From Watts to Ferguson

The riot is still ‘the language of the unheard.’

Rick Perlstein September 22, 2014

Tear gas rains down on a woman kneeling in the street after a demonstration in Ferguson on August 17. (Scott Olsen/Getty Images)

It usu­al­ly start­ed with the police.

The only building in Ferguson that fell to arson was a single QuikTrip store. Compare this to Watts in 1965, which created a third of a billion dollars in property damage.

In July of 1964, bare­ly hours after the close of the Repub­li­can Nation­al Con­ven­tion that nom­i­nat­ed Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter, 15-year-old James Lit­tle Jim­my” Pow­ell was shot to death by an off-duty cop in an apart­ment build­ing vestibule on East 76th Street in New York. Just as in the shoot­ing of 25-year-old Kajieme Pow­ell this past August 19 in St. Louis, the offi­cer claimed that the vic­tim had charged him with a knife, though eye­wit­ness­es denied that. A bystander cried, Come on, shoot anoth­er nig­ger!” With­in hours, Harlem was ablaze.

That was the first in the wave of apoc­a­lyp­tic racial riots that swept Amer­i­can cities in the 1960s. Lat­er that week, in Rochester, New York, the fires start­ed after cops roughed up the very woman who’d called them in to break up a row­dy, drunk­en par­ty. The next sum­mer, in Watts, Los Ange­les, the most famous of the 1960s riots kicked off after police hit peo­ple with batons at the scene of a drunk-dri­ving arrest. In 1966, in Chica­go, it began when cops turned off a fire hydrant in which kids were frol­ick­ing on the third straight day of 90-degree heat. In 1967, the most tumul­tuous year, the first riot came after cops in Newark beat a cab­driv­er because they thought he was a Black Muslim.

The par­al­lels with this summer’s upris­ing in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, fol­low­ing the shoot­ing of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, are undeniable.

In the 1960s, neigh­bor­hoods or cities that were over­whelm­ing­ly black were patrolled by police forces that were over­whelm­ing­ly white. The same is true in Fer­gu­son today, where the force has an atro­cious his­to­ry of racial pro­fil­ing: Accord­ing to annu­al report­ing from the office of the Mis­souri Attor­ney Gen­er­al, in a city that is about 30 per­cent white, 92.7 per­cent of those that police arrest­ed in 2013 were black. Michael Brown’s shoot­er, Dar­ren Wil­son, learned his polic­ing on a force in near­by Jen­nings, Mis­souri, that was so cor­rupt and racist (a cop once kicked a woman in the stom­ach when she told him she couldn’t move her van because it didn’t run) it had to be shut down. Bla­tant racism, too, was a pat­tern in forces where police abus­es set off riots in the 1960s. Los Ange­les cops were led by William H. Park­er, who coined the phrase thin blue line” — as in, the cops were a thin blue line between chaos and civ­i­liza­tion. Park­er liked to recruit white offi­cers from the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta. Park­er explained the ori­gin of the Watts riots to an inves­ti­gat­ing com­mis­sion: One per­son threw a rock and then, like mon­keys in a zoo, oth­ers start­ed throw­ing rocks.” His patrol­men, mean­while, would begin tours of the ghet­to with a rit­u­al cry tak­en from a cig­a­rette com­mer­cial, LSMFT” — Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobac­co.” Only, for them, the let­ters stood for Let’s Shoot a Moth­er­fuck­er Tonight.”

In Chica­go, a Ku Klux Klan cell oper­at­ed inside the force, stock­pil­ing its very own arse­nal (which includ­ed hand grenades). The San Fran­cis­co precinct respon­si­ble for patrolling Hunters Point, a black neigh­bor­hood that riot­ed in 1966 after cops shot a black 17-year-old, dis­played a pho­to of a KKK impe­r­i­al wiz­ard on its bul­letin board.

