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Jewish World Review March 10, 1999 /22 Adar 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Rodney King in perspective

( RODNEY KING HAS BEEN ARRESTED for the seventh time since his notorious beating in 1991. The Los Angeles Times reports that he was arraigned on charges of domestic violence against his 16-year-old daughter and her mother. His most serious crime involved a conviction for hitting his estranged wife with a car and then leaving the scene in 1995.

King's resurfacing coincides with an extremely illuminating video that aired recently on the Learning Channel and is available through Films for the Humanities and the Sciences (1-800-257-5126, $34.95 for individuals). "The Rodney King Incident: Race and Justice in America" takes advantage of the passage of time and new evidence to reflect on the role of the police, the media, the courts and the federal government in this searing national trauma.

As one of the lawyers in the case explains on this videotape, "Everyone thinks they know what happened that night. They saw it with their own eyes. But they don't know."

I must confess that I myself was in that category. After viewing the video of King's beating (which was broadcast more often on American television than any other video in history with the exception of the assassination of President Kennedy), I wrote an irate column calling the officers involved "criminals" and condemning the Los Angeles Police Department for harboring such monsters.

The truth is more complicated. There were three people in King's car that night. After the 8-mile high-speed chase on which King led the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles police, a CHP officer demanded that everyone get out of the car with his hands on his head. King's passengers did as they were told. King, for reasons that remain mysterious, refused to comply and did not speak intelligibly to the officer. An ex-con on probation, King certainly knew the arrest drill. He says he smoked dope and drank malt liquor that night. The police were convinced that he was high on PCP.

The whole world thinks that the police next engaged in an orgy of violence. But that is because the first 13 seconds of the tape -- which showed King charging at Officer Laurence Powell -- were edited out. The first jury saw the whole tape.

King simply would not get down. The police accordingly escalated their violence. They attempted a maneuver called the swarm, in which four officers would overcome King. He was able to throw them off. Sgt. Stacey Koon, the officer in charge, next attempted to subdue King with a Taser. It had no effect. Frightened now of this large and seemingly preternaturally strong suspect, the officers began to hit him with their batons, all the while shouting for him to get down on the ground. King continued to stay up on all fours. Powell told the first jury that he feared King was going to wrest his gun away from him, leading to a shooting.

The final seconds of the Rodney King beating tape do suggest excessive force. Ironically, it was Officer Ted Briseno, who turned on his fellow defendants at the first trial, who administered the first unnecessary blow after King had submitted.

That is only one of the many ironies this story yields. The tale of the second trial, the federal trial, which followed the riots, reveals federal prosecutors who were determined to make this a racial case (which the black district attorney in the first trial did not) and accordingly coached King to testify that racial epithets had been hurled that night. King testified that he couldn't recall but that he thought they had called him "killer" or "nigger."

Stacey Koon, who served 20 months in prison and survived an assassination attempt, knows that "Somebody had to serve as a scapegoat." But as this film makes clear, it was the news stations' irresponsible editing of the videotape combined with their inflammatory decisions to run it so very often that created the charged climate that eventually made justice impossible and helped set the stage for the O.J. Simpson trial.

No one emerges unsullied in this tale, not L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates, not President George Bush, not the officers and not Rodney King. Still, it's important to grasp the truth, even if it's too late to prevent the damage.


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1/27/98: What If It's Just the Sex?
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1/20/98: Arafat and the Holocaust Museum
1/16/98: Child Care or Feminist Agenda?
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©1999, Creators Syndicate