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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 trade school.

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 bad."

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 you."

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 Simpson.

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

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