The Sixties Have Returned in Ferguson

They just refuse to stop, just like in the late ‘50s and 60s.  Cornel West, esteemed Harvard professor and civil rights leader, was among the veterans of the ‘60s arrested by the police as protests continue in Ferguson and nearby St. Louis. Some religious leaders, also veterans of the 60’s, were arrested.  The photos shown in a recent New York Times story say it all. West said “We’re here because we love the young folks.” There was a photo showing protesters of all ages, genders and races marching toward the police department carrying banners with the names of several victims of police shootings over the years, including Amadou Diallo who was shot 41 times and killed by the NYPD in 1999.

Another photo shows citizens quietly standing toe-to-toe with police in riot gear. There was another photo of a large group of protesters slowly walking across a street in St. Louis in the pre-dawn hours. They were not only protesting the shooting in Ferguson, but the most recent one in St. Louis, involving the killing of an 18-year-old black youth by a police officer who was off-duty working for a security firm.  The police officer claimed the youth fired a weapon at him but witnesses dispute this claim.

They were also protesting the killing of John Crawford III, a 22-year-old who was walking around a Walmart store carrying an unloaded BB gun that he had just picked up while talking on the phone to the mother of his two children.  A revealing video shows two police officers who had arrived on the scene, shooting him after he refused to obey their orders to put down the weapon. 

All of these events are reminders of the ‘60s for another reason.  Virtually every riot in the inner-city ghettoes during that time was triggered by a police action against a black citizen.  It was a spark that lit a burning fuse that had built up over many years.  Arguably the best book about the Watts riots (in south central Los Angeles) was written by Robert Conot, called Rivers of Blood, Years of Darkness. In the introduction he wrote the following description of how Los Angeles and other major cities looked in those days.  He said that these riots “brought into focus the massive pattern of segregation in urban areas – a segregation so vast it dwarfs that of the South.” Continuing, he noted that at least in the South there was continuous interaction between the races.  Not so in large urban areas like Los Angeles.  These ghettoes “have become cities within cities, where the races never meet.”  White people wandering into these areas would feel like they “had ventured to Haiti” it would be so foreign to them.  Continuing, Conot notes that the most racially segregated cities at that time were Los Angeles, Cleveland and Chicago – not surprisingly the location of some major riots.  Throughout this revealing book, Conot documents the extent of racism within the LAPD and how their actions provided the spark for the riots.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we find that America is just as segregated as it was in the 1960s.  If anyone has doubts, read American Apartheid, The New Jim Crow and The Shame of the Nation.  Each of these books, spanning the past two decades, provide documentation of this issue. I challenge those reading these words to take a close look at your own city, and drive around to different areas and see for yourself this segregation.

William Julius Wilson, writing in his book The Truly Disadvantaged, observes that: “Inner-city residents have become more and more isolated from mainstream society. Such isolation includes being excluded from an informal job network that is found in other areas. One result of this is the growth of alternatives to the mainstream labor force, including welfare and crime, both of which have become more or less permanent alternatives in these areas.” Wilson further notes that “the social transformation of the inner city has resulted in a disproportionate concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the urban African-American population, creating a social milieu significantly different from the environment that existed in these communities several decades ago.”

The spark is back.  It remains to be seen whether it will result in what James Baldwin called The Fire Next Time.