And the Losers Are . . .

The main topics of conversation lately wherever fun people gather have been who will win in the Oscars race and who will win in the Rodney King beating trial?

One hears them discussed endlessly in bars and restaurants and at receptions, baby showers, bar mitzvahs, singles mixers, gang inaugurations and polite little dinner parties in the San Fernando Valley.

The Oscars-King combination has edged out the drought, sexual harassment, politics and Sharon Stone's underwear as matters worthy of open discussion.

This was never clearer than at a gathering I attended over the weekend. The party-patter began with mild debate over whether Warren was a better actor than Nick and ended in verbal warfare over whether King's eye twitch could have been an act of aggression toward the cops who were beating him.

The line of demarcation between polite conversation and acrimonious debate is often blurred, one segueing into the other somewhere between the dinner wine and the pousse-cafe.

In the situation of which I was a part, however, the line was clear and definitive. We had just been served a kind of soft brown dessert when the lady at my right, in a terrible breach of etiquette, bellowed, "I hate flan, tapioca, custard pudding and cops!"

Then the fun began.

I naturally jumped right in with a spirited defense of flan, which did nothing to alleviate the tension, but that's OK with me. Alleviating tension isn't my job.

When the plea for the understanding of flan was greeted with a terrible silence, I asked: "Will no one speak for custard pudding?" More silence. "For cops?"

I never had a chance to get to tapioca. The room was instantly divided between those who loved cops and those who did not, the crux of contention being the trial of four policemen accused in the Rodney King beating.

The lady who hated pudding was the most vocal in her criticism of that videotaped situation a year ago.

"Did you watch that tape?" she demanded. "Those goons were laughing about the beating! It was like they were at one of their damned barbecues!"

"I'm sure if they beat him he must have had it coming," a soft-spoken gentleman who raises chinchillas for a living said.

"For what!" the custard-hater shouted, "for twitching with pain in public?"

It built from there, but just as debate seemed to be reaching a meltdown stage, I interrupted. "The trouble with this group," I said, "is that no one understands police procedure."

My wife winced.

I explained to them all as clearly as possible key elements in the trial relative to the defense of the four cops.

It boiled down to that gray area between killing a suspect outright and asking him in modulated tones to be nice. It's called Managed Force.

In the first place, they were not beating King, despite what appeared to be the raining down of 56 baton blows during the videotape shot by George Holliday, may he burn in hell.

They were only subduing him according to regulations and were making sure he stayed subdued. They were the subduers, he the subduee.

What seemed to be power blows to the head were only jabs to those areas of the body likely not to kill anyone. The injuries to his head and face must have been caused by his twitching.

That's another thing. The reason the subduing took so long is that King wouldn't stop writhing on the ground.

While the untutored might interpret this as simply responding to the baton blows, I mean jabs, policemen know that twisting and turning on the ground during the process of being subdued is clearly an aggressive response.

Had he made faces at them along with all the writhing, they might have been forced to shoot him. That's a form of managed force too.

One of the defendants, Sgt. Stacey Koon, also noted that King was "rigid and tense when handcuffed, and I felt he was trying to resist us."

That's the trouble with subduees. They get all tense and rigid. They've got to learn to relax, stop their screaming and try to get along.

"Any questions?" I asked to the silent dinner guests upon completion of my explanation.

At first, no one answered. Then my wife said, "Who do you like, everybody, Nick or Warren?"

I like Nick, I like flan and I like cops, but God help us if those four on trial win. Then the losers will be us.

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