Can you have a relationship with God without the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, governed by Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, and the bishops in communion with him?
God gives us all existence and life. We exist and live at this moment only because He gives us our share of His pure, infinite existence and life. This establishes a relationship. So, to answer the question above: Yes, you can. But…
What about God revealing something about Himself, like a friend would? Giving us insight into Himself? Showing us His will, His plan–His loving plan? Saving us from our ignorance, and our evil, so that we could find true, everlasting happiness?
God sent His Son, to save us all, to enlighten us all, to give us grace from heaven. Jesus Christ saves and redeems the whole world. He founded His Church, giving us the Holy Eucharist of His Body and Blood, through the priesthood that continues from the Last Supper till now by the laying on of hands.
Theodore McCarrick made us–my classmates, myself, all the couple hundred men he ordained–he made us ministers of the Body and Blood of God Incarnate. Can I have a relationship with God without the Church and the Holy Mass? Me, Mark White, Father Mark White–can I? No, I don’t believe so.
McCarrick’s criminal trial in Massachusetts will unfold in 2022. May it be God’s will, the world will hear for the first time, in open court, the testimony of one of McCarrick’s victims. A man who first appealed to Church authorities for help over 30 years ago. May justice be done, in that Massachusetts courthouse, next year.
We have come a long way since the initial public revelation of McCarrick’s crimes, back in the summer of 2018. Through 2018 and 2019, I experienced intense anger about the situation, and I wrote a great deal about it, with an angry edge.
In the spring of 2020, the bishop here intervened in the life of the parishes of which I was the pastor. By the grace of God, my anger turned into something else then. A clearer vision of why I find myself in the situation I find myself in.
During the very period of time when I struggled through the throes of my initial anger over the McCarrick cover-up, Father McWilliams was in the process of sexually exploiting and spiritually torturing teens and pre-teens. Children of families that he had first gotten to know while still a seminarian. The families went to the police in October 2019. A judge has now sentenced McWilliams to life in prison.
The McCarrick situation has progressed since 2019. Much of what I wrote in 2018 and 2019 no longer reflects the current state of affairs. Also, I believe that a careful, private study, on my part, of those old posts will help me understand the inner workings of my soul better. For that reason, the “Scandal Posts” tab above will provide access only back as far as February, 2020–at least for the time being.
Injustice moves us to anger. The emotion is not inherently evil. Only the foolishly proud, however, indulge themselves in believing that their anger is always just. Or even half the time. The perfectly pure-hearted Lord Jesus righeously drove the money-changers and pigeon-peddlers out of the Temple. But I know that my heart is far from perfectly pure. Calm reflection gets me a lot closer to the truth than righteous indignation does.
The battle, however, is only just beginning. If any of us could calmly say that McCarrick and McWilliams have nothing to do with each other; if any of us could scrutinize both situations and see nothing in common, other than incidental aspects–well, then I would have to bow my head and say, ‘My 2018-2019 anger was perhaps understandable, under the circumstances, but now it’s time to move on. After all, I didn’t know anything at all about McWilliams at the time, so it’s a pure coincidence that I vented some anger appropriate to that case, as it unfolded secretly in the hidden recesses of homeschool-Catholic-family Ohio. That’s just a fluke, that I wrote some jeremiads appropriate to the situation, as it happened.’
That would be what I would have to conclude, if we could all look at our beloved Catholic Church right now and say to ourselves, “Yes, the system is sound. This is a tragic, isolated case, just like McCarrick’s was.”
But can we say that?
Didn’t structural problems in the Church enable both these criminals? Problems that persist: unchecked clerical authority and secrecy, protecting the institution instead of souls, thinking about lawsuits instead of the Final Judgment?
One of the intentions I pray for at the holy altar, with the angels for company, is this: May I be spiritually ready to respond to God’s call, as the scandal involving the prelate who ordained me enters its next phase, in 2022. May I have the courage to examine myself honestly. May we all respond with generous love to God’s gift of being who He made us to be, here and now.
This fresco has comforted and encouraged me for decades. Then I stepped into one of the small, dark cells in the friary of St. Mark’s last month, and there it was: the original. Painted for the benefit of the one novice who occupied that particular cell.
…Thank you for praying for a successful outcome at our meeting in Richmond on Friday.
