The nightly protests in Ferguson, Mo., are receding. Sparked by the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson, the scenes of protest, rioting, and an ironfisted police crackdown emerging from the St. Louis suburb shocked the world. But they shouldn’t.
From the Civil War through the early 1900s, what we now call “race riots” were expressions of white rage. Often spurred by labor strife, rumors of a crime committed against a white person, or fears of black families moving into primarily white areas, whites would set entire black neighborhoods to the flame, destroying property and murdering blacks at will.
That changed in Harlem in March 1935, when a black teenager named Lino Rivera attempted to steal a knife from a store on 125th Street. Rivera was caught by the manager, Jackson Smith. When the police came, they took Rivera to the back of the store to avoid a crowd that had gathered outside, but rumors began to spread that Rivera had been beaten or killed. When police refused to let the crowd see the boy, the incident took on a primal echo of the terror that Harlem’s black residents had come north to escape. Someone in the crowd threw something that shattered the store’s front window.
Alarmed, police attempted to disperse the crowd, arresting speakers and pulling one down from a lamppost in the middle of a speech for “unlawful assemblage” — a phrase that in Ferguson came crackling out of a police loudspeaker as a prologue to the launching of tear gas — which merely enraged the crowd further. The fires set in Harlem on March 19, 1935, would burn for two days, as thousands of blacks took to the streets clashing with police, looting stores, leaving businesses in ruins and several people dead.
A report commissioned by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia assigned the riot’s cause to racial strife and poverty:
This relatively unimportant case of juvenile pilfering would never have taken on the significance which it later took on, had not a fortuitous combination of subsequent events made it the spark which set aflame the smouldering resentments of the city of Harlem against racial discrimination and poverty in the midst of plenty. The insecurity of the individual in Harlem against police aggression is one of the most potent causes for the existing hostility to authority.
Harlem in 1935 would signal a shift in the nature of urban uprisings that would come full circle in the 1960s. Instead of whites massacring blacks, urban race riots evolved into blacks lashing out against symbols of white authority — and fighting for a full citizenship long denied — by targeting property more often than people. Harlem rioted again in 1943 after police officer James Collins shot black soldier Robert Bandy following a confrontation in which Collins attempted to arrest Bandy’s mother.
Like the Harlem riots, many 1960s uprisings were sparked by conflict between the community and the police. Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood went up in flames in 1965, after three family members were arrested during a clash with police following a drunk-driving stop. St. Louis fell into chaos that same year after 19-year-old Donnell Dortch was shot and killed as he fled police officer Israel Mason, who said Dortch tried to grab his gun during a traffic stop. Detroit burned for five days in 1967 after police tried to arrest dozens of people during a raid of a speakeasy. “The primary period of black urban uprisings, which was 1963 to 1970, nearly all of them were sparked by confrontations between African-Americans and the police,” said Thomas Sugrue, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Almost every single one.”
And the same goes for the two weeks of demonstrations — sometimes featuring calculated violence — that manifested in Ferguson. The recipe for urban riots since 1935 is remarkably consistent and the ingredients are almost always the same: An impoverished and politically disempowered black population refused full American citizenship, a heavy-handed and overwhelmingly white police force, a generous amount of neglect, and frequently, the loss of black life at the hands of the police. Yet we’re always surprised at what they cook up.
We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.
Even though Ferguson is 67% black, five of the town’s six council members and the mayor are white, in part due to the fact that Ferguson holds municipal elections in odd years and in the spring rather than the fall, when federal elections are held and turnout is greater. There are only three black police officers on its 53-person force. Nearly 90% of vehicle stops involved black motorists, despite the fact that whites were more likely to possess contraband. According to a report by the nonprofit ArchDefenders, Ferguson police issued three warrants and 1.5 cases per household, and the town’s budget is sustained by fines and court fees that make up “the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400.”
The people of Ferguson and its surrounding municipalities are well aware that they are used as a revenue stream. “You got lines of black people standing around the block, every first of the month, from one municipality to the other, when you got a family and you trying to pay bills and everything,” said Rick Canimore, a protester outside the Ferguson police station.