In cities like Cleve­land, when it came to black neigh­bor­hoods, police sim­ply refused to police; though when blacks dared enter white space, they were policed with an Old Tes­ta­ment vengeance — like the time a bus-sta­tion porter was beat­en on and off in jail for four days, and made to bark like a dog, for the crime of sit­ting on the floor of the bus sta­tion after a tir­ing shift. The U.S. Com­mis­sion on Civ­il Rights con­vened hear­ings on the sit­u­a­tion after Cleve­land suf­fered one of the worst riots in 1966, which began one hot night out­side a tav­ern where the white own­er post­ed a sign read­ing NO WATER FOR NIG­GERS,” and bar employ­ees patrolled its perime­ter with shot­guns. What did they find? Cops col­lab­o­rat­ing with pimps; it has got to the place where­by a man’s wife or daugh­ter is not safe to walk the streets,” an African-Amer­i­can min­is­ter tes­ti­fied. The police chief said he was for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment to keep the Negroes in line.”

In Fer­gu­son, police racism is built in, insti­tu­tion­al­ized in the town’s busi­ness mod­el of using rev­enue from fines to pay its bills (and in the process, turn­ing some res­i­dents into unem­ploy­able crim­i­nals). The encounter with Ferguson’s fierce jus­tice sys­tem, if you are black, works like this: You have an over­whelm­ing chance of being cit­ed or arrest­ed by police, for doing lit­tle or noth­ing that is wrong. A report from the legal group ArchC­i­ty Defend­ers found that in 2013, the Fer­gu­son Munic­i­pal Court dis­posed 24,532 war­rants and 12,018 cas­es, or about three war­rants and 1.5 cas­es per house­hold,” an incred­i­bly high rate. Then you are like­ly to face a fine you can­not afford to pay — ArchC­i­ty Defend­ers cal­cu­lates that the aver­age fine is $275 — or a sum­mons to a court that is rigged against you show­ing up on time. The bench rou­tine­ly starts hear­ing cas­es 30 min­utes before the appoint­ed time and then locks the doors to the build­ing as ear­ly as five min­utes after the offi­cial hour, a prac­tice that could eas­i­ly lead a defen­dant arriv­ing even slight­ly late to receive an addi­tion­al charge for fail­ure to appear,” reads the report. Thus, you might end up in jail — with a crim­i­nal record that fre­quent­ly bars employment.

That Kafkaesque sense of futil­i­ty explains some of the frus­tra­tion that boiled over in Fer­gu­son with the shoot­ing of Michael Brown. But that’s only one half of it. The oth­er part is political.

Ferguson’s six-per­son city coun­cil has only one black mem­ber. It’s been much dis­cussed that the dearth of African-Amer­i­can polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been helped along by what has been described as the apa­thy of black vot­ers there, only 1.78 per­cent of whom turned out from one of the city’s black town­ships in a recent munic­i­pal elec­tion. But reporters on the ground in Fer­gu­son — and pos­si­bly the Jus­tice Depart­ment — should be look­ing at whether the pow­ers that be have been prac­tic­ing the sort of dark arts of malap­por­tion­ment that dis­en­fran­chised oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ties with siz­able black pop­u­la­tions in the past. Boston, for exam­ple, was able to defy a 1963 state law demand­ing school inte­gra­tion for near­ly a decade by elect­ing its school board at large,” instead of by dis­trict. And pri­or to its 1967 riot, Newark’s May­or Hugh Addonizio prac­ticed a form of urban renew­al” that had a polit­i­cal twist: By build­ing high-ris­es down­town, he was able to break up geo­graph­ic con­cen­tra­tions of blacks, to ensure they would have no polit­i­cal pow­er base.