I believe that heavenly grace moved us in a good direction. More to come about what happened, in a few days.
I have received a notice from Bishop Knestout. He intends formally to charge me with two canonical “delicts,” that is, Church crimes. He tells me that he intends to pursue an “extrajudicial penal process.” (Not sure what that means.) He intends to “resolve my situation” by “invoking II Special Faculty.” (Don’t know what that means, either.)
The charges are: 1. disobedience 2. incitement.
According to the canon, disobedience = “not complying with the legitimate precepts or prohibitions of the Apostolic See or the ordinary [ie. bishop].”
Precept. I believe that, in November 2019, Bishop Knestout signed a ‘precept’ concerning this blog. On the 21st of that month, the bishop surprised me after daily Mass and read at least part of that precept to me.
The situation that day was far from calm; I did not catch every word of what the bishop was reading to me. I didn’t worry about that, though, because I assumed that I would receive a written copy.
When bishop finished reading, however, he informed me that I would not receive a copy of the document. I was dumbfounded.
I am assuming that the Bishop intends to accuse me of disobeying this particular precept of November 2019, in this “penal process” now begun. I certainly hope that I will have the opportunity to hold the document in my own hands and read it with my own eyes, before I am put on trial for disobeying it. I hope that I will have some time to consider its contents carefully.
None of us are in the dark, though–at least I don’t believe we are–about the basic thrust of this mysterious document. The precept compels me, under pain of losing the office of pastor in Martinsville/Rocky Mount, to remove this blog from circulation entirely and to withdraw completely from publishing anything.
In March of last year (2020), my canon lawyer wrote to Bishop Knestout, pointing out that I needed more information from him in order to understand his problems with this blog and to make adjustments to satisfy him. We never received any response to my lawyer’s letter.
Then last summer my lawyer argued that the precept in question appears not to be in harmony with the teaching of the popes, when it comes to priests using the internet to communicate.
My lawyer made this distinction:
On the one hand, we acknowledge the prerogative the bishop has to guide me in what I would publish here. I have, in fact, repeatedly sought such guidance. On the other hand, the bishop’s demand that I cease entirely to communicate over the internet violates my basic freedom as a human being, and it contradicts the law and the teaching of the Church.
This past March, I wrote to Bishop Knestout. I re-iterated my offer to work with him–or with someone delegated by him, or with anyone approved by him–to try to solve the problems that this blog has caused in our relationship. I remain willing, as I have been all along, to correct any errors I have published here. I expressed my desire to serve the diocese in some priestly ministry that might be helpful.
Bishop Knestout responded by urging me to seek laicization. Then he informed me that he himself had petitioned the Holy See to expel me from the clergy.
Apparently that petition was returned to Bishop Knestout at some point this summer, without any action taken on it in Rome. Perhaps because I have never been given due process and the opportunity to defend myself. Indeed, I have never been clear on what exactly the bishop believes I have done wrong, other than continuing to keep this weblog in existence.
To return to the charges that have now, at long last, been made a little more clear… The second one is brand new. I don’t have any record of the bishop ever accusing me of incitement, until last week.
According to the canon, the crime of incitement = “publicly stirring up hostilities or hatred against the Apostolic See or an ordinary [bishop] on account of some act of ecclesiastical power or ministry, or inciting subjects to disobey.”
I have no awareness whatsoever of ever having done this.
I have freely shared my own point-of-view, on topics that cause a lot of thoughts and emotions. But I believe that I have always left it to you, dear reader, to determine how you react to what I write.
For my part, I bear no ill will towards Pope Francis or Bishop Knestout. To the contrary, I pray for both of them with love every time I celebrate Holy Mass. I have at times been angry with both of them, but that anger cooled long ago.
It seems to me that expressing yourself in a proper forum about highly debatable matters of Church governance ≠ incitement to hatred or disobedience.
I do not think that I myself have wrongly disobeyed; I know for certain that I have never urged anyone to disobey the Church’s law or any particular ordinance of Bishop Knestout.
Two weeks from today my canon lawyer and I will meet with the bishop and Judicial Vicar to initiate this “extrajudicial process.” I pray for humility and honesty. Apparently the bishop will present evidence to support his charges; may I have a mind open to see the whole matter as clearly as possible.
If I have in fact done wrong in the ways that the bishop contends, I pledge myself to do whatever I can to repair the damage.
