Ferguson+1 at Watts+50. Lessons Still Unlearned

By Daily Editorials

August 17, 2015 8 min read

As the various commemorations of the first anniversary of Michael Brown's killing unfolded last week, it was apparent that last October's refrain is still true: This is not your father's civil rights movement.

Those looking for concerted action or a common theme were disappointed. Those awaiting soaring rhetoric from a charismatic leader are still waiting. Whatever the lessons we should have learned from Ferguson, racial injustice is so deeply ingrained in the culture, it defies a single focus.

Last Sunday's first anniversary of that terrible afternoon when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown brought a few nights of protest, most of it peaceful and most of it concentrated on Sunday night.

As midnight approached, some young men using protest as cover for criminality started looting. Others began firing weapons. Police and protesters alike scattered amidst what St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called a "remarkable amount of gunfire."

Police shot and seriously wounded Tyrone Harris Jr., 18, of Northwoods, who was later seen in a surveillance video carrying a handgun. Our colleague Paul Hampel was robbed and severely beaten.

The next morning County Executive Steve Stenger signed an executive order putting county police in charge in Ferguson. Things calmed down. Chief Belmar's officers did a good job, but it may be that Sunday night's firefight kept a lot of people off the streets the rest of the week. No one wants to be collateral damage.

Elsewhere, Monday saw an eclectic round of protests. Protesters closed Interstate 70 in both directions at the Blanchette Bridge, imposing a rush-hour delay for what they deemed the collective guilt of white flight to St. Charles County.

Several dozen protesters were arrested, two of them for allegedly assaulting a motorist who eased her SUV through the crowd. About a third of those arrested gave out-of-town addresses, activists drawn by the remarkable reach of social media.

Downtown at the federal courthouse, some 400 people showed up to demand that the Department of Justice dissolve the Ferguson police department. Fifty-seven volunteers were promptly arrested, processed and released.

Meanwhile in Clayton, a few dozen protesters marched on the headquarters of Enterprise Holdings Inc., calling attention to its Keefe Group subsidiary. Keefe is among several companies that provide high-priced commissary items and other services at some prisons and jails nationwide. The protesters said Keefe is profiteering off inmates and their families.

And very early Tuesday morning, as if more tension were needed, a handful of so-called Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson. The self-styled "patriots" (as if everyone else hates America) were openly carrying semi-automatic weapons and prattling about their Second Amendment rights.

Thus did the anniversary of Michael Brown's death become a blank canvas on which anyone and everyone could paint any picture he wished.

A few conclusions:

—Cops and protesters for the most part kept their heads. Civil disturbances are sparked by an immediate, precipitating event. An anniversary doesn't create flash-point anger. Positive changes have occurred in and around Ferguson over the past 12 months. And police handled things better this time around.

—Missouri's gun-nut Legislature made a bad situation worse. The Oath Keepers showed up just to strut and show off. Chief Belmar took them at their word that they had concealed-carry permits, but bowed to state law that says you don't need a permit to openly carry arms. It's hard to imagine that young black men would have been given the same benefit of the doubt as middle-aged white men. White privilege manifests itself in many ways; this is one of the most dangerous ones.

—However benign and sincere a protest, there are criminals who will use it as cover to break the law. We saw that Sunday night, and one young man paid a fearsome price.

—All of this places immense pressure on cops, who must instantaneously sort the good guys from the bad guys, and God help them if they make a mistake. Shouldn't the citizens of Missouri have a right, at the very least, to a law that says you can't carry weapons in a civil disturbance zone?

As it happened, Tuesday — as the streets were calming down — was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Watts was the first of the major urban race riots of the 1960s, followed in 1967 and 1968 in Detroit, Newark, Washington, D.C., Chicago and other cities.

The Watts riots broke out five days after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, one of the signature achievements of your father's civil rights movement. Watts made it clear that whatever happened in Washington, larger problems were still simmering and unaddressed.

So a young person today might well be cynical about racial "progress." The McCone Commission that investigated the Watts riots, and the Kerner Commission that investigated the riots of 1967-68, came to remarkably similar conclusions about their causes: A precipitating event, usually involving police actions, sparked days of violence rooted in frustration over oppression in housing, policing, education and economic opportunity.

So, too, with what happened in Ferguson a year ago. Watts+50, and in cities across America, problems are still simmering and unaddressed, and require only another spark to flash again.

At Ferguson+1, there has been some progress in St. Louis. Some economic development programs are under way. There have been police reforms, in Ferguson and elsewhere. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5 to begin addressing the oppressive municipal court system in St. Louis County. The good work of the Ferguson Commission continues.

Here's what hasn't happened: Most of white St. Louis still hasn't acknowledged its role in the problems of black St. Louis. For the lack of economic opportunity, housing and transportation options and especially educational opportunity.

For the most part, white St. Louis hasn't done this deliberately. The neglect is mostly benign. We live in our silos and take care of own and wonder why "those people" can't do the same. We wonder why the highway got shut down. We wonder why so many young black men are shooting each other. Don't they know better? Don't they have anything better to do?

Too often, the answers are no and no. Too bad. Criminals need to be put away. They're messing things up for everyone else, particularly their own community.

This generation's civil rights focus must be schools and economic opportunity. We cannot sacrifice another generation the way we've sacrificed the two since Watts, the five or six since Reconstruction. Whatever it costs, give people, black and white alike, a decent wage and decent schools. Give them opportunity. Then expect them to succeed.

Here's a benchmark: Make Michael Brown's alma mater, Normandy High School, the best high school in St. Louis. That is a goal worthy of a great city. When we achieve it, we can say we've begun to learn what Ferguson was all about.

REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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