Fuhrman Tapes Hit Home for L.A. Blacks
By William Claiborne and Kathryn Wexler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 31, 1995; Page A01
LOS ANGELES, AUG. 30 -- Tapes of retired detective Mark Fuhrman's racial venom
reverberated far beyond Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom today, generating
not only anger and indignation in the black community here but an almost
calming feeling of vindication.
The presiding judge suspended proceedings in the O.J. Simpson murder
trial and spent the day pondering how much of the incendiary material to
disclose to the predominantly black jury. Meanwhile, black leaders and
ordinary African Americans in South Central Los Angeles tempered their
rage with a belief that Fuhrman's obscenity-laced racial slurs might
have at least one beneficial effect: shattering what they view as a
long-standing code of silence about racism in white-dominated law
enforcement agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department.
"White people been hanging black people for 400 years," said Virgil
Jihad, 57, a retired store clerk who said he has been following the
Simpson trial daily on his portable radio. "Why are you picking on
Fuhrman? He's just out with it. He's just speaking the same feelings
that many (white policemen) have."
Laden with foul language, racial hatred and a declared willingness
to frame black suspects or dispense curbside justice to them, the tapes
evoked shock and rage among many blacks. They were another blow to a
city still on edge from the bloody 1992 riots triggered by the acquittal
of four white police officers who were videotaped beating black motorist
Rodney G. King.
The Fuhrman tapes, in effect, are the missing soundtrack from the
Rodney King videotape, some blacks said, a verbal articulation of the
anger and hatred that motivated white police officers to flail at King
with their nightsticks as he lay prone.
"It's just like Rodney King. Now they've got proof. But that's not
new, police beating black boys. (African American) mothers tell their
sons, If you get stopped by the police, keep your hands out in front of
you where they can see them so they don't have any reason to beat you,'
" said Dolores Powell, 38, a counselor at a South Central Los Angeles
Fuhrman's racial invective -- particularly his repeated use of the
epithet "nigger" in interviews recorded by screenwriter Laura Hart
McKinny over a nine-year period -- prompted a varied reaction inside and
outside the courtroom.
Christopher Darden, the black assistant district attorney who
cross-examined McKinny yesterday, could not bring himself to use the
slur and instead referred to it as the "N-word," a euphemism he has
employed throughout the trial. Similarly, Ito, who has experienced
racism as the son of Japanese American internees in a World War II camp,
appeared pained by the word and also referred to it as the "N-word."
But on the streets of predominantly black South Central, a dozen
African Americans reacted in interviews as if the epithet had lost its
sting long ago through overuse. They said they were riveted more by
Fuhrman's descriptions of how white officers framed and brutalized black
suspects and then covered up for each other.
"Just because some white boy called them niggers? That's half the
population of the United States and the world," said Deborah Williams,
31, a child psychology student.
Virgil Jihad said the term has little meaning to him anymore. "The
word nigger,' that's the way they (the police) talk. Black people
experience this every day," he said.
But beyond the cynicism and resentment that simmered within many
South Central blacks was a different emotion. The calm and controlled
voice of Fuhrman boasting about beating black suspects and falsifying
evidence seemed to evoke a sense of relief among some.
"Once you get it in the open and out of the closet, you can deal
with it. I think he (Ito) did the right thing by letting the public hear
it," said Eddie Mims, 49, a South Central window washer.
The same sense of a silver lining was expressed by John W. Mack,
president of the Los Angeles Urban League. "It's a reminder of the
nightmare we have been through in this city," he said in a telephone
interview. But, he added, "Another view might be that this is good
because it breaks that code of silence Fuhrman referred to. Over the
years we have received complaints of police abuse and harassment and
brutality, and it's been difficult to get a handle on it. And, as
Fuhrman boasted, nothing could be done about it, so this is not all
Mack was referring to a passage in which the now-retired police
detective described how policemen cover up for each other: "We die for
each other. We live for each other. That's how it is in the car. You lie
for me. . . . You'll take six months for me 'cause I'll take it for
Fuhrman's spokesmen have said he was merely playing the role of a
rogue policeman on the tapes to make a better story for McKinny's
fictional screenplay about a police precinct in South Central. However,
Ito said in court Tuesday that at least some of the tapes reflect
"instances where there is not role-playing."
Mack noted that 33 police officers are still on duty of the 44 whom
a post-riots commission of inquiry headed by now-Secretary of State
Warren Christopher recommended be removed from the force.
Nate Holden, a black Los Angeles city councilman, suggested Fuhrman
may have inadvertently advanced the cause of police-community race
relations. "Personally, I'm glad it's out in the open. Almost before you
can make progress in any controversial situation you have to hit rock
bottom," Holden said.
"He did us a favor, because now that we know what the truth is, we
can begin to be honest about what's been wrong over the years, and,
hopefully, mutually agree to correct the problem."
Holden said the city had been presented with an opportunity "to
show the public we're acting in good faith" by revisiting every incident
mentioned by Fuhrman and then forcing the offending police officers to
leave the department. Also, he said, training in racial and gender
tolerance should be intensified and recalcitrant cops should be retired
from the force.
Top city officials distanced themselves from Fuhrman and expressed
revulsion at his statements. The Los Angeles City Council voted
unanimously today to condemn and apologize for the "degrading and
outrageous racial, ethnic and gender comments and the violence described
in the audiotapes."
Mayor Richard J. Riordan, who was vacationing in France, said in a
statement that what he had heard "made me sick." He added, "I am glad
this man is no longer a member of our police department. . . . The
bottom line is: we will not tolerate prejudice, bigotry, bias or
brutality of any kind in the city of Los Angeles."
Willie L. Williams, the city's first black police chief, who was
hired in the wake of the 1992 riots, said: "The fact that we may have a
few people in our department today, or in the past, who reflected those
views, is going to change." Williams, however, reiterated his position
that the controversy not be allowed to cloud the evidence against
The persistence of Williams, L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti
and other officials in trying to separate Fuhrman's racism and admitted
misconduct from his role in discovering crucial physical evidence
against Simpson, including a bloody glove he said he found behind
Simpson's estate, rankled some blacks.
Danny Bakewell, who heads the Los Angeles Brotherhood Crusade, said
that while he was encouraged that the criminal justice system was
prepared to fully disclose Fuhrman's racism, he was upset by "this nice
academic debate" over whether such attitudes have anything to do with
planting evidence against Simpson.
"That's what causes black people to have such a disdain (that) America
is incapable of meting out justice fairly and equitably. . . . There is
no way a sane, rational person can say that, given what Mark Fuhrman
said on those tapes, that the issue of his planting the glove is not
germane to the case," Bakewell said.
Staff writer Lorraine Adams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top