Liberty City riot, left 18 people dead -- ironically, yet not surprisingly, 8 whites and 10 blacks. The chaos it produced in the streets was almost impossible to describe: buildings were burned; businesses were looted; snipers fired at cars driving along I-95; the National Guard was called in; the situation was so frightening at one point that according to Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, the staff of the paper, holed up in their downtown offices, raided the cafeteria and poured cooking oil down the building's loading ramp to prevent rioters from getting to the rear entrance.
Liberty City remained the most notable race riot in modern history, until April of 1992 -- when Los Angeles exploded.
By now, everyone knows the story: Four white L.A. cops were captured on video beating Rodney King, yet were acquitted by a jury made up of whites, a Latino and an Asian. For six days following the verdict, Los Angeles burned. When it was all over, 53 people were dead.
I was 22-years-old and had been in TV news only a couple of months when it happened. It would be another few years before I moved to Los Angeles, but to watch it go up in flames -- this place which even at the time represented a kind of personal manifest destiny for me -- was heartbreaking, particularly after having lived through Miami's calamitous recent past. I wasn't sure what to make of the verdict; it seemed almost incomprehensible to most who watched the videotape of the King beating that those wielding the batons and Taser could be found not guilty. I was among that group; I remember reacting with outrage at what seemed to be an unmitigated injustice. Although not willing to give anyone a pass for torching half a city and savagely attacking the innocent, I could understand the anger felt by many of those who took to the streets. Under then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, the LAPD had metastasized into a cold, brutish machine -- one which seemed to function more as the armed enforcers of a dictatorial state than a community police force whose job it was to protect and serve. The force as a whole inspired more fear than respect, and as far as anyone could tell, Gates was just fine with that. In the wake of the verdict, I had quite a few lengthy conversations about this subject with my father, who happened to be a veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department.
My father's take on the acquittal in Los Angeles was unconscionable to me at the time, though not surprising given his background: He felt that despite the inflammatory nature of the videotape evidence, it didn't really prove a thing. As an ex-cop, he was of course approaching it from the standpoint that no one can know exactly what it's like to be a police officer dealing with an explosive, potentially life-threatening situation. Yes, the tape seemed to show a submissive and subdued Rodney King being viciously clubbed for no justifiable reason, but there was more to what was happening than the snapshot of the overall incident that had been captured on video. (In fact, there was even more footage on the tape itself, which the public never saw but the jury did.) Knowing what most cops have to endure on a daily basis and what can go through the mind of even the best-trained officer in a moment of extreme stress, my father was willing to give the King cops the benefit of the doubt and demand more information before rendering judgment.
Looking back on it, he was right -- not because he wanted to give the police a pass, but because he wanted to see and hear all the facts in the case before making a decision as to guilt or innocence.
Needless to say, I'm thinking quite a bit about this right now -- after the acquittal in the shooting of Sean Bell.
I won't rehash the case too deeply; you likely know the details: Bell was shot outside a strip club in Queens, New York on November 25th of 2006; plainclothes cops fired 50 rounds at his car, killing him and wounding his two passengers. At the time, even Mayor Mike Bloomberg said it sounded like excessive force was used -- but today, a judge has ruled otherwise. To those in the black community, it feels like another stunning betrayal -- a case of killers in blue blithely executing a black man then escaping punishment, proving once again that police are above the very laws they purport to uphold. Although there's calm in the streets at the moment, the usual instigators -- and by that, I mean Al Sharpton -- will most certainly soon be forcing their indignant faces in front of any camera they can find, decrying the failure of the system and the insignificance of a black life in the eyes of the law. To some extent, they'll be correct, regardless of the true, self-serving agendas behind their personal proclamations -- but I can't help thinking that, as with Rodney King, we don't know all the facts in the case other than the most incendiary of them: that 50 bullets were fired at Bell. Admittedly, that alone is enough to make me seriously question the validity of the shoot, but it's not enough to convict on its own. More evidence is needed, and I would have to hope that, before issuing his verdict, the judge saw and considered the facts that the public either wasn't aware of or refused to take into account.
Were the cops who gunned down Sean Bell truly guilty of exercising unnecessarily brutal force? Are police in general expected to meet only a paltry standard when it comes to taking deadly action?
It may seem so at this point, after all we've seen.
But that doesn't necessarily make it so.