In the aftermath of the Stanley Miller beating — a videotape of yet another police beat-down of a black man that joins a collection featuring Rodney King and Donovan Jackson — the community response was, as we have come to expect, fast and furious. Police Chief Bill Bratton wisely beat everybody to the punch — though only by minutes — by holding the first press conference criticizing the incident and pledging a speedy investigation. Mayor Hahn rounded up a special citizens’ commission in record time. Activist/businessman/newspaper publisher Danny Bakewell just as quickly panned Hahn’s commission as toothless and perfunctory, and announced the formation of his own citizen police-review commission, made up of real community members, that will be truly independent.
The air was so thick with flying fur that it was easy to forget what’s already been largely forgotten — the promises of reform made, but so far unfulfilled, during the last big police-abuse moment, the Donovan Jackson beating in Inglewood in 2002. Then, every black leader from Al Sharpton on down condemned the beating and called for more intense citizen scrutiny of police conduct. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, a former judge and prosecutor, proposed installing video cameras in Inglewood patrol cars; a cadre of concerned citizens and activists in Inglewood and elsewhere came together to form a commission similar to what Bakewell proposed.
Two years later, there are no video cameras. Final approval of the structure and function of the Inglewood Citizen Police Oversight Commission has stalled in City Council, partly because of questions about the undue influence Dorn and the chief of police would exert. The point here is that while nothing mobilizes and/or incenses black communities like wrongdoing by police, the follow-up tends to be proportionately meager. There’s a bottleneck pattern that goes something like this: Community leaders, both real and self-appointed, square off against public officials, or partner with them to increase their own visibility, and the questions on the ground raised by Donovan Jackson, et al., get lost in the chair shuffling. Issues get caught in the cross hairs of power struggles and don’t make it out.
Those already in power have a mixed record on police abuse, to say the least. State Senator Kevin Murray once championed a bill mandating ethnic-data collection by police to combat racial profiling — a hard line, but a necessary one — then softened his position at the last minute. In response to Donovan Jackson, Assemblyman Herb Wesson Jr. formed a Speaker’s Commission on Police Conduct and proposed four Assembly bills, authored by legal experts and community activists, meant to monitor patterns of bad police behavior and stop crises before they happen. Wesson could never get the bills signed, though they’re still floating around Sacramento. It is unclear what role, if any, the commission has now that Wesson is no longer speaker.
Assemblyman and former City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas recently announced he would be including the Stanley Miller beating in his annual Days of Dialogue, a communitywide forum that takes the mediation approach to hot-button grievances like police brutality. Congresswoman Maxine Waters backed up Mitchell Crooks, the man who videotaped the Jackson incident and aggravated his own legal troubles, with public support and a legal-defense fund (though she did it more as a plain, outraged citizen than as a congresswoman — Waters is one of those rare pols who can do both, legitimately).
Then there’s Bernard Parks, who contorted himself 180 degrees to come down on the side of the South L.A. community that he now represents as 8th District councilman. Before news cameras and God, Parks dressed down Bill Bratton for insulting minorities not just in the wake of the Miller beating — Bratton famously called freelance activist/spokesman Najee Ali a “nitwit” — but during the whole time that Bratton’s been chief. If the councilman looked uncomfortable doing this, he should have. Parks, you remember, was once our immovable police chief who fairly scoffed at public protests over things like the Donovan Jackson beating and the Margaret Mitchell shooting, and who never saw a use-of-force incident that he couldn’t describe as being “in policy.”
He scolded citizens — mostly black — for racializing the Mitchell affair and other controversial scenarios involving black suspects and nonblack officers. He acknowledged the Rampart scandal but resisted the federal consent decree that was meant to hasten reform of the LAPD. Then, when Parks’ job was on the line and it suddenly looked like he was more outside the establishment than in, he allowed himself to be supported by many of the same black people who had frequently opposed him, including Ali and Bakewell. It was racial and political solidarity over all else; Parks’ dubious stance on police reform was moved to the back burner out of necessity, but also because reform simply was not the issue at that point. Like too many other critical issues in the black community, it was compartmentalized for the sake of political convenience. That Parks was recently forced to eat crow as a councilman feels like more of the same.
But who knows? The third time could be the charm. There were signs of progress this time out. The fact that the political establishment actually tripped over its own feet — and, at points, over its tongue — trying to get ahead of the curve is encouraging. Danny Bakewell’s endeavor might yield something besides the fruit he dramatically smashed with a flashlight to demonstrate its potential as a lethal weapon. With so many people eager to array themselves on the side of right, let’s hope it’s a reasonably long time before we’re once again exposed to a vision — videotaped or not — of wrong.