Two weeks ago I wrote that the media covering the recent criminal trial of Jeremy Morse artificially toned down any comparisons between Donovan Jackson and Rodney King. Whether that was due to political correctness, historical amnesia, or an editorial effort to put a bland new twist on a volatile old story, the trial coverage was straightforward and pretty much devoid of any discussions of race.
Last week’s acquittal of Morse made me realize that I failed to mention that all that tiptoeing was only half of a schizophrenic equation. In the days of jury deliberation leading up to decision, what emerged as the media’s biggest concern was not the decision itself but the R word — not race, but riots (terms that have become virtually synonymous, but more on that later). Inquiring L.A. Times reporters wanted to know almost daily just how likely it was or wasn’t that the good citizens of Inglewood would take to the streets, smash windows and otherwise self-destruct yet again in the wake of a verdict that the “community” deemed unsatisfactory.
The nearly prurient fascination with such a prospect — dressed up as social concern, of course — underscored a very racial belief that natives are likely to get restless over the slightest provocation, and everyone else has the right to know when exactly they should go buy bottled water and handguns in preparation for another unblessed event. Unfortunately, the well-intentioned Stop the Violence/Increase the Peace Foundation fueled such notions by conducting a “Peace After the Verdicts” campaign, which sought to pre-empt any destructive expressions of outrage by putting up signs in shop windows in Inglewood for nearly a year. The blanket anti-battle cry was understandable on one hand, but deplorable on any other; there was no public acknowledgment of the possibility that one could be black, indignant about the verdict and whatever else, but not be inclined to riot. I’m not griping about the foundation, which has done yeoman’s work for years not only to address the aftermath of violence but to get ahead of it, nearly as much as a lack of complexity and countervailing options here. Why not promote meetings in the local library to discuss the verdicts? Form discussion groups? Hold pizza nights? I know it’s not as good an angle as the riots — race and violence are two of the three biggest components of the American id, sex being the other — but it might at least discourage people from assuming that inside every black person is a green Hulk waiting to shake a fist before carting off a free sofa.
The real problem is that blacks are popularly defined by extremes, and everybody goes along with it. You’re either a professional in a glass tower entirely removed from the real world, or you’re on the streets, and the streets always determine what happens in the black community. And let’s be clear about something that the media have always been coyly unclear about: “The community” in the context of Donovan Jackson — or Rodney King, for that matter — is black people, usually working-class to poor. “Community” has been code language in the media since at least 1992 for black neighborhoods that by definition are hornets’ nests waiting to be stepped on by unjust verdicts, court rulings, beatings and the like. Anything the media perceive as a black neighborhood has a permanent security alert status of Code Orange, and Inglewood, despite its median income of around $35,000 and many snoozy middle-class accouterments, is no exception. But as an Inglewood resident and black citizen of the world, I seethed at the stop-the-violence strategy, which wound up making me feel more violent than I otherwise would have. The particulars of the Jeremy Morse case and its place in a wider pattern of such cases felt entirely lost. The potential to riot became a thing unto itself, and the more urgent issues that have historically led to riots — racial profiling, lack of jobs, etc. — floated off over the horizon and disappeared once again. People might argue that the campaign was at least a plan of action, and I almost agree: It was a plan of reaction. We spent months cringing before a bully who never showed up. Imagine what else we could have done with that time.
Another thing that incensed me was the District Attorney’s Office’s not-so-subtle suggestion before television news cameras that it would retry the case partly because the “community” had behaved so exemplarily, and therefore deserved a second shot. Please, don’t do us any favors. Such a view is not only patronizing, it’s lazy — this is Cooley’s case to win or lose, not ours. Unless I’m misunderstanding the law, the case is the people’s, not black people’s. We have no such control over things anyway, though the public likes to cede it to us at convenient moments. I will claim the outrage that’s attributed to us on any given day, but you’ll be happy to know that I’ve learned how to channel it productively. For me and lots of other like-minded black folk, every day is a good day for a riot.