Externalizing internal explosions

Police Power and Race RiotsToday, we have a guest post from Cathy Lisa Schneider, author of Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York, commenting on the historical echoes of the tragic events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.

On August 9, police in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, shot an 18-year-old unarmed black youth, setting of a spate of riots in the neighborhood. The scenario was all too common, history repeating itself as tragedy in an eerie echo of the riots of the 1960s, and yet modern, an episodic response to the increasing militarization of policing in poor stigmatized minority neighborhoods.

Michael Brown had just graduated high school, and against the odds in his neighborhood was getting ready for college. His mother had worked hard to make sure Michael studied and succeeded in life. His hands were raised in the air when the police shot him, and then while Michael was on the ground and wounded the police officer delivered the fatal blow.

Ferguson is two-thirds black and the police force is, with the exception of three officers, entirely white, a racial disproportion common to those cities that exploded in the 1960s, and in European cities that have burned in the past decade. The other ingredients of a riot-prone city are a white administration and municipal authorities that are impervious to demands of minorities, where, as Stanley Lieberson and Arnold Silverman noted in their prescient 1965 study, “grievances cannot be resolved, or resolved under the existing institutional arrangements . . . such that a disadvantaged segment is unable to obtain recognition of its interests and concerns through normal political channels.” Most riots occur during a period of escalating police violence, often provoked by political candidates who win elections by playing to racial fears—in modern times disguised as wars on crime, drugs, immigration, or terrorism, or some combination of the above.

For stigmatized racial and ethnic minorities, no feature of a racially divided society is a more potent symbol of racial domination or instills the message of subjugation more forcefully than police. When police use violence against stigmatized minorities, especially when police kill minority youth with impunity, it sends the message to a community that their lives are not valued and the state does not represent them. It will not even restrain its own police forces from killing your children.

A community organizer in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, a neighborhood that burst into flames in 2005 after three minority youth were chased by police into an electric grid and abandoned to the death of two of them, vividly captured the motivations of rioting youths: “It was like they were externalizing their internal explosions. Some kids in pain cut themselves. These kids, instead of cutting themselves, set things on fire. It was like getting rid of all this pain inside and throwing it outside.”

Yet, while police violence against residents of poor minority neighborhoods is almost ubiquitous, riots are rare. They erupt only when all other avenues to justice are blocked, when residents feel impotent in the face of ongoing police violence. As the Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson noted of the 1968 riots in Washington, DC, “A riot is somebody talking. A riot is a man crying out, ‘Listen to me mister. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you and you are not listening.’’’

The opening of alternative paths to pursue justice, no matter how limited, makes riots unlikely. President Johnson’s Great Society programs in the late 1960s allowed cities to hire minority youth who cut their teeth on the great race riots as peacekeepers. The youths soon used their newly hewn organizational skills to create local black, Puerto Rican, and Chicano power organizations. By the 1980s they had become community activists, creating an array of community-based organizations and a standard nonviolent repertoire for dealing with police violence that included using the opening of access to the courts for minority plaintiffs. While victims of police abuse seldom win criminal convictions, they can appeal for federal intervention on civil rights grounds and sue in civil courts. Although families and communities want justice, not money, long legal processes exhaust everyone involved: community anger is channeled into the courts and off the streets.

In Ferguson, where police behave like paramilitary units, even such limited measures are unavailable, as Washington Post and Huffington Post reporters, Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly learned from experience this week after being pushed into a soda machine and glass wall at McDonalds and arrested for “not packing their bags quickly enough.” But settling police violence claims with taxpayer money is not a cost-effective method for preventing riots either. Holding violent police accountable is far more effective, as is shifting the incentive structure and system of rewards and punishment for police. Other forms of police/minority relations are possible. Residents of minority neighborhoods are much more likely to be victims of crime than predators. These communities need police, but they want police to protect them, not treat them as criminals. For police, too, it is safer and more effective to work in a community that trusts them and is willing to give them critical information.

In the 1968 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commision Report, investigators found that those who had participated in the riots listed police violence as their number one complaint.  Now, more than 45 years later, too little has changed.

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Cathy Lisa Schneider is Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University. Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York is available now. Read her author Q&A about the book here.

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