PERSPECTIVES ON POLICE : Defenseless, the Poor Are Also Voiceless : Inner-city residents know all about abusive police behavior. Refusing to hear their complaints adds to the injury.
Most citizens viewing the tape of Rodney G. King being beaten by police officers were stunned and uncomprehending. Most citizens, that is, but the urban poor. To the members of my parish, a community of working poor and people of color east of downtown Los Angeles, George Holliday’s video played like a grisly home movie, evoking grim memories of common and unchecked police brutality.
Police Chief Daryl Gates cautions us not to judge an entire department on one incident, but the inner-city poor know that the only thing isolated about this incident was the chance way in which it was captured on tape. Most people of color can recall such an incident happening to them or to a family member or neighbor. We are less than honest and commit a grave error if we insist that what happened to Rodney G. King was isolated and an exceptional case. The poor know better.
We need not wait for further, well-placed home video cameras to see that low-intensity warfare is being waged against low-income minorities. We need only listen to the voices of the poor; they can testify that they are dehumanized, disparaged and despised by the police. They are always suspect and seldom afforded the same courtesy or pledge of service and protection as residents of, say, Hancock Park. In fact, they expect the opposite: They have learned to fear the kind of abuse that befell King. Such brutality and the frightful attitude from which it is born are part of the air that the poor breathe.
No internal affairs investigation will right the wrongful attitude pervasive among Los Angeles police officers whose beat is the inner city. Well-publicized cases of police brutality, even judgments by juries, have not brought a change in attitude, much less behavior.
It has become hackneyed to underscore the difficult and frustrating nature of law enforcement in our city today. It is true that the job is more risky and complicated than it has ever been. No one would want to tie the hands of police officers and prevent them from doing the job they have been given. Among the urban poor, however, the police have routinely assumed duties not theirs. They often find citizens guilty of crimes and proceed to impose a sentence on the spot, whatever punishment they see fit. Perhaps it is because they have lost faith in the justice system that they insist on doling out justice themselves. Early last Sunday morning, Rodney King was tried, found guilty and punished all within minutes. The taxpayers saved a lot of money.
To characterize the King incident as atypical and an aberration is to further insult and discredit the experience of minorities and the urban poor. The pattern of police abuse is discernible if we know to look in the right places. Time and again, people in my community have gone to the police to report unprofessional (to say the least) conduct by officers: rudeness, harassment, intimidation and physical abuse, from being “roughed up” to beatings. Time and again, they have been turned away.
It is the sincere hope of the inner-city poor that law enforcement’s pattern of excessive force and the degrading attitude that undergirds it will change and stop altogether. The great frustration of the poor is that they expend more energy just to be heard than they spend working together with the police to find solutions to the unsettling alienation that exists between them.
Rodney King is out of police custody now, free to nurse his wounds and heal his memory. Minorities and poor city-dwellers look forward to the same kind of healing of their own collective memory. They long to be listened to and hope that their experience will be valued. They know better than anyone that the first step to improved relations with the police is simply to be heard with respect.