Black Fer­gu­so­ni­ans have shown that they will vote when they have some­thing to vote for and know that their vote will count. Sev­en­ty-six per­cent of them turned out in Novem­ber 2012, when Mis­souri was a key swing state for Barack Obama’s reelec­tion. When it comes to local elec­tions, they might just be mak­ing the ratio­nal deci­sion that a hike to the polls is a waste of time. Even that one black coun­cil mem­ber, Dwayne James, has baf­fled observers by remain­ing mum in the face of the sin­gle issue now gal­va­niz­ing his con­stituen­cy, Michael Brown’s killing. He’s said only, Our city char­ter pro­vides that our may­or is the spokesper­son for the city.” I don’t want to be unfair to James — I don’t know his motives — but such qui­es­cence recalls the behav­ior of Chicago’s Silent Six”: the six African-Amer­i­can alder­man, dur­ing the 1960s hey­day of the Cook Coun­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic Orga­ni­za­tion, who were so in thrall to May­or Richard J. Daley that they didn’t even sup­port a pro­posed anti-hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion ordi­nance. (In response, wags dubbed the one alder­man who force­ful­ly advo­cat­ed anti-dis­crima­tion, Leon Despres — who was white — the city’s only black alderman.”)

Then as now, the nation­al polit­i­cal con­text mat­ters. Main­stream white lib­er­al politi­cians of the 1960s, flum­moxed that blacks would be ris­ing up at the very moment when so much was being done for them” (of course, the 1964 Civ­il Rights Act and the 1965 Vot­ing Rights Act only affect­ed the South) began mak­ing strik­ing­ly rad­i­cal con­nec­tions. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy said, There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes, the law is the ene­my.” Vice Pres­i­dent Hubert Humphrey pre­dict­ed that unless slum con­di­tions improved, and quick, there would be open vio­lence in every major city and coun­ty in Amer­i­ca.” He added a note of empa­thy, say­ing that if he lived in one of those slums, I think you’d have more trou­ble than you have had already, because I’ve got enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt.”

Con­ser­v­a­tives didn’t want to hear it — and piv­ot­ed off such pro­nounce­ments to fuel a back­lash. Rep. Howard Smith of Vir­ginia replied to Humphrey, The vice pres­i­dent will bear a grave respon­si­bil­i­ty in blood and lives if he tries to pro­voke minor­i­ty group mem­bers to riot for rent sup­ple­ments.” Dur­ing a 1966 debate over an open hous­ing bill, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Car­oli­na said, The record shows that the more laws that are passed in the nation on the nation­al, state and local lev­els, the more riot­ing and loot­ing we have.”

That soon became the con­ser­v­a­tive, and even the cen­trist, con­sen­sus: Laws to ame­lio­rate mis­ery, not the mis­ery itself, were the prob­lem. The bill failed — the first civ­il rights pack­age not to become law in three years. Then, in 1967, a new Con­gress filled with fresh­ly elect­ed right-wingers, borne aloft on the back­lash against civ­il rights, debat­ed a mod­est fed­er­al out­lay for rodent con­trol in the slums. It was derid­ed as the civ­il rats” bill. The debate became an occa­sion for mock­ery: grown men guf­faw­ing about rat patron­age,” rat bureau­cra­cies” and a high com­mis­sion­er of rats.” Rep. Martha Grif­fiths, a Michi­gan Demo­c­rat, tried to shut them up: If you’re going to spend $79 bil­lion to kill off a few Viet­cong, I’d spend $40 mil­lion to kill off the most dev­as­tat­ing ene­my that man has ever had.” 

Her argu­ment failed. The bill was slapped down. The next year, 1968, fol­low­ing the assas­si­na­tion of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., saw the dead­liest riots of all. In light of all that, an answer to the mys­tery is clear: Why would peo­ple, no mat­ter how angry, burn down what are, after all, their own neigh­bor­hoods? Because they feel so dis­pos­sessed that their neigh­bor­hoods don’t seem like their own at all.

