As I listened to a juror explain that Rodney King was "in control" during his beating by Los Angeles police officers, I thought of Bernie and Rubina and Bill, down in Miami. They were nice people, and they, too, reached a verdict that set parts of a city on fire.
What they told me more than a year ago is relevant now because it might dispel the illusion that most of us still embrace: that the King verdict was the work of fools or overt racists. Something much more universal is at work, and race, in my opinion, is only one part of it.
Bernie, Bill, Rubina and nine others served as jurors in a federal civil-rights case against six Miami narcotics officers. The allegedly brutal officers represented a rainbow coalition of blacks, whites and Latinos; the victim was Latino. The jury, though mostly white, included three blacks and one Latino.
The prosecutors didn't have a videotape this time, but they had just about everything else. Leonardo Mercado, a small-time drug dealer, had been beaten to death after entering a house with the officers. His corpse had 44 bruised areas, and marks on his forehead corresponded to some of the officers' sneaker-prints. A patrolwoman who did not participate in the beating testified that three of the defendants encouraged her to kick Mercado while he lay on the floor bleeding.
Nonetheless, the jury acquitted the officers of some charges and couldn't agree on the rest. After interviewing 11 of the 12 jurors, here's what I found:
Richard, a 38-year-old engine mechanic, said (during deliberations) that Mercado was "only a drug dealer, anyway."
Rubina, a 53-year-old saleswoman, didn't believe several prosecution witnesses from the neighborhood because "these are the people we're paying the policemen to protect us from."
Herbert, a 59-year-old airline mechanic, believed that "criminals give their civil rights away when they elect to lead a life of crime."
Bernie, a 48-year-old butcher, thought the police were guilty, but he changed his vote because "I didn't want to be the one that was sitting out there with them pointing at (me)."
Most telling, perhaps, was one juror's observation that the officers had to be found guilty "beyond an absolute doubt." This juror had single-handedly changed the standard of doubt in a criminal case. I suspect he did so because he felt more sympathy for police fighting the drug war than for a drug dealer with a violent past.
Most of these people weren't racists or fascists. In fact, they appeared so well-intentioned, so intent on applying the law as the judge had explained it to them, that it was all the more painful to witness how far they strayed from the realm of common sense.
They were working-class people who believed what the defense said about the defendants being the only thing standing between them and the chaos of the streets. As one lawyer put it, most of the jurors had "never been on the wrong side of a nightstick." They did not sell drugs on street corners or engage in high-speed chases with police. Nor were they psychologically prepared to uphold the rights of those who did.
"To know what actually happened," one of the Miami jurors told me, "you'd have to be there or have a tape of it." Now it appears that even a tape isn't enough. That's because the problem is attitudinal. The jurors who produced the Rodney King verdict are a reflection of the American middle class's law-and-order mentality, which has been fired by the Administration's ill-conceived war on drugs and the widespread perception that too many criminals get off on technicalities.
Convenient as it is, the bashing of the King jury is hypocritical, because a lot of Americans would have done the same misguided thing when the fate of these veteran police officers was put in their hands. In such situations, a weighing of souls occurs, and unless there are allegations of corruption, the police will almost always win over the criminal suspect.
The sad truth is that people not so different from ourselves as we'd like to believe will undertake Herculean feats of logic to acquit officers of blatantly brutal acts. They seem to sense that the police are "us" and the criminal suspect is "them"--and apparently "we" don't ever expect to end up on the wrong side of their nightsticks.