The shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, policeman Darren Wilson has revealed deep anger and frustration among residents of the St. Louis suburb. But Brown's death, and the protests that have followed it, didn't happen in a vacuum.
Vox spoke with historian Heather Ann Thompson, a professor at Temple University who writes extensively on 20th-century urban politics and criminal justice and worked on the recent National Research Council report on mass incarceration, to talk about the tense and often hostile history between African Americans and the police in America.
Dara Lind: What does history teach us about what's going on in Ferguson?
Heather Ann Thompson: There are some locally important things about this, and there are some nationally important things. There's been a lot of attention to the fact that St. Louis did not riot during the 1960s, for example. But St. Louis has always had this very tortured racial history. In July of 1917, there was one of the most brutal riots against African Americans there — scores and scores of white folks attacking blacks simply for being employed in wartime industries. There were indiscriminate attacks and, in effect, lynchings: beatings, hangings of black residents.
So the fact that St. Louis didn't erupt in the '60s is almost an anomaly or an outlying story. Because St. Louis does have very tense race relations between whites and blacks, and also between the police and the black community.
Nationally, it suggests that we haven't learned nearly enough from our history. Not just 1917, and all the riots that happened in 1919, and 1921 — but, much more specifically, from the ‘60s. Because of course, this is exactly the same issue that generated most of the rebellions of the 1960s. In 1964, exactly 50 years ago, [unrest in] Philadelphia, Rochester, and Harlem were all touched off by the killing of young African Americans. That's what touches off Harlem. It's the beating of a young black man that touches off Rochester in '64. It's the rumor that a pregnant woman has been killed by the police in Philadelphia in '64. So in some sense, my reaction to this is: of course. Because until you fundamentally deal with this issue of police accountability in the black community and fair policing in the black community, this is always a possibility.
DL: This continuity from the white attacks on black citizens after World War I, to the rioting of disenfranchised African Americans in the 1960s, is interesting. Is there a relationship between those two and between the violence of private white citizens and violence of police?
HT: On the surface they seem unrelated: you've got racist white citizens who are attacking blacks in the streets, and then years or decades later, you have the police acting violently in the black community.
In response to all those riots in the 1910s and 1920s, civil rights commissions were set up in cities, and there was pressure on both local and federal governments to address white vigilantism and white rioting against blacks. And while it was not particularly effective, it certainly had this censuring quality to it. And then what historians would agree happened is that, in so many cities, the police became the proxy for what the white community wants.
So one of the answers is that police became the front line of the white community — or, at least, the most racially conservative white community. It's the police that are called out, for example, when blacks try to integrate white neighborhoods. It's the police that become that body that defends whites in their homes.
DL: How did this play out after the unrest that you mentioned?
HT: We start the war on crime in 1965, which, of course, is very much in response to these urban rebellions. Because politicians decide that protests against things like police brutality are exactly the same thing as crime — that this is disorderly. This is criminal.
And so, police are specifically charged with keeping order and with stopping crime, which has now become synonymous with black behavior in the streets. The police, again, become that entity that polices black boundaries. And I will tell you that one of the most striking things about the media coverage of Ferguson is that they are absolutely doing what they did in the 1960s in terms of the reporting: "This is all about the looters, this is all about black violence."
DL: It certainly seems that even before any looting actually happened in Ferguson, police were anticipating that kind of thing.
HT: Any time that there is urban rebellion, the way that it is spun has everything to do with whether it's granted legitimacy. Notably, when there was rioting in the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and you saw the police with fire hoses and police dogs, it was very easy for white Northerners, particularly the press, to report that for exactly what it was — which was police violence on black citizens who were protesting. Everyone's very clear about that. Sheriff Bull Connor is a racist, the police are racist, and that is why it is violent.
But the minute that these protests moved northward, the racial narrative was much more uncomfortable. "Why in the world would blacks be protesting against us good-hearted white folks in the North? And how dare they?" And what it means is that they were demanding too much, and that they were in fact just looking for trouble. So that narrative of who gets to be a legitimate protester shifts dramatically once protests move northward. It's all about violence, troublemaking, looting, and so forth.
DL: What's the response to a narrative like that?
HT: Even in the 1960s, you've got the white and black liberals who are saying, "Calm down, calm down, go home, stop this. Be peaceful." And the white community, white politicians are desperate for these black politicians to have that kind of legitimacy: "Please go out and entice people to calm down!"
Until black life is valued to the same extent white life is by members of law enforcement and by the criminal-justice community, there will be this question of legitimacy of the police and their actions, particularly among black folks who are routinely stopped. And then, people get angry. And then, people do start throwing rocks and bottles. But make no mistake about it: they don't have rubber bullets. It's never a fair fight.
