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Mr. Miller’s Tea Party

The Japanese tea ceremony sprung from the craving by 15th-century Zen monks for harmonious lives free from social blunder. In an era of violence and chaos, these spiritual aesthetes so perfectly choreographed the human encounter that offense or oafishness simply was not possible.

In freewheeling 21st-century Los Angeles, we usually barrel through sensitive moments with ignorance or humor and it’s no big deal. But even here we sometimes find ourselves dreading the consequences of a single misstep, a poorly chosen word, a clumsy gesture, and we have developed ritualized steps to follow when the demand arises.

The demand arose late last month in the form of that most emphatically L.A. of phenomena, the police chase ending in a videotaped beating. The images of the officer bringing down his flashlight 11 times on suspected car thief Stanley Miller reach deep into the city’s psyche and touch chords of race, fear, crime and chaos. Comparisons with Rodney King are automatic and involuntary, and all the questions that were set aside for a time come quickly back to mind: Are the police racist? Is change possible? Will people riot?

Now comes Los Angeles’ version of the tea ceremony.

The idea is to so scrupulously follow the details of the post-beating ritual created over the last dozen years that disharmony and breakdown are not possible. Our ceremony is made up partly of the laws and procedures crafted and refined since Rodney King was clubbed in 1991, and of unwritten rules of conduct for public figures and the news media.

So far, everybody seems to know his part. Mayor James Hahn, Police Chief William Bratton and Inspector General André Birotte have each met with reporters to outline the careful procedures that grew out of the King beating, the Rampart corruption scandal, and their progeny: the Christopher Commission, Proposition F, the consent decree. The I.G. was called, the district attorney was notified, the officers were separated, the statements of witnesses and officers were recorded, a briefing of the inspector general is planned. The suspect was housed at the county jail, not in an LAPD cell. All personnel packages of the officers at the scene are being reviewed.

An intrinsic component of the ceremony, though, is a constant evaluation of each participant’s performance. Was it okay, for example, for Hahn to say right off the bat that it appeared to him that the flashlight-wielding officer used “excessive force,” and did he fall into the trap of overkill when he appointed a community panel to review the official probe? Did Bratton do better by saying simply that he was “disturbed” by what he saw on the tape? Was it okay for Hahn to appoint outspoken Project Islamic Hope leader Najee Ali, who is charged with identity theft? And if not, was the gaffe expunged by Ali’s resignation? Was Bratton playing by the rules when he dismissed Ali as a “nitwit,” then apologized for it? Was it just useless theater for the chief to meet with Al Sharpton?

All of it was theater, maybe, but none of it is useless. The public portion of our ritual is as integral as the new investigatory procedures in assuring that we don’t get a repeat of Rodney King. It’s no accident that the L.A. Times Web site makes available video of both beatings, side by side, and there’s no point in arguing that the parallels between the flashlight clubbing and the beating of King are weak. It’s all about what we have learned, and what the police have learned, since 1991.

In case you missed the latest episode — well, of course you didn’t miss it, but just to recap — TV stations were broadcasting a police chase through South Los Angeles just before dawn on June 23. The pursuit ended in Compton when the 36-year-old Miller ran from his stolen Toyota Camry and was chased down by officers, who pinned him to the ground. As Miller was apparently being restrained, the videotape shows Officer John Hatfield kicking him and then striking him 11 times with a flashlight.

After Miller is handcuffed, the tape shows three officers exchanging handshakes.

The ritual that follows includes news stories from every possible angle. The rules require that we learn, quickly, that Miller is black and that Hatfield, Anglo name notwithstanding, is Latino. Police use their flashlights, apparently, as weapons. News helicopters that film police chases, and TV news editors, and viewers who obsess over them turn out to serve some useful purpose after all.

 

The ceremony mandates that we recite how different things are since 1991. Remember that then, as every opportunity came to protect the process and assure the public of fairness, that opportunity was missed. Remember that the police chief then was concerned primarily with his department’s independence, and that he and the mayor did not speak to each other. Remember that even after the arrest that triggered the Watts riots in 1965, and even after the deadly Eula Love arrest some 20 years later, and even after the killing of Latasha Harlins and the racial tension, outrage and resentment it triggered, the city was not prepared to come to terms with the need for police reform or the possibility of social breakdown.

Note that this time around, the chief is a man brought in to help federal monitors reform the department. Keep in mind that after one inspector general was fired for trying to do her job and another resigned in frustration after locking horns with the chief and the Police Commission, policies changed, and the new I.G. — who, by the way, gets along famously with the chief and the Police Commission — is accorded access and courtesy denied to his predecessors. Recall that as bad as our problems may seem now, they are nowhere near as hopeless as they seemed in 1992.

Still — when the tape first came out of the Rodney King beating, Police Chief Daryl Gates said it looked pretty bad. There was no way of knowing, then, that a year later the city would erupt in flame. It may have been obvious that the LAPD culture was seriously in need of reform, but there was no way of knowing our procedures were so hopelessly inept, and there was no way of knowing the right things to say to the right people at the right time to bring about a more constructive fix.

There’s no way of knowing those things now, either, so everybody follows the ceremony as best they can, knowing all the while that our ritual can at any moment turn into a mad tea party.