Today we keep the anniversary of St. Therese of Lisieux’s holy death. On the day of the meeting in Richmond, we will remember Therese’s spiritual mother, St. Theresa of Avila. Let’s pray to these two Doctors of the Church. May a miracle of peace and mutual understanding occur.
Today at Holy Mass, we read the Parable of the Ten Virgins. They await the bridegroom’s arrival, deep into the night. Then, behold, he comes! But only five of the young ladies have an extra flask of oil, to keep their torches burning.
Here’s a little compendium of links to the homilies I have given about the parable, over the years.
Seems like America is back. We can go places. We can get together. Praise God.
A year ago, the pandemic separated us, and the bishop here suspended me unjustly from ministry. He has prohibited me from celebrating the sacraments publicly, and now he is trying to have me kicked out of the priesthood entirely. I am trying to fight that.
I have obeyed the suspension order, and I will continue to obey it. I love the priesthood and the Catholic Church. I am no Protestant. I am no rebel.
But the bishop cannot prohibit me completely from trying to help the Church. Let’s get together again, and do something good.
I will host a series of talks given by survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen. These brave heroes will give us a vision for what our Church can be.
We will start this summer, with talks by Chris O’Leary, Mark Vath, and Becky Ianni. The first talks will take place here in Virginia–in Martinsville, Roanoke, Richmond, and Alexandria.
We’re calling ourselves “Our Church, our Problem.” The series of talks is called, “I Survived, and I Have a Vision.”
The first talks in the series…
Mr. Chris O’Leary in Martinsville: Sunday, June 27, 5pm at Grand Fiesta Venue, 6812 Greensboro Rd.
Mr. Chris O’Leary in Roanoke: Monday, June 28 at 6:30pm at the Jefferson Center
Mr. Mark Vath in Martinsville: Sunday, July 25 at 5pm at Grand Fiesta Venue
more info about talks in Richmond and NoVa to follow soon
Let’s get together again. I look forward to seeing you.
Eighteen years ago today, then-Cardinal Archbishop Theodore McCarrick ordained nine of us as priests, sacred ministers of the holy mysteries of Jesus Christ, chaste and loving.
At the ceremony, we all promised to respect and obey the bishop. Over the course of the ensuing years, McCarrick gave me my first three parish assignments. I gladly did his will.
But[PG-13] if he asked me to play with his penis, should I have obeyed?
The Cardinal was a criminal. For decades he abused his power as a priest, then as a bishop, to obtain cheap sexual gratification for himself.
In May of 2006, right after he gave me one of the happiest assignments I have ever had, McCarrick suddenly announced his retirement. He was evidently able-bodied and vigorous. Something weird was going on.
Turns out that the highest authorities in the Church were working behind the scenes to cover-up McCarrick’s crimes. My own current bishop, Barry Knestout, was apparently in-the-know about the cover-up.
It was an institutional deception piled on top of a criminal betrayal. When we learned the truth, over a decade later, many of us experienced intense anger and pain. I will spend the rest of my life trying to deal with the effects of this betrayal of my trust in Church leadership.
We priests do our best to obey. But we are also baptized and confirmed Catholic Christians, who have to prepare ourselves for judgment by God, just like everyone else.
We’re human beings. We’re not trained monkeys.
Last year, Bishop Knestout assigned me as prison chaplain for the diocese. I could not undertake the assignment because…
1. The pandemic has prevented prison ministry for the past year.
2. Bishop Knestout suspended my priestly faculties shortly after giving me the assignment.
A local businessman here recently offered to purchase a building for me to set up an independent church. “Father, people will come from all over!”
This kind, well-meaning Christian has the necessary money. But I do not have the will to do such a thing. I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, governed by Pope Francis, and all the bishops in communion with him.
I obey my suspension and celebrate Mass in the company of just the Lord, the angels, and the saints. Today my Mass will be for Theodore McCarrick, that he might get to heaven somehow. The pope kicked him out of the priesthood two years ago.
I wrote my bishop last month, asking him if we could try to find a compromise about this blog, so that I could undertake the assignment he gave me last year, before he suspended me.
He wrote back, insisting that I would never have an assignment. He urged me to ask the pope to remove me from Holy Orders. Then he quickly wrote again, informing me that he had asked the pope to laicize me. So I could wind up just like the former Cardinal who ordained me. Seems strange, since McCarrick abused people, and I just wrote about it.
