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Rodney King trial - 23 April 1993

The dawn was just sifting in over the California coast range last Saturday when the word went out from a federal court house in Los Angeles that the jury, which had been out for a week, would return and have something to say, a verdict was not promised, in the government's case against four police officers who, just over four years ago, were charged with beating and injuring a black man.

All the world came to see that beating because an amateur with a movie camera made a video tape of the scene and the most brutal part of it was shown in most countries around the world. It took one year for the state, California, to go forward with a trial of the four officers and during that year the United States Justice Department began a separate investigation, which led, in time, to a second federal trial. And that was the one that ended last Saturday.

It's important to keep these two trials separate because there's a constitutional question involved which disturbs a lot of people, including me. The first, the California state trial ended last April. A jury of 10 whites, one Asian and one Hispanic sat in a small suburban town – Los Angeles was though too inflammatory to hold the trial in – and pondered the charge which was one of excessive beating. Amounting as a legal charge to what the constitution calls "cruel and unusual punishment". The jury acquitted all four of the police officers and that night, the South Central section of Los Angeles which is mainly a black and Hispanic enclave blew up in a riot of arson and looting that just about destroyed a thriving neighbourhood of Korean merchants. The police, like everybody else were caught napping and were late on the scene. Before they, and subsequently the National Guard, and then the Army and the Marine Corps, could bring a semblance of order, 52 people had been killed, many hundreds wounded and over 600 buildings were burnt to ashes.

There have been in this century, in this country, only two riots to compare with it. For the number of dead and injured. But none to match the extent of the physical destruction and the enforced homelessness.

A year later, to the month, we had the word from the Los Angeles federal court house that at seven in the morning last Saturday the jury, in the government's trial, would have something to say. What they had was a verdict. The jury this time consisted of nine whites, two blacks and an Hispanic. The government's case which was mounted on the same basic evidence, the video tape and what it revealed of police behaviour, did not mention excessive beating in the indictment. The charge was one of violating the civil rights of the defendant Rodney King. And though in all the voluminous reports of the case I have not seen the letter of the indictment spelled out, the government's case was rooted in the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Unreasonable seizure in this case implies the use of unreasonable force. It's worth mentioning that the jury saw all the amateur tape which apparently showed Mr King, in the beginning, as an aggressive, freewheeling combatant.

Well, on the main count of unreasonable force, one officer was found guilty and two others were acquitted. The fourth man was the sergeant who was in charge of subduing Mr King. He delivered no blows but he was judged guilty under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of failing to keep Mr King free from harm once he was in official custody. Now, these may sound, now, like very fine niceties of law. But in a system that regards them as the sheet anchor of justice, they're all we have to go on. If, in the American system you bring people to trial on invented charges that ignore the individual's rights under the Constitution, you're back to totalitarian show trials.

But I mentioned a discomfort that some people feel, which has nothing to do with the verdict of the second trial, and the huge relief it brought, especially to whites everywhere. The discomfort is over the staging of a second trial at all. When some time last year the Justice Department announced it would seek an indictment against the same four officers who'd been acquitted last spring, a lot of us at once remembered another phrase in the Constitution which we've always thought of as a blessed protection against ruthless prosecutors. It's in the Fifth Amendment, one of the original 10 which constitute the original Bill of Rights and mostly were meant to extend and protect the rights of the individual. It says, "No person shall be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb". It's known as "double jeopardy". It's astonishing to me how very little was said, how feeble the questions brought up by ordinary citizens, once we knew a second trial was in the offing. Of course a black lawyer who would question the second trial would have to be something of a saint as well as a lawyer. And quite obviously the vast majority of admirable whites didn't bring it up because … because they were scared stiff by the riots after the California trial.

It's hard to avoid the suspicion that somebody in the Justice Department, understandably on a hint perhaps from the White House, decided to discover a lofty legal reason for a second trial in the hope of making amends to the black population that were so terrifyingly enraged by the verdict of the first trial. At any rate, the federals pitched in to try the four policemen over again. For the same offence? "No, no," says the Department of Justice, "that was a trial of men who had used cruel and unusual punishment against a citizen. This one will be a trial of men who violated the civil rights of a citizen. By beating him up excessively, to be sure." When, last weekend, the new attorney general was asked about this sophistry, she briskly replied that there were two sovereignties, two jurisdictions. One state, one federal. That was all. But the Constitution doesn't say that you're not in double jeopardy if you're tried twice, the second time by a different court. It says you may not be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. Period. Full stop.

Of course, I realise that every listener must, that any powerful public figure, let alone a politician, who now got up and protested that the second trial was unconstitutional, would probably be certified and put away on the well-known English legal ground of having the balance of his mind disturbed. Still and all, while I grant that maybe it had to be done for the general pacifying of the country, for the pressing need to reassure blacks that judges and juries are not always against them, I dare to say that this precedent will bear watching. The government seems to have discovered a neat way via the bypass of semantics of trying a man twice for the same offence when it doesn't like the way the first trial turned out.

Last Saturday, also, we learned from our papers that a museum has just been finished in Washington. The United States Holocaust Museum. A museum, not only to honour the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust but to make real the stages of their humiliation. By, for example, assigning to every visitor an identity card that matches the age and sex of one of the original victims. The visitor will thus, as a Jewish reporter put it, have a phantom companion through the exhibition halls. Will find out what became of the person depicted on the card. It is as if everyone were expected to enter the museum as an American and leave, in some fashion, as a Jew.

In an opening ceremony of the museum, soil from several concentration camps was mixed with soil from the National Military Cemetery at Arlington, across the river. The aim of this act, undoubtedly noble, is to unite in the mind of the visitors the infamous plight of those six million Jews with the victims of racial hatred everywhere. This will certainly move many people. Though to what end, I can't say.

One or two notable Jews whose grandparents were victims of the Holocaust have found the Americanising of it misguided and a potential for muddy thinking and prejudiced action. A famous Jewish woman scholar was asked if she thought that the Holocaust ought to be taught in the public schools. "I'd feel," she said, "a lot safer if they learned the meaning of the Constitution." That was not a glib remark. On the contrary, points out to a disturbing truth that comes out in the open about once every generation. And then is quietly shunted into oblivion. The truth demonstrated by those periodical surveys is quite simply the abysmal ignorance of the Constitution among a great majority of the Americans who are supposed to live by it.

My own experience through the past 40 years more than suggests that an alarming huge majority of educated Americans could not, offhand, tell you what is meant by "due process". What human situations might be covered by equal protection of the laws? What actions at law – hi there, madam Attorney General – could be condemned as double jeopardy? And, to take an example that ought to flame up in every mind when gun control is the topic, under what single condition does the Constitution allow you to keep a gun? The fact is that the Constitution does not give anyone a right to bear arms in order to shoot a rabbit, let alone to kill a neighbour. The Constitution specifies that a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. There is no militia. When that article was written, the security of the infant United States depended on a militia that could be mustered on call. There was no standing army. Because the founding fathers never intended the country to have one. Standing armies can switch allegiances. They can fawn on a monarch or another tyrant, or stage a coup against him.

But, wherever you go in the United States, you will hear men and women, of all sorts and conditions, and degrees of intelligence, lunatics and bullies, and parsons and scholars and United States senators, all chanting in holy whispers, "remember the right to bear arms is in the Constitution."

How about, seriously, building in Washington a museum of the Constitution?

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