Ferguson unrest shows grim past can be repeated

Written By By MARY MITCHELL Posted: 09/22/2014, 12:25pm

If we do not learn from our mistakes, history repeats itself.

Most of us have experienced this universal law in our personal lives.

So why is it so hard for us to accept that principal when it comes to America’s racist past?

Nearly a half-century ago, American saw Watts erupt in flames because of a policing incident. Practically on the same date — 49 years later — Ferguson, Mo., erupted in violent protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man.

Unfortunately, the same level of tension exists between law enforcement and the black community today as it did back then.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made an unprecedented visit to Ferguson, to confer with federal law enforcement authorities and meet with Brown’s family.

Holder told reporters he is “confident” that officials will determine whether or not the police officer, Darren Wilson, violated any federal civil rights statutes, MSNBC reported.

Holder also met with local civil rights leaders. But there is no indication that protesters are ready to give up their nightly vigil.

Indeed, this violent display of civil disobedience is an eruption of emotions that’s been a long time coming.

It’s been coming since the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo when four New York police officers shot the 23-year-old unarmed man 41 times; and since 2006, when police officers killed Sean Bell, in a barrage of gunfire on his wedding day.

Because those incidents happened in an area of the country where residents are politically empowered, the protests remained peaceful.

It’s a different situation entirely in Ferguson where the predominantly black suburb is run by a white power structure.

The town has a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic; and only one black City Council member.

Only three of the 53 police officers are black.

Indeed, the confrontation in Ferguson is a throwback to the civil rights era.

For example, in the Watts incident, a white California highway patrol officer got into a scuffle with the African-American mother of a man he was attempting to arrest for drunk driving. The arrest spiraled into a melee as residents flocked to the scene and intervened by pelting the officers with bottles and rocks.

During the ensuing six days of violent protests, that included looting stores and burning property, 34 people were killed, 1,032 were injured and 3,438 were arrested.

That deadly disturbance was followed in 1966 and 1967 by similar clashes between black citizens and police in Omaha, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

In Ferguson, the police officer, allegedly got into a scuffle with Brown when he ordered him to get out of the street.

After the violent summer in the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to determine the cause of the violence.

The commission noted the symbol of “white power, white racism and white repression,” has been the police.

“[T]he fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread perception among Negroes of the existence of police brutality,” the Commission concluded.

That report was issued on Feb. 29, 1968.

Not surprisingly, then the causes of the violence were identified as “pervasive discrimination and segregation, enforced confinement in segregated housing and schools; and the lack of opportunity.”

While progress has been made on some of these fronts, you have only to drive through predominantly, black and low-income areas to understand that there’s a lot of unfinished business.

In cities like Chicago, where documented police brutality has led to wrongful convictions, some black residents feel like they are facing a double whammy.

Besides the daily frustrations that come with living in high crime areas, people in these communities have to interact with police a lot more often.

Unfortunately, as illustrated by the shooting of Michael Brown those interactions can quickly turn deadly.

In 2007, a joint project by the Chicago Reader and ColorLines found African Americans are overrepresented among police shooting victims.

And many blacks have the nagging thought that when confronted by a tense situation, white police officers are likely to pull the trigger first and ask questions later when the encounter involves a black male.

Unfortunately, the Kerner Commission’s report is as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago.

“In just about every city that has experienced racial disruption since the summer of 1964 — abrasive relationships between police and [blacks] and other minority groups have been a major source of grievance, tension and ultimately, disorder,” the Commission concluded.

Police departments across the country should begin addressing the abrasive practices that lead to these kinds of tragic police involved incidents.

After all, the violent protests in Ferguson happened for the same reason Watts happened, Detroit happened, Newark happened and Cleveland happened.

Black people want white officers to serve and protect, not just to detain and subdue.

Email: marym@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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