In the 1980s, when I lived in the flats of Beverly Hills, the Beverly Hills cops used to stop cars carrying young black male passengers or young male Hispanics. I don’t think they made arrests very often; I never saw it. But everybody knew about it, and, what’s more, generally approved. The southern part of Beverly Hills lies just north of a far less-favored West Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by gangs and crime.
At the time, a certain pattern crime had emerged, later depicted (after a fashion) in the Steve Martin movie L.A. Story. The criminals were called “Rolex bandits.” They would spot a solo driver of an expensive car, his left wrist adorned with the $10,000 solid gold watch that is practically a badge of membership in a certain Los Angeles social stratum. They would follow the Rolex wearer home, brace him as he got out of his car, and often shoot him dead either on his doorstep or just inside.
The most frequent victims of the Rolex bandits were Iranian men, part of a large group that had fled the revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini, carrying with them whatever riches they could, in the form of gold, diamonds, and rugs. Cash-rich, these new immigrants looked around for property to buy and spotted a kind of bargain, by their lights. Three-bedroom California bungalows sat on lots in the Beverly Hills flats, on land worth a million dollars a plot. By the scores, these Iranians — “Persians,” they always call themselves — bought up the houses, tore them down, and built flashy Palladian mansions right up to the property lines of those tiny lots.
The gangs south of Pico looked north and saw swarthy, rich targets.
In Scotch Plains, New Jersey, last year, four white police officers filed a lawsuit alleging repeated instances of job and racial discrimination against their black police captain, against the police chief, and against the township of Scotch Plains itself. The precipitating incident was a traffic stop. Just like the Beverly Hills cops of almost two decades ago, the officers had spotted a car — a Jeep Cherokee, as it happened — cruising Scotch Plains, with four young black men in it. They stopped it; a fracas ensued; the officers drew their guns; the young blacks were arrested. The police captain, according to the officers’ affidavits, accused the white officers of pulling their guns only because the youths were black. The officers’ affidavit also quoted the captain as saying that, if one of the boys had been his own child, he would have shot them (the officers) “in the back like the cowards they were.”
Also that year, long-time Scotch Plains township councilman Tarquin Bromley, a Democrat, died suddenly of a heart attack. Township council rules provided a procedure for succession in such cases. The local Democratic committee would select three candidates, then submit them to the entire council for a vote. The Democratic committee did so, and submitted their three candidates: all three of them black women.
I was, at the time of these incidents, the assignments editor of a local newspaper. I had two reporters covering Scotch Plains. The officers’ lawsuit was being covered by Deborah, a good-hearted housewife of liberal sympathies. The council was covered by Fred, a veteran Democratic political activist. (On a community newspaper, you take what you can get.)
Deborah’s original story about the civil rights lawsuit depicted the four policemen as villains.
“Take a look at things here,” I encouraged her. “You know what kind of people police officers are. They’re patient, long-suffering guys — they don’t fly off the handle. They could never do the job otherwise. For four cops to file a suit like this, which will end their careers, they must have been severely provoked.”
“Oh,” said Deborah, a light going on in her head. “That’s what their lawyer told me.” She asked more questions, and rewrote her story.
Against the background of a civil rights lawsuit, I thought it at least worth investigation that the local Democratic committee had nominated three black women to fill a vacant council post. I asked Fred to write a think piece about it, knowing he was well-placed and well-qualified to do it.
“I don’t see anything there,” Fred said. And he refused the assignment.
As I say, on a community newspaper, you take what you can get.