From Watts in 1965 to Ferguson today, lessons on race left unlearned


An image from the Watts riots in 1965. Barbara Arnwine, who lived through those riots, says watching the events in Ferguson, Mo., feels like “a time warp.” (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Barbara Arnwine was 14 when the police barricades went up around Watts and the National Guard tanks rolled in.

“I remember being horrified,” she says, “and trying to go home and being told you can’t enter this city. My people, my family, everybody I loved was there.”

The August 1965 riots were raging, incited by the arrest of a young black motorist by a white highway patrolman, and a violent clash between police and the community.

Today, as Arnwine, an attorney who leads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has watched escalating protests and police crackdowns in Ferguson, Mo., she has an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself.

“We’re in a time warp,” she says. “Watts was bad, but this is the worst thing I’ve seen.”

In Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer killed an unarmed young black man on Saturday, community anger has been stoked by a vacuum of information and the use of militarized police units. There are always specific conditions that lead to racial disturbances, but a broader question might be: Why do they keep happening? Are lessons ever learned?

Sometimes, but experts say enduring racial inequality and police failings practically guarantee more wrongful killings and civil disorder.

“It’s a darn shame,” Fred Harris says. “There’s too much of this going on — police shooting people.”

Harris, an 83-year-old former Democratic senator from Oklahoma, has a unique perspective on recurring racial tensions and police violence in America. He is one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission, which examined the social inequalities that led to rioting in black communities in Detroit, Newark and 21 other cities in 1967. It also made recommendations to reduce police overreaction to protests, build trust within communities and increase racial diversity of police forces.

“With all that’s happening in Ferguson, I’m hoping we can go back to recommendations we had on the Kerner Commission,” Harris, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said Thursday.

But across the country, experts say, many police forces have yet to adopt some of the most basic techniques to curb the possibility of police brutality and subsequent unrest. These strategies include having police live in the communities where they enforce the law and building connections with the residents.

“The only way to stop these situations is before they happen, not after they happen,” said Chuck Wexler, a law-enforcement expert who has studied federal civil rights investigations of local police departments.

The response by law enforcement to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., is being criticized for its level of force and use of military-style equipment. We've labeled the weapons and gear being used by police in these photos from Ferguson. (Tom LeGro and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)

“It’s particularly important to establish credibility with the community, and particularly with the black community, because there isn’t a built-up reservoir of trust.”

He recalled what an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan once told him: “Make friends before you need them.”

“The default is to have this strained relationship between the police and communities of color. That emanates from our history,” says Lorie A. Fridell, a criminology professor and chief executive of Fair and Impartial Policing, which trains police to address implicit racial bias. “Where there is trust and confidence, that’s been produced with a lot of hard work on the part of the police and law enforcement.”

Among the trust-building tactics: putting out information quickly and owning up to mistakes, which, protesters point out, has not happened in Ferguson.

With 18,000 police departments in the United States, achieving a conformity in training and community relations is impossible.

“However, so much has been accomplished in the past 20 years and written about that today no department should have to learn the lessons that Ferguson has,” Wexler says. As head of the Police Executive Research Forum, he has worked with a number of police forces that have struggled with racial incidents, including working with the Cambridge police after the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in 2009.

Mary Frances Berry, a former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, oversaw several reports on police and minorities, including one titled “Who is Guarding the Guardians?,” which was revisited after four New York City police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, in 1999.

“We did all of these hearings on police issues,” she recalls. “The police said they were always afraid and — no matter how much training they had — that a natural reaction was to think about reaching for the gun.”

A questionable shooting is certain to cause questions and anger, but some academics also point to a broader context of inequality for blacks: more poverty, lower education and income rates, continued residential segregation.

“We remain a society marked by severe racial inequalities in virtually every sector of life,” says Rogers M. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America.”

“Any photo in which you’re seeing unarmed young black folks on one side, and on the other side you see police officers in riot gear, that immediately causes you to think about the dogs and the hoses that were prominently deployed against protesters in the civil rights era,” says Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University.

Those protests and later race riots spawned a library of books and reports, many aimed at making sure that kind of conflict never engulfed another American city. But, Berry said, “nothing changes.”

One of the first witnesses called by the Kerner Commission was a distinguished scholar named Kenneth B. Clark. He told the panel that he read several reports on past disturbances, including one on the 1919 race riot in Chicago, “and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

“It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland,” Clark added, “with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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