The killing of Missouri teenager Michael Brown by police, followed by two consecutive nights of racial upheaval in his hometown of Ferguson, coincides with the anniversary of one of the nation’s biggest civil disturbances.
Forty-nine years ago this week, Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood erupted into a weeklong urban rebellion in the aftermath of a confrontation between police and local black residents.
Watts sparked national soul-searching and political backlash during the civil rights era. Coming just five days after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, racial violence in Los Angeles moved Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace more radical measures for economic justice, confounded President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to build a Great Society and helped fuel a conservative backlash led by two future presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Michael Brown—like Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell and so many others—is a son of the Watts rebellion.
During the Jim Crow era, African Americans experienced racial profiling every day, both in and out of black neighborhoods. The hundreds of civil disturbances—which some called race riots and others called political rebellions—that caused parts of the nation to burn during the 1960s were incited, in part, by police brutality and violence.
Almost 50 years later, we have a black president, but the political terror wielded against black communities by law enforcement in the United States goes on unabated—a ritualized expression of fear and loathing that finds black women and men, even our young girls and boys, perpetually brutalized by authorities.
At least the civil rights era gave us the Kerner Commission, the presidential “riot” inquiry that issued a scathing report, tracing urban violence back to institutional racism, poverty, police brutality and federal neglect. Of course, President Johnson subsequently refused to meet with the Kerner Commission, announcing a pattern of political denial on race matters that mainstream American politicians continue to mimic until this day.
The outpouring of anger and grief over Brown’s killing is a good thing. We’re often rendered numb by racism’s sheer inhumanity. This leads to counterintuitive responses: laughter that masks tears, stoicism that replaces rage, and depression in lieu of hysteria.
It’s important, then, to honor Brown’s life after his unnecessary death. He was just 18 years of age, college-bound and full of promise. His life matters, even in—especially in—a society that is hell-bent on insisting that it doesn’t.
Watts delivered an existential punch in the gut to America. It revealed the limited impact that legal and political legislation had on democracy’s underbelly, where black girls and boys played in trash-strewn neighborhoods, police indiscriminately harassed citizens of color and poverty remained an open secret from coast to coast.
America has collectively forgotten the hard lessons taught by Watts and its sequel, the Los Angeles rebellion of 1992, in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. The violence, death and physical destruction that took place were symptoms of a larger, national disease that King diagnosed America as suffering from in the 1960s.
King viewed racism as an all-encompassing illness that infected all facets of American life and distorted democracy and the very meaning of social justice. In truth, he spent the last two years and five months of his life after Watts delivering a powerful indictment against a society that spent more money on war in Vietnam than helping its own citizens at home.
On this score, Brown is simply the latest son of Watts—collateral damage in a war against the black, brown and disenfranchised faces that populate America, increasingly at their own peril.
This Thursday, I plan to observe a national moment of silence against police brutality—which will use the Twitter hashtag #NMOS14—and I encourage you to participate as well. Our participation represents a small but important step in trying to prevent the next Michael Brown from happening on our watch.
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Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.