Every priest I know finds Bishop Knestout’s petition breathtakingly unbelievable. Especially when you consider that there are convicted criminal pedophile priests alive and well today, who have never been laicized.
I do not know what my bishop has sent to Rome. I have asked for more information, and for a chance to understand the rationale and defend myself.
In his letter to me, Bishop Knestout referred to my “persistent disobedience.” He says I should be kicked out of the priesthood for a failure to honor my promise to obey. He has ordered me to shut up about all this. I have not done so.
Can’t we keep this in mind here, please: I made my promise of obedience to a criminal, a criminal that everyone in a miter covered-up for.
I’m doing my best here. I really am, all things considered.
How about cutting a suffering dude a break? I will happily minister to the incarcerated criminals.
After all, a criminal ministered the holy priesthood to me, eighteen years ago today.
Holy Virgin, help of Christians and Mother of the Church, pray for us who have recourse to you.
[This is Part II of my series in honor of my dad, on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. Click HERE for Part I.]
During the midnight hour on Sunday, March 3, 1991, three Los Angeles patrol officers brutally beat a defenseless man. The three officers acted under the direction of a sergeant.
The officers’ names are: Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno. The sergeant was Stacey Koon. The defenseless man was Rodney Glenn King.
George Holliday made a video of the beating, from the balcony of his apartment across the street.
King had two passengers in the car with him. The police detained the passengers at the scene briefly, but then released them without taking them anywhere.
Holliday must have crossed the street and told the passengers–Rodney King’s friends–that he had videotaped the beating. One of the passengers told King’s brother, Paul, about the videotape.
The following day, both Paul King and George Holliday went to the police to report the unlawful beating. Paul King mentioned the videotape.
Both complaints were immediately filed as “requiring no further attention” by the LAPD. Holliday and Paul King knew they had been totally blown off.
So Holliday then took his videotape to KTLA, and within 36 hours the rest of America had seen the beating on the news.
For freedom Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). But a criminal forfeits that freedom and subjects him- or herself to compulsion. By lawful authority.
Rodney King had subjected himself to compulsion by lawful authority, in the midnight hour of Sunday, March 3.
A California Highway Patrol vehicle saw King’s Hyundai going 120 mph on the San Fernando Freeway. The officers tried to pull King over. He had a duty to obey, to stop on the shoulder. He did not do so. He led the officers, and other patrol cars that joined in pursuit, on an eight-mile chase.
By doing this, King apparently committed the crime of “felony evading.” (He was never charged for this, or any other crime.) When King finally pulled over, next to a park, the officers in pursuit identified the situation as a “high-risk stop.” Which means that they had the right, in the interest of their own safety, to order all the occupants of King’s car to get out with their hands up. King and his two friends had a duty to obey such an order.
At this point in the unfolding story, we reach the moment where we might question the way the officers tried to compel King and his passengers, under the color of lawful authority.
It apparently was the policy of both the California Highway Patrol and the LAPD, at “high-risk stops,” to order the motorist and passengers to lie down flat on the pavement, arms spread wide, face turned away from the approaching officer.
This was to allow for a relatively low-risk approach by the officer, to handcuff the motorist, and any passengers.
(Whether or not this policy of demanding a “prone position” has changed since 1991, I do not know.)
Granted, if you have led police officers on an eight-mile high-speed chase, I think we can say that you have forfeited your bodily freedom at least for the moment, and you must submit to handcuffing.
But ordering someone to lie down, prone on the asphalt, face turned away? Maybe that crosses a line out of the realm of officer safety and into the realm of undue humiliation?
Anyway, as a practical matter: At about 12:40am on March 3, 1991, Rodney King did not comply with the order to lie prone on the ground, and for good reason.
For one thing, King likely did not hear the order over the sound of the helicopter overhead. Secondly, he would have had trouble understanding the word “prone,” even if he did hear the order. Lastly, while he did get down on all fours, he did not appear able to lie the whole way down. Was it because he was too proud? Maybe. Was it because he was intoxicated and confused? Almost certainly.
King never made any violent action; he posed no threat. He never even directly evaded getting handcuffed. He was pretty clearly drunk and confused. And then suddenly he was in fear for his own life.