And the view of the demonstrators on West Florissant Avenue differs sharply from Ferguson’s white residents, including Mayor James Knowles, who said, “There’s not a black-white divide in Ferguson.”
Today, there are fewer Fergusons than there were in the 1960s, but more than is comfortable to acknowledge. Brown was one of four black men in the country to be killed by police in the preceding month, but only in Ferguson did the outcry grow into an uprising. Violence — often self-destructive — has long been an element of U.S. civil rights protests, despite the best efforts of civil rights leadership.
In Ferguson it manifested in late-night looting and the hurling of missiles at police. “The vast majority of people were here for peaceful protest, but some folks there, they were looking for a fight,” said Antonio French, the St. Louis alderman whose tweets and Vines initially provided the world with a window into the unrest in Ferguson.
Back in 1968, a report produced by the Kerner Commission — an 11-member panel convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson to get to the heart of a series of violent riots in 1967 — concluded:
White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II. What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.
“The police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes,” the Kerner Commission declared. “The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection — one for Negroes and one for whites.” The words sound remarkably modern, considering the protesters in Ferguson who chanted as they marched down West Florissant Avenue, “Who do you serve? Who do you protect?”
The spark in Ferguson was the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson following a confrontation in which Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson said Wilson told him and Brown to “get the fuck out of the street.” Ferguson police say Wilson acted in self-defense when Brown tried to grab his gun; witnesses have said Brown was trying to surrender. The belief among his supporters that Brown was shot with his hands up inspired a rallying cry in Ferguson and all over the country: “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
“The way he died, it was so bold, the fact that this unarmed man was shot in broad daylight, not only in the middle of the street but in the middle of an apartment complex for anyone to see,” said Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman from Ferguson. “It was just done with so much audacity, that it sent the message that the police don’t even care anymore, that they have complete free reign.”
Brown’s body was left on the street in his Canfield Green neighborhood, lying in a sun-dried pool of blood for four hours. And for a week, Ferguson police withheld the name of the officer who shot Brown — giving him time to scrub the internet of his social media presences. Then they simultaneously released Darren Wilson’s name with a surveillance video and incident report alleging Brown had been involved in the robbery of cigars from a convenience store shortly before his death — against the advice of the Justice Department, which said the material would increase tensions.
Police first said Wilson was unaware of the robbery when he stopped Brown, then backtracked and claimed Wilson connected Brown with the robbery in the midst of the confrontation. Whatever the truth, releasing the video struck many as a crude attempt to justify Brown’s death, and it ratcheted up tensions with outraged Ferguson residents.
Many of the protesters in Ferguson don’t believe Wilson can be convicted. But they have their hearts set on an indictment, if only because it would mean, in the eyes of their country and their government, that the taking of a black life matters as much as the taking of a white life.
“We will not accept three-fifths justice,” Brown family lawyer Benjamin Crump declared at Brown’s funeral. “We will demand equal justice for Mike Brown Jr.”
Police violence as both a catalyst and response is a fundamental feature of American urban uprisings. “A lot of the personal injuries that happened during the riots in the 1960s were as a consequence of law enforcement activities,” said Sugrue. “The majority of rioters in American cities in the 1960s weren’t killing people, they were targeting stores, and restaurants, or engaging in protests and demonstrations. Most of the casualties, injuries, and deaths in the 1960s were because of the actions of law enforcement officials, whether the police or National Guard.”
But if much of America has forgotten the circumstances of earlier urban rebellions and the devastating consequences for the communities in which they took place, the people of Ferguson, whether consciously or unconsciously, tried to anticipate them. When police forced protesters to keep moving in the sweltering Missouri heat, residents pooled their resources and handed out free water to marchers. When the police shot tear gas into the crowd, protesters showed up with gallons of milk. When town officials delayed the start of school, teachers held classes in the public library. When late-night protests descended into bedlam, Ferguson residents woke up early the next morning to clean up the damage.
