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Law and Disorder

The BBC called to inquire what I thought of the Rodney King--style police beating that happened in Inglewood last week. My immediate thought was that the Brits, a continent and a half away, actually recognizing the difference between L.A.-adjacent Inglewood and L.A. itself -- a recognition many of us here living in our various small towns within the big city fail to make -- was progress. My next thought was that police abuse and urban riots are about the only American issues that have truly gone global in the last 10 years, thanks to the violent and graphic visuals that have proved tailor-made for news telecasts anywhere in the world. To be fair, this one is too much like Rodney King to ignore: a routine police stop quickly spiraling out of control, a white veteran cop with a Terminator complex, a bloodied black victim, a white guy in the window of a tall building nearby who happens to get it all on videotape. It‘s eerie really, even to those of us who are perfectly unsurprised by more evidence that local police haven’t reformed, not yet, and that the age-old animus between cops and black citizenry is very much alive.

Except this time this isn‘t the frequently infamous LAPD, it’s Inglewood P.D. and a handful of county Sheriff‘s deputies. Because of that, I doubt that this story will have the legs of Rodney King and Rampart; I have a feeling in the future it will look more like an isolated incident than proof that things have long been rotten in Denmark. It might also fade, ironically, because of extenuating racial factors: Inglewood’s populace is overwhelmingly black and brown, its mayor is black and a loud civic booster who is already worried that this incident might further taint a decidedly middle-class city that nonetheless suffers image problems largely because of its demographics. That isn‘t fair, but neither is quelling the possible significance of this latest instance of police brutality that had a script and cast of characters too familiar for comfort. But even if the matter is resolved swiftly -- the cops are duly punished, or, much more improbably, their actions are found justified -- the damage has been wrought already. Inglewood is now known, to Britain and elsewhere, as a place where police get testy, and we all know they only get testy in places like Inglewood -- and Compton, and South L.A. Of course they also get testy in Beverly Hills and Culver City, but usually only with people who look like they might have wandered in from Inglewood or Compton or South L.A. Thus Beverly Hills itself is always exempt from a bad rap, whereas Inglewood and its ilk always seem to be digging more holes for themselves. It’s become the natural order of things; in the police-abuse equation, we always seem to end up with zero. Or less.

I say we as an Inglewood resident and a black person who knows more black males with unpleasant police encounters than I can count on two hands. That‘s a fact, not an obsession. Frankly, when the BBC guy called, I knew only as much about the whole Inglewood affair as he did. Not only did he expect me to know every detail, he assumed I was a veteran in analyzing affairs like this on the fly, putting police abuse in historical context in two minutes or fewer. Hate to disappoint anyone, but I’m much more provincial than that; like so many other Angelenos and Angeleno-adjacents, I‘m more concerned with nice trees in the street medians, with the goods in my local grocery store and the gigs at my neighborhood jazz coffee bar. When something like a police rough-up happens nearby, I’m distraught first because it‘s nearby, second because of the whole aforementioned historical context. What I don’t do is condemn where I live because, well, it‘s where I live. I prefer to think of it as aberration, like they do in Beverly Hills, and move on.

The Times has thus far cautiously characterized the Inglewood incident as a good thing. Good in that this time out law-enforcement officials and pundits have been quick to condemn the cop and not the victim. Good in that we appear to have augmented our collective social conscience since ’91. I agree with that, to a point; I would add that shifting the blame of bad police conduct to where it belongs might be only the beginning. Inglewood itself could use an apology or two from those who have feared it since the infamous portrayal in the early ‘90s film Grand Canyon, or even before. Then it could use some development savvy, and visionary investment in the school district and downtown area, for starters. Pretty soon those police stories would hardly make the headlines at all.