Officers Powell and Wind proceeded to beat King mercilessly with their metal batons. Officer Briseno kicked him. Sergeant Koon gave the orders.
As we mentioned, George Holliday captured it on tape. The overwhelming majority of the people who saw the tape in the ensuing days regarded the police officers’ actions as criminal.
According to two different polls, 90% of the residents of Los Angeles County saw Holliday’s videotape, and 92% of those who had seen it believed the officers had used excessive force. Eighty percent thought the officers had committed a crime.
The officers, in other words, put themselves into the position that Rodney King had put himself in, by speeding on the freeway and not pulling over. The officers made themselves subject to compulsion by lawful authority.
Lawful authority did not respond with violence this time, but with due process. An L.A.-County grand jury indicted the four officers for criminal assault.
Due process requires a fair trial. The long, hot summer of 1991 saw some stunning developments in the pre-trial business.
I don’t know who made the decision to try all four officers together. I don’t know if putting them on trial separately was ever even considered as an option.
The decision in Minneapolis last year to try Derek Chauvin separately from the other officers involved in George Floyd’s murder–that certainly seems like a wise decision, indeed.
The circumstances in L.A. three decades ago were different. Sergeant Koon never personally laid a hand on Rodney King. He did, however, order his officers to beat the defenseless man mercilessly.
I would say that putting all four officers on trial together proved to be the first, and probably greatest, of the prosecution’s mistakes. That is, if it was their mistake. Perhaps it was simply a fait accompli, for legal reasons I don’t understand.
By putting the officers on trial together, the prosecutors wound-up having to contend with four different, highly skilled defense lawyers. The defense ultimately managed to dominate the trial. If the officers had been tried separately, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.
The Superior Court of Los Angeles County assigned the case of People v. Powell et al. to Judge Bernard Kamins. (In California, the trial courts are called “Superior” courts.)
The defense immediately petitioned to have the trial moved outside of Los Angeles, on the grounds that the officers could not get a fair trial there.
At that time, Los Angeles County had 6.5 million eligible jurors. For the officers to have received a fair trial in that county, the court would have had to find twelve among those 6.5 million who could listen impartially to testimony and review evidence, leaving a final conclusion about guilt or innocence until the end.
Jurors must presume criminal defendants to be innocent of the charges against them, then wait to see or hear proof, proof that overcomes every reasonable doubt about the defendant’s guilt.
California law stipulates that a criminal trial should occur in the county where the crime took place, unless a compelling reason calls for a “change of venue.”
The defense argued that the daily news coverage of the event had “contaminated” the objectivity of the L.A.-County jury pool.
Judge Kamins concluded that this was not a compelling reason to move. Because: the same could be said about the jury pool in every county in California.
They simply could not conduct the trial in a county where the potential jurors would show up for duty not having heard about the case. No such county existed. Therefore, this was no reason to change the venue.
…As spring turned into summer, Judge Kamins became ever more eager to move the trial forward.
I don’t presume to know the judge’s mind, but what little I know about the steps he took lead me to see him as a humble, practical man. He recognized that the best thing for everyone involved was to move the trial forward as expeditiously as possible. But the judge’s humble practicality got him into trouble.
The defense insisted on a change of venue and appealed over Judge Kamin’s head, to the California Court of Appeal.
Kamins had set June 19 as the day to begin the trial. On June 12, the Appeal Court put an “indefinite stay” on moving forward with jury selection, until the higher court had considered the defense petition for a change of venue.
Kamins tried to negotiate his way out of the impasse by putting a possible change of venue back on the table for discussion by the parties. The judge communicated informally, departing from the strict rules that govern court communications. It seems clear that Kamins did this in order to get the trial moving sooner rather than later. But his effort backfired completely.
The defense petitioned to have Judge Kamins removed, on the grounds that his off-the-cuff communications had given the impression that he was partial to the prosecution.
In high summer 1991, the California Court of Appeal made two decisions that deserve to go down in infamy.
On July 23, the Appeal court unilaterally ordered a change of venue. That particular Appeal Court decision is known as Powell v. Superior Court.
In this decision, the Court of Appeal granted that the “media saturation” argument did not suffice to compel a move. But the Court of Appeal introduced another consideration: the contamination of the L.A.-County jury pool by political allegiances to either the mayor or the police chief.