Radicals such as New Black Panther leader Malik Shabazz, clergy such as Elder Cornelius Moore, and freelance mediators such as Charles Mayo literally placed their bodies in front of demonstrators to prevent thrown bottles or verbal taunts from escalating into full-blown clashes with Ferguson’s heavily armed police. The same young black men dismissed as troublemakers or “militants” closed ranks in front of West Florissant Avenue’s beleagured businesses, seeking to stop the small minority of protesters who turned to looting. A tiny woman named Sharmale Humphrey, who had walked out on the Ferguson McDonald’s during minimum wage protests last year, used her bullhorn to shout down a crowd of young men screaming, “Fuck the police.”
Those efforts were not universally appreciated. Fox News accused protesters in Ferguson of “forgetting Martin Luther King Jr.’s message” by “turning to violence.” King famously called riots the “language of the unheard,” but he also condemned the mayhem in Watts by asking, ‘‘What did Watts accomplish but the death of 34 Negroes and injury to thousands more? What did it profit the Negro to burn down the stores and factories in which he sought employment? The way of riots is not a way of progress, but a blind alley of death and destruction which wreaks its havoc hardest against the rioters themselves.’’
Yet the messy truth is that the role of violence in the civil rights movement is more productive than King — or most of us — want to acknowledge. Violence by blacks in black neighborhoods is certainly destructive, but the quiet discipline of the era’s nonviolent practitioners has overshadowed the black fury of the civil rights era and the fear it inspired. And King’s time was more violent than is often acknowledged, of course. Few possess the pious discipline to remain nonviolent in the face of oppression and physical assault.
Moreover, it was not just sit-ins and marches that finally moved President John F. Kennedy to conclude that federal civil rights legislation was necessary, but a riot — specifically, the 1963 conflagration in Birmingham.
King and other civil rights leaders had successfully pushed for a desegregation agreement in Birmingham during the spring of 1963. The images of the public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, turning firehoses and dogs on peaceful protesters are now iconic. Recalled less often is the bottle throwing and brick hurling that marred some protests, or the riot that followed the nonviolent marches, after the Ku Klux Klan bombings aimed at King and his allies. The Klan bombed the A.G. Gaston Motel and the home of King’s brother A.D. King. Black residents gathered, and when police showed up, the confrontation escalated into open clashes between blacks and police. President Kennedy mobilized federal troops.
Kennedy, pinned between the Democratic Party’s Southern segregationists and its integrationist liberal wing, was in a panic, and there seemed to be only one solution: “A bill to outlaw segregation by federal statute promised to resolve a hundred potential Birminghams from El Paso to Baltimore, and the clarity of inescapable tensions drew President Kennedy toward the relief of that single, huge gamble,” wrote historian Taylor Branch.
Jerome Smith, a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality, said that “unless the white man had something to fear — loss of life or his money — he was not going to give up anything,” according to historian Diane McWhorter. McWhorter writes that Smith told Kennedy “the nonviolent revolution was effectively over.” Kennedy warned the press that, if civil rights weren’t dealt with soon, “worse leaders” would take King’s place.
The fear of more violence was part of the catalyst for developing legislation that eventually became the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. “President Kennedy did not send troops to Alabama when dogs were biting black babies. He waited three weeks until the situation exploded. He then sent troops after the Negroes had demonstrated their ability to defend themselves,” Malcolm X told reporters at the time. “Kennedy did not urge that Negroes be treated right because it is the right thing to do. Instead he said that if the Negroes aren’t well treated the [Nation of Islam] would become a threat.”
Ultimately, the two weeks of protest that followed Brown’s death may require no more explanation than the fact that, as with Lino Rivera, Robert Bandy, or Donnell Dortch, residents saw the possibility of their own friends and family in the lifeless body of Michael Brown.
“Two separate occasions, my nephew and my sons and [my daughter’s] boyfriend said they were walking down the street and the police said, ‘Get the fuck off the street,’ just like they did [with] Mike Brown,” said Carmelita Williams, whose sons and nephew used to live in Canfield Green. “My children, my sons, and my nephew could have been Mike Brown.”
Protests began the day after the shooting, and in the early hours of that morning, the looting began. Ferguson police, geared up like special forces, responded to each successive clash with rubber bullets, pellets filled with pepper spray, wooden slugs, and tear gas. As before, rather than pacify the crowd, the police response seemed to only fuel the community’s rage over Brown’s death.
