Rodney King Revisited

Ten years after the Los Angeles riots, a videotaped beating of a black male by a white cop is once again fueling racial anger. This time the setting was a gas station in Inglewood, Calif., a racially mixed city on L.A.'s southern flank, where a traffic stop by cops devolved into a punching, wrestling fight with the driver's 16-year-old son, Donovan Jackson, on July 6. Unbeknownst to cops, someone had trained a videocamera on the scene just in time to capture the image of white Inglewood Officer Jeremy Morse lifting the handcuffed, 136-pound teenager off the pavement and slamming him face first onto the trunk of a patrol car. Seconds later an angry Morse punched Jackson in the face.

As the video rolled endlessly on TV, stirring memories of Rodney King's beating and the riots that followed, the reaction was swift and sure. Inglewood police officials declared the tape "extremely disturbing," and suspended Morse with pay pending an internal investigation. L.A. County's sheriff and grand jury launched probes, too. By midweek, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered his chief civil-rights lawyer west. Meanwhile protesters demanded a halt to racial profiling and violence by rogue cops. "This is not a black and white issue," said Martin Luther King III at a rally Friday. "This is a right-and-wrong issue."

Morse's lawyer, John Barnett, says the cop's action was brutal but legal. Officer Morse had to "place [Jackson] on the hood in a rough manner" because the dazed teen either couldn't or wouldn't stand up, the attorney says. As for the punch to the face, that came after the handcuffed Jackson grabbed Morse by the testicles, according to a police report. Barnett also fends off a complaint by Neilson Williams, a 32-year-old man who says Morse and other cops "beat me to a pulp" in a June incident, claiming Williams was belligerent and the cops acted appropriately.

For their part, Jackson's family says the boy failed to follow instructions because of a learning disability. "He's slow to respond to commands," says a cousin, Talibah Shakir. (Still, he played junior-varsity football last year, teammate D'Andre Davis told NEWSWEEK.) The family has filed a federal civil-rights suit against the cops.

Protesters spent the week praising the man who captured the beating, a 27-year-old DJ from northern California named Mitchell Crooks who was staying at a motel across the street from the gas station. But when he failed to appear before a grand jury Thursday, cops arrested a frightened Crooks outside CNN's L.A. bureau. It seems Crooks failed to serve a jail term for 1999 convictions for petty theft, driving under the influence and hit-and-run. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.