A “coup,” so to speak–put into motion by the police commission, and backed by the mayor–had tried to oust Chief Gates. The City Council protected the chief, and the “coup” failed.
Neither the mayor nor the chief were directly involved in People v. Powell et al.
All other political issues in L.A. paled in significance to the trial itself. The allegiance of the citizens was not really to either Mayor Bradley or to Chief Darryl Gates. If either of those two gentlemen had suddenly moved to Tahiti, it would not have had anywhere near the political impact that the ultimate verdict of this trial would have.
The Appeal Court’s stated goal was to prevent the “average person on the street” from thinking the trial unfair. So, on August 21, in Briseno v. Superior Court, they removed Kamins from the case.
Fall arrived, and the Appeal Court’s two interventions had delayed the trial by six months. Courtroom testimony didn’t actually begin until a year after the beating. And that testimony unfolded in front of a Ventura-County jury that had not one single black person on it.
Ironically enough, it was the Appeal Court itself that managed to make the average person on the street start to think that things were not right, not fair, not above-board. Something rotten in the state of Denmark, as Hamlet put it.
He grew up in Washington, D.C., a fifth-generation native of the city. He became a lawyer and dedicated his whole career to urban land-use law. That is: the orderly growth and prosperity of his city.
When my father was working as a young lawyer, not long before I was born, Washington, D.C. erupted in riots. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, the city burned.
This had a big impact on our family life. Some of my earliest memories involve driving around the damaged neighborhoods, my father explaining to my brother and me what had happened.
By my late teens, I knew the streets of Washington better than any cabbie. My seminary classmates at Catholic University had a game: They would look at a map of town and randomly name an intersection. I would then describe all the buildings located there, from memory.
I could do it because of love. My dad taught me that love.
I was a young man myself when Los Angeles, California, burned at the end of April and the beginning of May, 1992. My dad was still with us then. He had not yet suffered the debilitating stroke that would render him an invalid for the last decade of his life.
The LA riots were more brutal than the riots of the 60’s. On tv sets all over the world, people saw senseless beatings take place live.
In our home, we were stupefied with deep, crushing sadness. I have never been as profoundly upset as I was during those four or five days. We hardly slept; we spent most of the nights watching the news. The devil was dancing on the face of the earth.
The innocent blood of the dead in the streets stained my young, idealistic dreams. My dad had taught me to cultivate hope for American urban life and peace among races. The things that he stood for, the things for which he had dedicated his whole life–they lay broken in front of our eyes, like a shattered window on the asphalt.
One week ago today, on the other hand, things went differently. Like the jurors in People v. Powell et al. in 1992, the jurors in State v. Chauvin had seen a video. (In fact, in Minnesota, they had seen several videos.)
This time, the jurors believed their own eyes. They had seen a murder committed on video, so they reasonably proceeded to convict the murderer of the crime.
The prosecutors in State v. Chauvin had calmly and diligently made their case. They presented several credible eye-witnesses to the murder. They presented experts on the use of force by police. They testified that what Derek Chauvin had done was certainly wrong and criminal. The prosecutors presented medical experts who explained the cause of death; their testimony successfully removed any reasonable doubt that George Floyd died by homicide.
At the Chauvin trial, black witnesses and white witnesses spoke about Floyd as a human being. They spoke to a jury of Floyd’s peers, themselves willing to see Floyd as the human being that he was.
In other words, the prosecution in the Chauvin trial had a slam-dunk case, and they held the ball firmly in both hands and sprang towards the basket with the steady self-control of a well-trained athlete. They dunked the ball.
Chauvin is in jail, awaiting sentencing, and the world recognizes that justice has been done.
What happened thirty years ago was altogether different. I have reflected on this extensively, and I think I have identified one particular aspect of what happened in Los Angeles that we should try to understand now. This will take a few days, and a few posts, to get through, so bear with me as I try to lay out my thoughts.
Here comes Part I:
Cellphones existed in March of 1991, but they most certainly did not have cameras, and they were the size of a loaf of bread. The only person I knew with a cellphone then was my business-executive aunt. She kept the thing in her car, in a large leatherette pouch.
People did have camcorders in 1991. Portable hand-held video cameras that recorded on magnetic tapes.
