The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We keep pledging to study the cause of riots like Ferguson’s. And we keep ignoring the lessons.

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The riots in Ferguson, Mo., over the shooting of Michael Brown, arrive at a particularly ironic moment—almost 50 years after the Watts riots in the summer of 1965, also spurred by one man’s encounter with law enforcement. That uprising, along with other mass urban insurrections in the 1960s, prompted a raft of riot commissions to examine why these outbreaks had occurred. What’s ironic is that they all came to the same conclusion: The riots were about far more than just the police.

Yet politicians ignored the important diagnoses and recommendations. If history is any guide, the Ferguson riots will teach us nothing. In urban affairs, it turns out, past is often just prologue.

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Riot commissions followed unrest in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, and many others. In some ways, they were creatures of their time. Besides foregrounding police brutality, some alleged “cultural deficits” of the rioters and instigation by conspirators. (This was the Cold War, after all.) But they also hit on important, and obvious themes—the deep grievances afflicting African-Americans denied the fruits of the post-war economic boom and so-called “affluent society.”

Commissions meticulously identified many dimensions of racial exclusion.  One panel in Cleveland, where the Hough neighborhood had erupted a year after Watts, listed “inadequate and sub-standard housing,” “charging of exorbitant rents by absentee landlords,” “non-enforcement of the housing code,” “sub-standard educational facilities as a consequence of long neglect,” “excessive food prices,” and “denial of equal economicopportunities.”  The report on Watts had similarly highlighted chronic unemployment, education, and health care resources.  It concluded with a searing call to action:

The road to the improvement of the condition of the disadvantaged Negro which lies through education and employment is hard and long, but there is no shorter route… Of what shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?

These regional reports culminated with the 1968 release of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.  Commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson a year earlier, the Kerner Report, as it was known, discussed the same underlying causes as the previous studies. It called for “new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto” and “unprecedented levels of funding” for themIt made clear that police brutality was a final intolerable insult in a larger cycle of everyday deprivation and denial of basic needs and resources. 

Shortly after the Kerner Report, the New York Times warned that “sloganeering, political promises, buckpassing and the proliferation of groups to study and restudy explosive problems will breed more frustration, more rebellion, more civil strife.” Commissions around the nation (beyond just Watts) had now spewed thick, authoritative reports, and public officials pledged swift action. New York City Mayor John Lindsay, who served on the Kerner commission, remarked: “I hope that it won’t be just another study, that it will lead to performance — and the key is performance.” Civil rights activist Fred Shuttlesworth called the report “the first real hard-hitting statement by a body that will be listened to by the public.”

But many public projects hatched in response to the 1960s riots were hampered from the start.  One dramatic example was the Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital, built in South Central Los Angeles as a response to lack of health care services in Watts.  Throughout its existence, the hospital fought budgetary shortfalls that hampered its operation until, in 2007, it finally closed due to mounting quality-of-care and mismanagement scandals. Meanwhile, the programs and “unprecedented levels of funding” counseled in the 1968 Kerner Report for increasing jobs, educational quality, and affordable housing, never quite came to full fruition.

It made clear that police brutality was a final intolerable insult in a larger cycle of everyday deprivation and denial of basic needs and resources.

Those failures of follow-through help explain why so little changed. In Los Angeles, the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King and the work of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, chaired by Warren Christopher, showed how urban policing had resisted adaptation more than 25 years since Watts.

Like its antecedents, the 1992 riots in Los Angeles also grew out of frustration with broader material conditions. They occurred after two decades of slashed social spending, economic stagnation, and fiscal austerity. When Los Angeles burned again, it did so amidst high levels of black unemployment and an urban development regime that some observers—most famously Mike Davis in his classic “City of Quartz”—argued had prioritized the needs of the city’s affluent at the expense of the most marginalized.

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What then, nearly 50 years after Watts, are we supposed to learn from Ferguson? The choice is a clear one, between concrete action and public policy on one hand, and endless commissions and “conversations on race” on the other. It’s great that the Justice Department will investigate the Ferguson Police Department, an agency that is clearly out of control and incapable of policing itself. But if this results only in a document that sits on a shelf, its efforts will serve nobody but the politicians and civil servants who should really be held accountable for the Ferguson debacle. This was the fate of too many 1960s riot commission reports.  Indeed, the recent conduct of law enforcement in Ferguson, the Bay Area, and New York City suggests that police departments are simply not learning from history.

Beyond renewing attention to the dangers of militarized and racist policing, Ferguson is a wake-up call for another reason. A majority-black suburb of St. Louis where nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty, it reminds us of what happens when mounting racial inequality and economic deprivation are allowed to fester with few checks. The political debate today is far more constricted than it was in the era of Watts, when full employment and basic guaranteed income were still policy options in mainstream circles. It is time to widen those parameters of debate again.

If we instead choose to sit on our collective hands, we should not be surprised if Ferguson, like Watts, replays. Whatever one thinks of militant expressions of discontent, it is hard to deny just how predictable they are when they finally happen.