DL: What we've heard from police officers is that the best way to prevent something like what's happening in Ferguson is for residents to already trust the police, to have a good relationship during so-called "normal" times — when there isn't an obvious incident. How has that worked in the past?
HT: It doesn't work. It isn't working. It's the reason why immigrant communities, for example, are terrified to call the police in times when police might be needed — for domestic violence, for times when people have been robbed or been victimized —because the police might then round them up and deport them. There's no legitimacy. The data is clear that the community knows, firsthand and every day, that the level of policing of black communities is so disproportionate to both the lethalness and the severity of crime that's taking place.
Most people are not being arrested for raping and robbing, murdering and stealing. It's this low level, oppressive policing of communities on the basis of marijuana possession. Low-level drug busts. Riding up on people. Throwing them against cars. Not because blacks do drugs more than whites, not because they possess it more, but because that's where the policing is.
DL: How does that specifically relate to what happened in Ferguson?
HT: For Ferguson, it's much more about the fact that there is an absolute unwillingness to deal with the core issues in American society about equality in the streets: [the principle that] a black citizen and a white citizen really do have equal rights under the laws. Black citizens don't believe it. They shouldn't believe it. It's not true that they have equal rights under the laws. It's not true that they have the same assumptions of innocence. It's not true that they have the same assumptions of peaceful countenance.
And so, Ferguson happens. A kid gets killed. On some level, it doesn't even matter what the circumstances are around the death. Because all that anyone needs to know is that here is yet another young African-American kid who is going about his business and he's now dead. Let's imagine that somehow he was hassling the police. Let's imagine that. Does that require a death sentence? If the same thing had happened to a suburban teen kid in an elite suburb of St. Louis, would they now be dead? Everybody knows that the answer is no. And thus, the rage.
DL: Some protesters in Ferguson are demanding that the police force should reflect the community's demographics. How essential is it to make police forces more diverse?
HT: In Detroit, in Philadelphia, in Rochester, in Harlem, and all those places [in the 1960s], when you have an all-white police force policing an all-black community, not only is there evidence that policing does not happen justly, but you have the perception and the feeling that you have kind of an occupying army in your community. I think it's kind of obvious why it's problematic.
But people misunderstand what it takes to actually integrate a police department and what the impact of that is. It's very difficult to integrate these departments. It took the rebellions of the ‘60s to put pressure on city officials to do that in most cities. In Detroit, however, even though there was a rebellion in '67, the police force does not really start to get integrated until 1973, when there's a black mayor. Indeed, he gets elected in large part because he is promising, finally, to rein in the vigilante forces in the police department and to finally integrate. It takes enormous effort to actually integrate a police department. And what seems to have happened is that that has really fallen by the wayside. Many affirmative-action clauses and statutes and pieces of city governance and university governance and certainly private business governance have made it very easy to not abide by integration rule now.
Even if police departments are integrated — certainly this has been proven in Detroit, and in other cities where you have many, many more black police officers — the problem is that police are charged with policing the community and particularly policing the poor black community. The act of policing places the police in opposition to this community. Even if the officers are black, that does not guarantee that there's going to be smooth police-community relations. Fundamentally, the problem is that there is so much targeted policing in these neighborhoods.
DL: Have there been any genuinely good policing trends in the last 20 years, or anything that police departments have developed to succeed in building trust with policed communities and policing them less?
HT: I think community policing has merit. The whole origin of community policing, which really comes out of the rebellions of the ‘60s, the pressure on departments to be representative of communities, to actually get out of cars and walk the streets and actually be part of the community — I think that was all good. l think it does have potential.
But meanwhile, we started a war on crime where we invested every last dime we had in policing and arresting and criminalizing behavior. Not just any behavior, but criminalizing black behavior. And once every resource went to that, that's how we go from having a declining prison rate to being the biggest prison populator of the entire globe. That happens because all of this attention and resources go to policing black communities.
DL: Has history taught us anything about how communities can successfully demand accountability from police after civil unrest?
HT: Unfortunately, everyone's immediate response is justice, meaning, "Let's arrest this cop. Let's put this cop on trial." I think that there's a much broader sense of justice that needs to be had.
For example, there were these killings in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1979, known colloquially as the Greensboro Massacre. This was when the police and the Klan kind of clashed with demonstrators, and people got killed, and it's really just a horrible situation.
They had a truth and reconciliation commission set up to deal with that. It's a really interesting story. What it resulted in was just pages and pages and tons of documents about what the community felt, and what the hell was going on, and who are these police, and what about the Klan?
Right now everybody's clamoring for this cop to stand trial and so forth. Is that going to heal? Is that going to change the next kid who gets pulled over and shot? Probably not. The broader question of how communities are policed and how black people are viewed and treated on the streets is fodder for something much more significant that the community needs to engage in.