In July 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, better known as the Kerner Commission, to explain the riots that had plagued U.S. cities each summer since 1964 and provide recommendations for the future. The commission's 1968 report, known as the "Kerner Report," concluded that the nation was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." The commission warned that unless conditions were remedied, the country would face a "system of 'apartheid'" in its major cities.
One of the major issues the commission examined was the conduct of police in African-American communities across the nation. Among its findings and recommendations, the commission concluded:
The abrasive relationship between the police and the minority communities has been a major -- and explosive -- source of grievance, tension and disorder. The blame must be shared by the total society.
The police are faced with demands for increased protection and service in the ghetto. Yet the aggressive patrol practices thought necessary to meet these demands themselves create tension and hostility. The resulting grievances have been further aggravated by the lack of effective mechanisms for handling complaints against the police. Special programs for bettering police-community relations have been instituted, but these alone are not enough. ...
The Commission believes there is a grave danger that some communities may resort to the indiscriminate and excessive use of force. The harmful effects of overreaction are incalculable. The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not to control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.
That was 1968. Is Ferguson, Missouri, the existential reality of America in 2014?
When the St. Louis County grand jury, after deliberating over whether to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr., decided not to bring any charges against him, it was the spark that reignited the longstanding anger and simmering distrust of the system among African Americans in Ferguson and across the nation. Their "cup of endurance" had run over. The inconvenient truth is that many African Americans see that decision as further confirmation of their belief that nothing has changed since the Kerner Report of 1968, and that nothing will; a police officer who shoots and kills an unarmed black man will almost always be exonerated.
The question of whether or not Officer Wilson could have shot to disable Brown rather than kill him is now irrelevant. To black youth and African-American communities in Ferguson and nationwide, the necessary response now is "No justice, no peace!"
To those reading this who may think I am exaggerating: Consider the recent shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy carrying a toy pellet gun, by police in Cleveland, Ohio. Ask yourselves this question: Had the boy been white instead of black, would the police have fired their guns to kill him?
It does not reduce the anger of African Americans in Ferguson and other communities that, nationwide, more young black men die at the hands of other young black men than at the hands of police. I don't have the space here to go into a more extended discussion of this issue, but suffice it to say that "black-on-black" crime is a contributor to the hopelessness that's so pervasive today among black men 25 and under.
Most white people in America, and many middle-class or professional African Americans, might say, "But why do they have to overturn police cars and set fire to innocent businesses?" I'd respond that such acts, though deeply wrong, are nevertheless expressions of the aforementioned hopelessness experienced by so many black youth today. Their acts of violence say, in effect, "You don't listen to us; we don't matter in your world. You have no idea of the numerous, ever-accumulating acts of disrespect by the police against us over the years. Unless you pay attention to and address the systemic hostility we experience daily from police, you will never understand us. Moreover, whether or not you believe us no longer matters, because we will no longer be ignored. You will pay attention to our pain!"
President Obama appropriately condemned the violence, saying, "Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk -- that's destructive, and there's no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts.... [N]othing of significance, nothing of benefit, results from destructive acts." He explained that the achievements of the civil-rights movement and the passage of the Affordable Care Act "happened because people vote ... because people organize. ... That's how you actually move something forward."
Unfortunately, I believe that these comments, though necessary, will have only limited success at easing the pain of young black youth in Ferguson and nationwide. Something more urgent and more direct is needed. The historic domestic and international accomplishments of the equally historic presidency of Barack Obama risk being overshadow and diminished by a perceived failure of his administration to substantively address the ticking time bomb of distrust between the police and young black men in our country today. So here's what I propose: The president and the attorney general should immediately convene a meeting at the White House of young black men and their representatives and the chiefs of police of most major urban communities to address this crisis head-on.
And the issue is not just a political question; it is a moral question. As such, it is the unavoidable responsibility of parents and grandparents from the" Joshua generation" to save our children. We are legacy trustees of the hopes and dreams of our forefathers and foremothers from the days of slavery and its ideology of white supremacy. Consequently, we have a responsibility, here and now, in this second decade of the 21st century, to put an end to the license to kill our young black men that police across our nation seem to believe they possess. After Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we elder "Joshua generation" trustees cannot say we did not know what was happening to our young black men under the United States' criminal-justice system today. If we don't act to save our children, who will?
The killing of so many of our young black men by police across the nation is -- to paraphrase James Baldwin -- our fire this time.