Blacks hail King verdict but LA still in the dock: Police are on the alert - but the people are celebrating as the city breathes a sigh of relief. Phil Reeves reports

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The Independent Online
THE TROUBLED city of Los Angeles breathed a cautious but deep sigh of relief yesterday after a jury convicted two of the four white police officers implicated in the Rodney King beating, ending a case that challenged the fairness of the US legal system and raised profound questions about brutality and racism among the police.

Black community leaders reacted favourably to the jury's verdicts, and spoke of the start of a new future in a city that was once considered a dreamland, but more recently has been riven by inter-racial tensions and the fear that the King case could trigger a repeat of the riots that devastated it last year.

In black-dominated neighbourhoods, there were celebrations as the verdicts were announced. Danny Bakewell, of the Brotherhood Crusade, said he felt an 'overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and gratification'. He continued: 'This is a pay-back for a lot of people who were beaten on the streets when there were no cameras present.'

Churchgoers in the biggest black church in South-Central Los Angeles hugged, clapped and sang. The city's black mayor, Tom Bradley, who retires soon, addressed the city on television, saying: 'We must move on. We must move ahead.' It was too soon to say there would be no protests, but hours after the case ended the calm in the streets was shattered only by the noise of more than a score of police and news media helicopters scouring the cityscape for unrest. Criticism came, however, from one of the most notorious figures whose name has been linked with the Rodney King case: the city's pugilistic former police chief, Daryl Gates. Mr Gates, now a radio presenter, held a live press conference on his station to explain that police officers would 'not take kindly to the Justice Department and what they have done'. It would mean officers would be inhibited in the fight against crime. He ended his performance with the station identification: 'This is KFI-AM . . . more stimulating talk radio.'

And Ira Salzman, lawyer for Sgt Stacey Koon - one of the convicted officers - said his client 'would not become a sacrificial animal to be cast aside for peace in Los Angeles'. The officers scarcely reacted when the verdicts were read in court, ending a saga that began more than two years ago. Only one, Theodore Briseno, who was acquitted, began weeping.

The verdicts culminated two years of legal battles that began with a video camera. If George Holliday, a plumbing parts salesman, had not walked on to his balcony and set his camera rolling, Mr King would be unknown, the Los Angeles riots would not have occurred, and its police would probably have gone on administering street justice unchecked.

But he did, capturing 81 seconds in which white officers showered baton blows and kicks on an unarmed black man as he struggled on the ground, illuminated by the beam of a police helicopter spotlight and surrounded by dozens of officers. The film was to shape history, beginning a sequence of events that forced the United States to confront the deepest fault-lines in its society.

It happened on 3 March 1991, after Mr King, who was on parole for robbery, got into a high-speed chase with the police. Drunk, he did not immediately comply with police orders to lie prone. After dozens of baton blows, kicks and stun-gun blasts, he had no choice.

The videotape, broadcast worldwide, seemed to provide proof of allegations that inner- city blacks and Hispanics had been making for years: that they were victimised by the police, especially in Los Angeles.

An inquiry by Warren Christopher into the LA Police Department found widespread evidence of brutality and racism. Daryl Gates was forced to retire.

The King beating was an international scandal, an apparently flagrant outrage in a society that is supposed to place a high priority on human rights. But it mushroomed last April, when a state court in Simi Valley, a lily-white, conservative suburb outside Los Angeles, acquitted the four officers of almost all charges.

Black suspicions that the courts were racist were strongly reinforced by the verdict. The ensuing rioting saw the destruction of about 1,400 homes and businesses, mostly in inner-city areas. As the hundreds of fires died down, it emerged that more than 50 people had died.

A commission headed by the former FBI director, William Webster, concluded police were woefully unprepared. So were the National Guard. For hours, they could not find their bullets.

By contrast, the new Los Angeles police chief, Willie Williams, the first black to lead the force, yesterday had 6,500 police waiting to go on patrol.

