Activist Dick Gregory can always combine the humorous with the serious, even as he leans toward the serious. And demonstrators in the courtyard of Inglewoods City Hall last Friday captured that spirit when they brandished signs such as Buy a videocamSave a life. They were crammed in amid an armada of press cameras to have their voices heard and to demand swift justice in the July 6 videotaped police beating of 16-year-old Donovan Jackson.
Everyone expected a good show, a free celebrity sighting. Word had hit the street that the Reverend Al Sharpton would be speaking, and by 10:30, platoons of black mothers in braids were dragging toddlers and pushing strollers across the intersection of La Brea and Queen to catch an in-person glimpse of Sharpton, Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III.
Black Muslims, oblivious to the heat, and looking smart and cool in bow ties and crisp gray suits, kept mostly to the courtyard perimeter, while other onlookers edged closer. A few Anglos milled about, holding up signs or recruiting for various causes.
The crowd energy was nervous, as though it was too soon to have another videotape of cops beating a black man. A local minister spoke about redemption and God, before quickly asserting that there would be no riots -- to weak applause. For the most part, he was ignored. The audience had not come to see local preachers.
It was the sighting of Gregorys bobbing white hair that incited shouts of No justice, no peace, which became almost deafening as the elderly civil rights warrior and comedian -- a voice for justice over half a century -- took possession of the mike.
Gregory implored the crowd repeatedly and gently to quiet their souls, until they did. They listened as the old man recounted being arrested himself several years ago -- when hed left a health-food store that he co-owned. Police accused him of shoplifting, and it took a white employee to tell the cops who he was.
Gregory joked that bin Laden wouldnt have eluded custody if hed filmed a white cop beating a black man -- a reference to the arrest, on an outstanding warrant, of the man who shot the video. Gregory also spoke of racism so deep in Americas fabric. The whole worlds eyes are on Inglewood, he said. Everyone, he added, should buy a video camera. He would start fasting for justice -- as he had so many times before -- at 7 p.m. that evening. And no, he said, there would be no riot.
Martin Luther King III stood immediately behind: bearded, full-faced and quiet with beads of sweat trickling down the side of his broad forehead. Almost involuntarily, I kept stealing glances at Kings face, searching for even the tiniest traces of his father. King rose after an ex--gang member had a turn. Praising Gregorys speech and talking of peace and God, King was soft-spoken, cautious with words and gentle in voice.
Al Sharpton didnt arrive in time for this gathering. We were left guessing about whether he would have beseeched calm or provoked righteous anger. No matter. Gregorys message was clear: There would be no riots.