by Fran Marsh
Social Welfare Professor Jewelle Taylor Gibbs was just finishing research on a book about the trial of police officers in the beating of Rodney King and its impact on black youth in South Central Los Angeles. While preparing to depart the city after a final interview there, she heard the sirens from the now famous freeway chase leading to O.J. Simpson's arrest on June 17, 1994.
As her interest in the Simpson trial and its similarities and differences with the King trial deepened, she decided she could not conclude her project quite yet. She would integrate the Simpson case into her work, with the urging of her editor.
The result is her latest book, "Race and Justice: Rodney King and O.J. Simpson in a House Divided."
Gibbs takes the reader on a journey through each trial, putting into context why a predominately white jury would not find police guilty of excessive force and why a predominately black jury could not find O.J. guilty of double murder.
"Blacks and whites live in two different worlds," said Gibbs.
In Simi Valley, where the King jury found the police innocent, the community believed the police, saw them as protectors. "Their experiences are positive," she said. "So they looked at the video and they still didn't see excessive force."
The O.J. jury had seen a great deal of police brutality and misconduct in their community. "They knew the police plant evidence; therefore, they were skeptical of police evidence. The jury perceives there are cops who don't like black people...enough to cause a reasonable doubt about evidence," said Gibbs.
"Blacks know about it, but whites don't believe it."
In psychology, the principle of cognitive dissonance states that when people are absorbing new information conflicting with what they already know, they integrate it into pre-existing attitudes and beliefs. The principle helps explain both decisions.
So that the reader, especially a non-African-American reader, can better understand the decision of the O.J. jury, Gibbs explores roots of conspiracy theories disseminated in the black community on contamination and disease, criminalization and drugs, the destruction of black leaders, and racial and cultural genocide. She links them to actual events -- the Tuskegee Syphilis Study dating from the 1930s in which poor, uneducated black males with syphilis went untreated for some 40 years; the murders of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King; and "accidental" shootings, under suspicious circumstances, of black undercover police officers by their white colleagues.
More recent reports that CIA-linked individuals sold drugs in Los Angeles neighborhoods, with profits going to support the Contras, only strengthen such feelings, she said.
"I try to be fair to all sides," explained Gibbs, Zellerbach Family Fund Professor of Social Policy, Community Change and Practice.
"What I'm hoping people will see is that police misconduct and brutality really is a situation that has been tolerated and will have to change.
"Attention must be paid first to the criminal justice system in Los Angeles," she says, and calls for the recommendations of the Christopher Commission to be implemented.
Three of those recommendations are crucial to help heal the wound in the African-American community: community policing, upgraded recruitment and training programs, and accountability of police to a civilian review board.
"We have to stop a criminal justice system that is producing criminal cops," said Gibbs. The challenge for the citizens of Los Angeles is to restore the founders' vision of the city as a mecca for people of all colors.