The scenes from Ferguson in 2014 are reminiscent of those in Detroit and Newark in 1967 in more ways than one. Each was sparked by a confrontation with white police, and had its roots in political, social and economic injustices. America needs a new civil rights movement, as Wanjiru Kariuki explains.
As the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over Michael Brown’s death was announced on 24 November, protests and unrest spread in over a dozen cities across the US. The scenes, symbolic of deep frustration, were all too familiar. Watching the streets of Oakland and Ferguson, Missouri, fill up, one could not help but feel that 2014 is too much like 1967, a year marked by violence and civil unrest.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson made segregation in public places illegal by passing the Civil Rights Act. Only a year after Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I have a dream” speech, the Act was emblematic of a new awakening in America’s history, the optimism was palpable and hope hung in air. It was the start of something new. Three years later, it was a completely different story.
In the early hours of 23 July 1967, Detroit, Michigan was erupting. A police raid on an after-hours bar evolved into five days of protest and rioting. 43 Americans died. 11 days prior and 600 miles east in Newark, New Jersey, an outraged crowd had destroyed public property and confronted the police. The unrest lasted five days, and left 26 dead. Findings from the Kerner Commission, established by President Johnson to investigate the causes of the riots, concluded that police brutality and an unfair justice system were at the heart of the hostility. And the spark that set it all off? An altercation between a black man and white police.
This trajectory of hope followed by deep frustration has repeated itself some 40 years later.
As Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008, his chorus of “There is no black America, there is no white America, there is only the United States of America” echoed around the nation. The significance of his election was debated, but for many it meant at least one thing: change. For many African-Americans, it was proof that a promising future was attainable, an indication that things could get better. The dominant word in Obama’s whole campaign had been “hope”, and yet six years later, Ferguson was “sweltering” under the same “heat of injustice”, to re-use Martin Luther King Jnr’s words, as Detroit and Newark decades before it.
Throughout his presidency, Obama has had fleeting moments where he has addressed disparity in America. He has discussed the looming danger that comes with being a person of colour: he has said that Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old boy shot dead by a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, could have been his own son, and he has revealed that he too has heard car doors lock as he has walked down the street. Yet often times his actions have spoken louder than his words. Some, for example, questioned why Attorney General Eric Holder was the one to visit Ferguson as events intensified. Where was the president and when would he address the issue at hand?
The root causes
The protests in Ferguson and elsewhere across the US, much like 1967, are a product of underlying issues brought to the fore by an act of injustice. St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch admitted that prior to Brown’s death there were “underlying tensions between the police department and a significant part of the neighbourhood.” It isn’t hard to see why. The population of Ferguson is 67% black, whilst the police force is 94% white. In 1967 Detroit, while the black population was lower (around a third of the population), the police force was 95% white.
On a broader scale, the fundamental issues that face the African-American community, such as poverty and discrimination, are also as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
In 1966, for instance, 41% of the black population lived in poverty; that figure has gone down considerably, but in 2013, it was still the case that 40% of black children lived in poverty compared to 14% of their white counterparts.
This discrepancy was also intensified by the 2008 recession, which hit the African-American community particularly hard. In 2004, prior to the recession, the median net worth of black households was approximately 10% the median net worth of white households, a shocking disparity in itself. But five years later, while white households’ net worth had fallen by 24%, the median net worth of black households had fallen by 83% to a measly $2,170. Furthermore, unemployment is racialised, with African-Americans more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed.
When it comes to America’s justice system, there is a huge imbalance too. For instance, 1 in 3 black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives today compared to 1 in 17 white men. This is even more extreme than in 1960, when black men were only five times more likely to end up in prison compared to their white counterparts. These figures appear even more stark when we consider that the US prison population has increased more than 700% over the same period.
Part, but certainly not all, of this vast racial discrepancy in the prison population is due to a racist sentencing system. According to analysis from the US Sentencing Commission, black men are handed prison sentences that are on average 20% longer than those given to white men for similar crimes. African-Americans serve roughly the same amount of time in prison for drug offences as white Americans serve for violent crime.
This unfair justice system, which prohibits felons from voting in some states, also means that overall, 1 in 13 African-Americans cannot vote, demonstrating how the disparity in the justice system trickles down into disparities in democratic rights too. Furthermore, being convicted brings with it collateral penalties, which make it harder for felons to find jobs and get access to student loans, hindering their ability to move up the socio-economic ladder and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Violence coming home
In April 1967, Martin Luther King Jnr declared the American government to be “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” as the country deployed more troops to Vietnam. His comments exposed a contradiction at the heart of US policy. President Johnson justified the huge use of violence in Vietnam by claiming it was protecting the rights of the South Vietnamese. Yet, at home, he continued to allow the rights of African-Americans to be denied whilst delegitimising their use of violence.
In 2014, we have similarly heard Obama condemning violence in the wake of the Ferguson protests, despite the fact he has approved countless drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere which have killed hundreds of civilians.
Violence doesn’t remain overseas; American law enforcement has become increasingly militarised. In the aftermath of the Ferguson protests police deployed heavy military-style weaponry from stun grenades to shotguns. A small city in Missouri suddenly looked like a war zone. And the enemy? US citizens. Militarisation has been accompanied by the use of SWAT teams, which break into homes searching for drugs, often targeting communities of colour. The results of these raids are too often tragic, resulting in the death or injury of innocent citizens who are killed mistakenly, or become collateral damage in a “war on drugs” that many see as a failure. It is no wonder many African-Americans feel that dialling 911 will only lead to more violence.
The sentiment at Ferguson on the night of 25 November 2014 was one of frustration; the feeling that voices were not being heard and that keeping calm and obeying the law was doing nothing to better situations or public systems. There was an urgency, much like that in Detroit in 1967, which hinted at a militant black power rhetoric. “Fuck the police!” they chanted.
The voices in Ferguson that night were not the voices of disgruntled citizens seeking to distance themselves from American society; rather, this was a demand that the American government fulfil its promise, a call for the justice system to live up to the creed that all people were created equal.
What came out of the race riots of 1967 was a stark realisation that black people could no longer tolerate injustice. Similarly, as we watch young black men, sometimes boys, fall from the bullets of white police in 2014, the message is the same: we cannot tolerate injustice any longer.
From Michael Brown to the 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead on 22 November, there need not be another dead body for it to be clear that laws need to be re-written and that a new civil rights movement seeking to ensure that serious reforms are enforced in America, is desperately needed. It is crucial that the sit-ins in St. Louis, the demonstrations in New York and the march modelled on the 1965 Selma March to Jefferson City, Missouri, culminate into what could be the start of something great for America.
Black consciousness was most potent in the US in the late 1960s. In 2014, the emergence of a new coalition, drawing on the lessons of the civil rights movement and harnessing the spirit of the black power movement, is desperately needed in a nation otherwise doomed to repeat history.