The fire this time

But his­to­ry is the study of change as well as of con­ti­nu­ity. And there are strik­ing dif­fer­ences between the dis­tur­bances in Fer­gu­son and those in Los Ange­les, Chica­go, Newark, Detroit, and all the rest more than 45 years ago. For one, what we saw in Fer­gu­son was much less bloody. Vio­lence and prop­er­ty dam­age were more rumor than real­i­ty. An ear­ly pho­to of what looked like some­one throw­ing a Molo­tov cock­tail turned out to be of a man throw­ing a steam­ing tear gas can­is­ter back at the police. Despite the rhetoric of the Right — New York Post colum­nist Lin­da Chavez called Attor­ney Gen­er­al Eric Hold­er Eric the Arson­ist” for dar­ing to observe that as a black man, he under­stood black Fer­gu­so­ni­ans’ mis­trust of police — the one build­ing that fell to arson was a Quik­Trip store. Com­pare this to Watts in 1965, which cre­at­ed a third of a bil­lion dol­lars in prop­er­ty dam­age, or the Chica­go riot in 1968, which left two straight miles of Madi­son Street in ruins.

One dif­fer­ence between then and now, for good or ill: The 1960s had a set of black self-appoint­ed lead­ers who made a polit­i­cal virtue of arson and loot­ing. In 1967, Stu­dent Non-Vio­lent Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mit­tee Chair H. Rap Brown vis­it­ed the racial­ly tense city of Cam­bridge, Mary­land, stood on a street cor­ner, and cried, Detroit explod­ed, Newark explod­ed, Harlem explod­ed! It’s time for Cam­bridge to explode!” He point­ed to a dilap­i­dat­ed school down the street: You should have burned that school a long time ago!” So, prompt­ly, his lis­ten­ers did.

Stoke­ly Carmichael became a vir­tu­al riot cir­cuit rid­er, tool­ing through Atlanta telling milling throngs it was time to tear this city up” (they did), and announc­ing, In Cleve­land, they’re build­ing stores with no win­dows. I don’t know what they think they’ll accom­plish. It just means we have to move from Molo­tov cock­tails to dynamite.”

A then-mil­i­tant named Julius Lester— now a rab­bi and children’s book author — praised the work of a sniper in a city 13 miles down I‑70 from Fer­gu­son for cut­ting down what Lester termed known ene­mies of the black com­mu­ni­ty.” This, he said, was a move from self-defense to aggres­sive action,” just like what the Viet­cong were doing. Pos­ing as a wartime guer­ril­la strate­gist, he wrote, What is hap­pen­ing in East St. Louis points up once again the advan­tage of medi­um-sized cities, leav­ing Saigon, Danang and oth­er large cities for the last.” Despite the per­fer­vid pornovi­o­lent fan­tasies of Tea Partiers, no one’s say­ing any­thing like that now.

Anoth­er dif­fer­ence: Despite the awful, inex­cus­able respons­es of law enforce­ment now, what is hap­pen­ing is the palest shad­ow of the response of law enforce­ment then.

Take Newark. After the first wave of loot­ing and arson, the state police were sent in. Along­side the local police, they com­menced, as doc­u­ment­ed by a brave inves­tiga­tive reporter named Ron Poram­bo in a 1971 book called No Cause for Indict­ment, a ver­i­ta­ble turkey shoot. First they shot and killed a 45-year-old moth­er search­ing for one of her chil­dren; then a 28-year-old for­mer bas­ket­ball star who was shot short­ly after advis­ing his com­pan­ions to sub­mit qui­et­ly to police; then a young man shot in the back while run­ning from a liquor store. Nine were killed by the end of the first day. That went on and on for six days, includ­ing one group cut down by police who fired into the milling crowd even as the men began wav­ing their under­shirts like white flags.

