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Heather Ann Thompson Headshot

The Fury in Ferguson and Our Forgotten Lessons From History

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FERGUSON
Joshua Lott via Getty Images

August 9, 2014, was a summer day that began like any other. It was hot and humid. Chores had to be done. Errands had to be run. For 18-year-old Michael Brown the day was also just normal. He was enjoying finally being done with high school. He was supposed to go see his grandma. And, of course, there was always the possibility that at some point he would be stopped and hassled by the police since that seemed to happen to quite frequently to the young men in his neighborhood.

But at 2:15 p.m., the normalcy of Brown's day was shattered when, on his way to visit his grandmother, not only did police officers stop him, but one of them also shot him multiple times. His hands, according to witnesses, were in the air.

Within 24 hours Brown's overwhelmingly black and poor neighborhood near St. Louis, Missouri, had taken to the streets. People came out in droves to march together in protest of yet another police killing of a young black boy in America. As they marched the community's pain was palpable -- so many tears, so much anger, and so much bitterness. As Brown's mother tried desperately to explain it to the media in the midst of her anguish, "Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Now many, because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don't got nothing to live for anyway. 'They're going to try to take me out anyway.'"

No, most of America does not seem to know. Indeed TV newscasters' original sympathy for Michael Brown has already begun to sour -- particularly as the peaceful protests to decry his killing have become more heated and passionate. Indeed, as community grief has understandably and inevitably turned to community rage, the media have not at all interpreted the growing frustration on the ground as either desperate outrage or forgivable fury. Reporters see only troublemakers and looters -- people who need to calm down and take the time to work through the system to get their grievances addressed. As ABC news pointed out as police began pouring into Brown's neighborhood in the wake of his killing, the officers were there "to keep the situation under control," which, it noted, also "entailed bringing police dogs in to the area."

And, so, seemingly overnight, the police who had been the bad guys in Ferguson are, now, the possible good guys -- the ones merely trying to keep the peace, the ones simply trying to keep violence under control. In short order this might not be a story about an officer who shot an unarmed teenager to death; it will instead be a story about the "fucking animals" in this community.

Sadly, tragically, incredibly, we have been here before and, clearly, we learned absolutely nothing. Fifty years ago, almost exactly this week, the black residents of Harlem erupted when 15-year-old James Powell was shot and killed by a police Lieutenant in front of countless witnesses. Then, little more than a week later, Rochester, New York, also exploded -- this time after the police beating of 20-year-old Randy Manigault at a community dance.

And, then, there was Philadelphia. From August 28 to August 30, 1964, this city too was rocked by massive protests. And these too also led eventually to everything from looting to the lighting of fires. Yes, relentless police harassment and brutality is what initially ignited the rebellion there; but it was the deep-seated and smoldering anger at never-ending and relentless poverty along with precious few opportunities for children that kept it burning.

1964 was, of course, just the beginning. By 1968, and in the wake of yet another murder of a black man -- this time the shooting of Dr. King on April 4, 1968 -- this nation had witnessed more than 150 urban rebellions. Each and every one of these had originated in the fact that we had not yet really addressed, let alone fully censured and actually stopped, the physical and economic violence experienced by black people all across this country.

And, we still haven't. Despite the crystal-clear conclusions drawn by the Kerner Commission about why the '60s had seen so much urban unrest, and what would happen if we ignored the lessons of the these rebellions, we are right back where we were 50 years ago. As this Commission noted without equivocation: The urban rebellions of the 1960s stemmed from specific triggers such as police brutality and, more generally, because "discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American." Indeed, this group of experts warned, if this nation doesn't "press for a national resolution" to discrimination, it will become "two Societies, One Black, One White -- Separate and Unequal."

These chickens have indeed come home to roost. If we don't fully understand the fury in Ferguson, rather than dismiss it as senseless urban violence, and if we don't move swiftly and concretely to ensure justice for the family of Michael Brown -- making clear whose violence started this -- then we are in for many more long, hot summers. Guaranteed.

 
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