Some Angelenos, perhaps hoping to keep the city's recent ugly history from repeating itself, are rushing to point out that the videotaped beatings of 17-year-old Felipe Soltero and Rodney G. King cannot be compared. Nonsense.
When the three separate investigations of the Soltero beating are concluded, our suspicions will probably be confirmed: Soltero and King, while not identical twins, are victims of the same crime. Again, we have the disturbing imagery of a police officer of one color viciously beating a suspect of another. Again, with the revelation that Compton Officer Michael Jackson was disciplined a few years ago for beating another Latino youth, we have a pattern of behavior by the officer against other suspects of the same color. And, again, given the worsening friction between African Americans and Latinos in U.S. inner cities, which are increasingly Latino, we have some reason to take seriously charges by Soltero's attorney that the Latino youth's beating may have been racially motivated.
" Ay, Pobrecito . How could they treat someone like that?" my mother asked in a tone eerily reminiscent of the one she used to ask a similar question three years ago. In the first 24 hours after a local television station broadcast the tape, an elderly African American woman pleaded her case to a radio talk-show host, saying that young Soltero must have done something to deserve a beating like that; somewhere, I have heard that before.
But put away all that you learned from the King beating and its destructive aftermath. Notwithstanding the similarities between the two cases, the beating of a Latino immigrant by an African American police officer promises to challenge us in new and provocative ways.
For the city's African American community, the challenge is to be morally consistent in its outrage over yet another instance of police brutality. Three years ago, African American leaders were quick to unequivocally condemn the beating of a black motorist by white police officers. Now, I expect--and hope--these same leaders will move as swiftly to condemn something they never would have wished for--a police beating in which an African American male is not the victim, but the alleged perpetrator.
For the city's sprawling Latino community, the challenge is to rise to its feet in protest over an injustice that other Americans simply have not tolerated when directed at them. Five hundred years of relative passivity, mixed with a touch of fatalism, have not done much to elevate the social, economic and political stature of the country's fastest-growing ethnic minority. Whether the issue is police brutality, the rights of farm workers or an immoral "Save Our State" initiative, Latinos in the United States, when faced with injustice, have a responsibility to a Jeffersonian ethic that goes well beyond rubbing rosaries and hoping for the best.
Certainly, there are longstanding cultural characteristics that may impede Latino protest. Among Mexican-Americans in the United States--a group much more conservative than recently arrived Latino immigrants--those who are intent on stirring up protest within their community over police brutality must first overcome that same community's traditional and well-grounded support for law enforcement.
Remember the story, almost obscured, that emerged from the ashes of the Los Angeles riots about the group of Mexican-American youths who returned merchandise that others had stolen from a Sears store in East Los Angeles, telling the startled store clerk that "we don't do this in East L.A." I remember my father's story about his father's warning to him that a policeman was a kind of surrogate parent deserving of respect. " Tienes tres padres ," the old man of Mexico used to say. "You have three fathers." My grandfather explained that, at home, he was the authority figure to be obeyed; at school, the title was transferred to the teacher, and, on the street, it belonged to the policeman.
Against the weight of that sort of tradition, there may be an inclination within some segments of the Latino community to pay deference to the badge and acquiesce to the suspicion that young Soltero somehow deserved his beating. That may not only contradict the facts of the case. It would be morally wrong. Whether or not there was provocation is as irrelevant as whether King really did, on that night, lunge at the officers who were beating him or make obscene gestures at a female officer nearby. In striking Soltero's head with what appears to be an inappropriate use of the baton and by dropping his knee on the back of the teen-ager's neck, the officer seemed to go well beyond the point of "all necessary force to subdue the suspect." Furthermore, deference to the badge would be an affront to a proud 500-year-old tradition of weathering discrimination and other adversities with an air of dignity that, we should remember, includes standing up for what is right.
Finally, for fair-minded Americans of all colors, the Compton beating poses another challenge crucial to the 21st Century. Even as the United States becomes increasingly Latino and Asian, far too many Americans still define race relations within the narrow, inadequate and antiquated paradigm of black and white. As newspaper editors and television news directors rush to distinguish Soltero from King, it appears as if America has, in its collective consciousness, room for only one minority at a time. Too many white liberals, perhaps seeking to atone for centuries of the horrible treatment dealt African-Americans, seem to view as much more outrageous a white police officer beating a black man than a black officer beating a Latino.
But, as we all know, America is changing. When the Census Bureau tells us that by the year 2010, Latinos will surpass African Americans as the country's largest ethnic group; when the author of the Kerner Commission report, warning of two societies, one black, one white, feels compelled to come forward and adjust the scenario to include Latinos; when the secretary of housing and urban development, a traditional enclave for African Americans, is suddenly Latino and when there are more Latinos in Los Angeles than either African Americans or whites, that outdated paradigm is simply no longer of use.
Yes, America is changing. And change, so often, brings fear and entrenchment. My sense is that in Compton, whose population is now estimated to be majority Latino, they already know that.*