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The Sixties Have Returned in Ferguson

They just refuse to stop. Over the past few weeks, veterans of the '60s — from religious leaders to esteemed Harvard professor and civil rights leader Cornel West — have been arrested by the police as protests continue in Ferguson and nearby St. Louis. 

The '60s have returned in Ferguson, as photos in a recent New York Times story make clear. Citizens quietly standing toe-to-toe with police in riot gear, a large group of protesters slowly walking across a street in St. Louis in the pre-dawn hours, and protesters of all ages, genders, and races marching toward the police department carrying banners with the names of not just Michael Brown, but also of several other victims of police shootings over the years: Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times and killed by the NYPD in 1999; John Crawford III, a 22-year-old who was walking around a Walmart store carrying an unloaded BB gun before being shot by police; 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers Jr

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 DarknessIn the introduction he wrote the following description of how Los Angeles and other major cities looked in those days: the riots “brought into focus the massive pattern of segregation in urban areas – a segregation so vast it dwarfs that of the South.” At least in the South, he notes, 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. 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. I challenge those reading these words to take a close look at your own city, and drive around to different areas and see this segregation for yourself.

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.

Keywords: police practices, race, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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