“I think clearly it was the local police department escalating the situation,” said French. “They took a very heavy-handed approach in the early days. They militarized the situation; it was a case of crowd control and they brought out the heavy guns. Whether you’re talking about the incident that started this off, which was the Michael Brown killing, or you’re talking about the first few days of the protest, it just shows how the local police departments here overreact when it comes to African-Americans.”
Much has been made of Ferguson’s angry young black men, tattooed, with their pants sagging and their faces covered in shirts and bandanas, the men who sometimes answered “Mike Brown” when asked their names.
But these men are nothing new. If anything, it’s likely more of them existed in the 1960s. In Harlem in July 1964, when riots were sparked by the shooting of unarmed teenager James Powell by police officer James Gilligan, not even famed King lieutenant Bayard Rustin could calm the furious crowd, which Branch writes jeered Rustin as an Uncle Tom. Rustin’s response: “I am prepared to be a Tom if that’s the only way I can save women and children from being shot down in the street!” When James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality told rioters they were merely inciting a police backlash, they told him, “We don’t wanna hear that shit!”
Fifty years later, walking down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson in the early hours of the morning, Charles Mayo would recall a similar experience after a night of mediating between police and protesters. “‘Y’all helping the man,’” Mayo said he was told. “No, I’m helping another kid get home tonight.”
Since Aug. 19, the nightly clashes between police and protesters have ebbed. That night, wave after wave of green-clad police crashed into the crowd seeking those suspected of throwing bottles or rocks at police, but there was no tear gas. Clergy and black-clad peacekeepers huddled with men erupting in tearful rage at the police, preventing physical confrontations. Even if no one was thinking about Watts, or Detroit, or Birmingham, those nights long past were present, as the protesters looked at themselves through the eyes of the world. The protesters cried, “This is what you want,” and “Don’t give them what they want,” not just to the police but the media, whom they feared were escalating tensions in pursuit of a good story, compounding the tragedy of Brown’s death by turning black suffering into nightly entertainment.
The protests began to subside even though protesters achieved few of the goals they were seeking. Wilson’s case is in the hands of a grand jury, but he hasn’t been indicted or arrested — and his supporters have raised more money than the Brown family. St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McColluch, whom Michael Brown supporters see as biased because of his backing for the Ferguson police’s militarized response to the protests, a previous police shooting that he prosecuted, and because his father, a police officer, was killed by a black man while on duty, has not been recused from the case. As in the past, the nightly clashes with police may have sustained the protests by giving the community something to fight against.
But that doesn’t mean this is over. On Saturday, the NAACP organized a march of more than a thousand people down West Florissant Avenue, chanting, “Ain’t no power like the people’s power ‘cause the people have the power to vote.” Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson and St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar marched along quietly at the head of the line holding an NAACP banner. The demonstration was meant to “show we can march in a way that is dignified, organized, and respectful,” said the NAACP’s John Gaskin, an implicit rebuke to the violence that marred earlier protests. “The first way for a community to heal is to show things are going to back to normal and not escalating.”
Brown’s neighborhood of Canfield Green has since become a kind of town square for black Ferguson. Residents gather there every day to talk politics and receive aid from Better Family Life, a charity that offers food, supplies, and counseling to residents hemmed in by the constant protests. Cars gingerly roll by a shrine to Brown, made up of melted candles, stuffed animals bleached by the summer sun, and dried flowers assembled around two traffic cones.
Some Ferguson residents viewed the violence as a necessary evil. “If you ask me, it wouldn’t be this big if it wasn’t for the looting and the riot, that’s what got it mainstream,” said Reggie Martin, who lives in Canfield Green.
“That’s why I love them young black boys, they might be white in they heads but the fact that they acting like white folks got a reaction from white folks,” added Isanusi Alimayu, one of Martin’s co-workers. Referring to the rancher who refused to pay cattle-grazing fees because he didn’t recognize the federal government, Alimayu said, “You remember Cliven Bundy. They got all them white men up there with submachine guns aimed at the cops — did any of them white boys get a scratch? Hell naw, because they Americans.”
This piece initially misstated the date of the Watts riots. It was 1965, not 1962.