The issues unlocked by the Rodney King affair are broader than this one case. The unrest last year was precipitated by the verdicts, but the riots had as much to do with inner-city neglect, recession, underfunded schools, tribal rivalries in a multi-ethnic city and the fury of the dispossessed in a society where wealth is everything. As the violence raged, Mr King appeared before the television cameras to ask the crucial question for America: 'Can we all get along?'

Most of the world, though, was still struggling to understand that first verdict - apparently formed in the teeth of the taped evidence. This requires an appreciation of the deep fear of crime in Los Angeles. The city is ghettoised by terror, largely as a result of the presence of hundreds of heavily armed gangs. The better-off have migrated to the suburbs, where they are protected by a military array of electronics and guns.

It is not uncommon to meet an Angeleno who has never visited south Los Angeles. The same person is likely to characterise the police as a 'thin blue line' of defence against the criminals. He or she will say the police should be given whatever powers they need to keep chaos at bay.

The result is a fierce debate about the powers of the police who, despite reforms, still shoot suspects on apparently flimsy pretexts. The tragedy of yesterday's verdicts is that they make little difference: the bloodshed will go on.

KING: VICTIM

RODNEY KING, 28, admitted being very drunk, and leading police on a high-speed car chase on 3 March 1991. A parolee with a robbery conviction, he said he did not want to go back to prison. His soft-spoken and apparently sincere testimony undermined efforts to portray him as a monster-like figure, who continually reared up at the police and seemed to be on a strength-enhancing drug. 'I was just trying to stay alive, sir,' he told a prosecutor. He claimed the officers racially abused him, but admitted being unsure. He has spent most of his time in hiding, awaiting the outcome of a multi- million-dollar damages case.

WIND: NOT GUILTY

TIMOTHY WIND, 32, a probationer who was under Powell's supervision, struck Mr King at least 12 times, but was found not guilty of both charges. He was dismissed from the force after the beating. He has said little publicly, but has been quoted as saying one of his worst moments came when his small child said to him 'Daddy, why do juries hate you?' The prosecution alleged that Mr Wind was with Powell when they took their injured victim to a police station to be gawked at by colleagues - delaying a trip to a hospital jail ward. He is receiving medical treatment for stress.

BRISENO: NOT GUILTY

THEODORE BRISENO, 40, who appears on videotape to stomp Mr King once with his boot, but claimed he was gently stepping on him with a lightweight ballet shoe-like boot to keep him down, so that the beating would stop, was found not guilty of both charges. In the first trial he said the beating was unjustified, but he did not testify this time, giving the defence a united front. This was destroyed when the judge allowed the jury to see an edited tape of his earlier testimony, making him a reluctant star prosecution witness. In 1987, he was suspended for two months over allegations that he roughed up a handcuffed suspect.

POWELL: GUILTY

LAURENCE POWELL, 30, who delivered most of the blows, repeatedly striking Mr King with his metal baton, was found guilty of violating Mr King's rights but not guilty of aiding and abetting the beating. The prosecution said he smashed Mr King on the head; his defence was that Mr King's severe facial injuries resulted from a fall to the ground. After the state trial, Officer Powell went on a publicity drive, appearing on local television stations to condemn Mr King as a convicted felon who deserved to be back in jail. He rebuts allegations that he is racist, saying he has an Hispanic girlfriend.

KOON: GUILTY

STACEY KOON, 42, a 16-year police veteran who was the only defendant to take the stand, was found guilty of both charges: violating Rodney King's civil rights and aiding and abetting the beating. He did not strike Mr King, but supervised the beating. He claimed he wanted his men to cripple Mr King by clubbing his joints, after blows to his body had not subdued him (blows to the head are banned). Despite two master's degrees, Sergeant Koon was unwise enough to write a book that included racially insensitive material in an early draft. The tome was called Presumed Guilty, a title Mr King could also have chosen.

(Photographs omitted)

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