R. Reese, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, May 16, 1999, B5; San Gabriel Valley Tribune, June 17, 1999, A18.
And some people wanted to know why blacks celebrated wildly after the O.J. Simpson criminal verdict. Before Emmett Till, Rodney King, and Tyisha Miller, blacks have had to deal with injustice. How can you blame blacks for not trusting the system? Many blacks who celebrated the O.J. verdict remembered the church bombings of the 1960s and the church burnings of the 60's and the contemporary version of the 90's. People like my grandparents, residents of Mississippi and Alabama, remembered the hundreds of lynchings that took place without justice being served. Some who celebrated the first Simpson verdict remembered the perpetrators of Emmett Till's murder being set free. Others remembered the perpetrators of Rodney King's brutal beating being found not guilty. The intense collective joy blacks expressed after the Simpson verdict had less to do with O.J. Simpson than it did with poignant memories.
Ostensibly, the United States is sensitive to human rights issues. Why else would we be concerned with the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo? We often take the posture of a color-blind society. On paper, the U.S. is concerned with the civil rights and the civil liberties of all of its citizens. But a closer analysis exposes the contradictions in the value we put on different lives in America. Now on the brink on a new millennium, what has changed? A lot, but it is hard to tell by some of the race-driven tragedies that have taken place in the 1990's.
For instance, in March of 1991, 15 year old Latasha Harlins was shot and killed by a Korean merchant in South Central Los Angeles after a scuffle ensued over a bottle of orange juice. The jury convicted Soon Ja Du on manslaughter charges. However, the judge in this case ordered Du to pay a $500 fine and perform 400 hours of community service. Du could have received 16 years in prison.
On March 3, 1991, motorist Rodney King was brutally beaten by four LAPD officers. On April 26, 1992, those officers were found not guilty of criminal acts. This decision sparked the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
In 1994, Susan Smith claimed that a black man kidnapped her two white toddlers in South Carolina. There was immediate and enormous outcry. Black men were being detained in six states while Smith's small children sat seat-belted in a car at the bottom of a pond where she had left them.
In 1995, a wrong turn brought three year old Stephanie Kuhen and her (white) family to the dead-end street where gang members peppered the car with bullets killing the toddler. This tragedy prompted regional and national outcry. On the same day, two black youth were killed. However, there was no mention of these tragedies on the local news.
In August of 1997, four New York police officers assaulted Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant. Among other forceful tactics used, officers sodomized Louima with a toilet plunger leaving him hospitalized with severe injuries including a ruptured bladder and colon. In the same spirit, four New York police officers used 41 shots to kill unarmed African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, in February of this year.
This brings us to the Tyisha Miller case. I was outraged when I learned of the district attorney's decision that there was not sufficient evidence for any criminal charges against the four officers who fired on Miller. Bad judgement is no excuse for using 23 shots to hit a human being in the back 12 times. There is no way the Riverside police or anyone else can justify or rationalize such negligence. When I hear the sleight of hand explanations used in the Miller case such as it wasn't the way it seemed, or in the case of Rodney King, it wasn't as bad as it looked, I am insulted.
I truly believe that race relations in America have positively changed in the last 20 years. I do not believe that racism is at the heart of every tragedy that blacks experience. However, I do not believe that America is a color-blind society nor do I believe that it values the lives of all of its citizens equally. These recurring race-driven tragedies leave me feeling like a second-class citizen.
Blacks often feel anger and frustration when they are overwhelmed by injustice. Before the civil rights movement blacks were socialized to believe they could not fight city hall. As the civil rights leaders and the Riverside community continue to mobilize in protest of the latest travesty of justice, I am reminded why black people were elated after the O.J. Simpson verdict. It had little to do with O.J. and everything to do with memories.