Mr. George Holliday, who lived in the Monte Vista apartments on Foothill Boulevard, near the San Fernando Freeway, in Los Angeles, owned a new camcorder.
The sound of sirens and a helicopter awoke Holliday from his Saturday-night slumber at 12:45am on Sunday, March 3, 1991. He looked out his window and saw an arrest unfolding across the street. A large number of police officers had converged.
Holliday thought of his new video camera sitting by the tv in the living room, went to get it, and stepped out on his balcony to film what he saw. His 81-second videotape captured three LAPD officers–under the direction of a fourth–brutally beating a defenseless man.
There was no way to “upload” the video since a. it wasn’t digital and b. there was no internet to speak of at the time. Instead, Holliday took the tape to a local television station the following day. The station broadcast it on the evening news. By midnight Tuesday, every station in the Western world had broadcast the video.
People who saw the video spontaneously thought of the beating and scourging of the Lord Jesus by the Roman soldiers. In fact, when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, I wondered if he had staged the scourging scene to look like the Rodney King tape, because there are so many similarities in body movement by Jesus in the movie and King in the video.
In many communities, tv stations had to apologize for airing the Rodney King tape at times when children could have been watching. It caused nightmares. Watching the nine minutes of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd is sickening, but the brutality of the Rodney King beating is actually a great deal harder to endure, even though King did survive. That King survived was a miracle in and of itself, as was clear to everyone who watched Holliday’s video.
So, significant difference #1 between State v. Chauvin in 2021 and California v. Powell et al. in 1992:
In 1992, there was only one videotape. Over the course of the last month, the jury in Minnesota saw over twenty different videos, shot from different cameras. Over a dozen bystander cellphones, street security cameras, police body-cams.
When Rodney King got beaten, there was only the word of the people involved, the police reports which manifestly did not recount what had happened, and George Holliday’s video. (During the thirty hours between the incident and the public airing of the video, the officers did everything they could to cover up the beating.)
I don’t pretend to understand all the events that unfolded in the short-term aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year. I shared some thoughts at the time, but I don’t claim to have a comprehensive view.
On the other hand, I do have a pretty good understanding of what happened after the Holliday video became public in early March 1991.
The video presented compelling evidence of criminal police brutality. As a police-commission report put it, the following July: “All segments of society condemn the Rodney King beating.”
But the political situation in Los Angeles was far, far from stable. What was then known as “south-central” was a largely lawless world of gangland violence. The white police chief and black mayor were at odds. Chief Darryl Gates nonetheless acknowledged after seeing the Holliday tape that the officers should face prosecution for criminal assault with a deadly weapon.
Warren Christopher was a widely respected elder-statesman California lawyer. (He went on to become President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State.) He chaired a joint commission formed out of the two separate commissions that the feuding mayor and police chief formed. The joint commission became the “Christopher Commission.”
LAPD patrol cars in 1991 had a rudimentary form of text messaging called Mobile Digital Terminal communications, or MDTs. The Christopher Commission studied all the MDTs of the previous six months, as well as thousands of other records, and conducted interviews with hundreds of officers and citizens. The commission concluded:
There is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force… Our computerized study of complaints filed in recent years shows a strong concentration of allegations against a problem group of officers. Graphic confirmation of improper attitudes and practices is provided by the brazen and extensive references to beatings in the MDTs. The problem is aggravated by racism…
The LAPD’s failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department… The Department not only failed to deal with this problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.
As Christopher put it, it was a “blunt” report. It clearly identified a serious problem of organizational racism. The report took for granted that the Rodney King beating involved a heinous crime.
Meanwhile, however, other wheels started turning in the exact opposite direction. The four charged officers began to mount their legal defense.
The officers would never acknowledge any personal wrongdoing. In the summer of ’91, the officers’ lawyers successfully impeached the impartiality of the first judge assigned to the case. He had refused a “change of venue” petition. The replacement judge then agreed to move the trial to a suburb. The criminal case would be tried in Simi Valley, Ventura County, a bedroom community for many LAPD officers. Meanwhile, all this legal wrangling consumed months of time.
In Simi Valley, the jury pool for the Rodney-King-beating trial consisted of predominantly white suburbanites. They finally reported for voir dire, to a brand-new county courthouse, in January 1992. The parking lot hadn’t even been fully paved. After the whittling down of candidates, the final jury panel did not include a single black person.