The death toll from these acts of offi­cial ter­ror in Newark was 25. Newark’s white res­i­dents, mean­while, set up armed patrols at the perime­ters of their neigh­bor­hoods, promis­ing to shoot any­one who might spill over onto white ground.” No one was ever indict­ed in these deaths; hence the title of Porambo’s numb­ing, clas­sic book. (Two attempts on Porambo’s life fol­lowed its pub­li­ca­tion.) A sim­i­lar mas­sacre by police, Nation­al Guards­men and white vig­i­lantes unfold­ed in Detroit a week and a half lat­er, pre­cip­i­tat­ed when police raid­ed an after­hours bar that was oper­at­ing ille­gal­ly. The offi­cial death toll was 43. Then, such white ter­ror­ists were pro­tect­ed by their anonymi­ty. Per­haps it is because these pro­tec­tions are all but impos­si­ble in the era of cell phone cam­eras and social media that no one else has died in Fer­gu­son. The whole world is watch­ing, in a way that was impos­si­ble then, and the media is less able to fil­ter events. In 1967, CBS exec­u­tives decid­ed not to run a wrench­ing dis­patch from the funer­al of a beloved 72-year-old vic­tim in Newark, Isaac Uncle Dad­dy” Har­ri­son, fear­ing a sym­pa­thet­ic por­trait of riot­ers” would be far too con­tro­ver­sial. Now, such a funer­al would be a YouTube sen­sa­tion and Uncle Dad­dy a house­hold name. Sim­i­lar­ly, far too many eyes are on the street for even a tepid ur-estab­lish­men­tar­i­an Demo­c­rat like Gov. Jay Nixon of Mis­souri to get away with a pro-police affir­ma­tion like the one offered by New Jersey’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Richard Hugh­es, a close ally of Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son, after Newark: I felt a thrill of pride in the way our state police and Nation­al Guard have con­duct­ed themselves.”

From riots to mobilization

By 1969, the urban riots all but stopped. With a hand­ful of notable excep­tions over the years Miami’s Lib­er­ty City in 1980, Los Ange­les after the Rod­ney King ver­dict in 1992, Cincin­nati in 2001 — police vio­lence no longer auto­mat­i­cal­ly sparks flare-ups. In recent years, there have been many, many police shoot­ings of inno­cents: Think of Amadou Dial­lo in New York in 1999, or Oscar Grant in Oak­land in 2009, whose shoot­ing by BART tran­sit cops inspired the movie Fruit­vale Sta­tion. None inspired the lev­el of upris­ing of the 1960s, or that we saw in Fer­gu­son this year. So what explains the hia­tus — and what made Fer­gu­son et al the exceptions?

It cer­tain­ly isn’t that slums stopped being mis­er­able places. In 1967, a pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion led by Illi­nois Gov. Otto Kern­er inves­ti­gat­ed the roots of riots. In the words of the Kern­er Com­mis­sion Report’s famous pref­ace, Amer­i­ca would have to stop being two soci­eties, one black, one white — sep­a­rate and unequal.” That didn’t hap­pen. Slums stayed, and grew worse, but they also stopped burning.

In his 2011 book, Why Don’t Amer­i­can Cities Burn, the his­to­ri­an Michael Katz offers one expla­na­tion: The riots in the 1960s came in a con­text of cities under­go­ing rad­i­cal tran­si­tions in polit­i­cal geog­ra­phy as they absorbed African Amer­i­cans who migrat­ed north for (often nonex­is­tent) jobs after World War II. Dis­or­ga­nized, dis­en­fran­chised African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties were crowd­ed into slums, with mis­er­able results. Riots were signs of the strain of tran­si­tion­ing” cities. But by the 1970s, when riot­ing all but stopped, white flight was so advanced that cities like Detroit were almost entire­ly black, and most neigh­bor­hoods were either all black or all white, with­out the atten­dant turf bat­tles that fre­quent­ly drove riots as well. The cities and neigh­bor­hoods that proved the excep­tion between then and now more resem­ble that 1960s pat­tern: Lib­er­ty City was unset­tled by eth­nic rival­ries between blacks and Cubans, and blacks in Los Ange­les felt eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­placed by Kore­an immi­grants. So, in fact, does Fer­gu­son, which over the last 25 years has shift­ed from three-quar­ters white to pre­dom­i­nant­ly black. In that sense it looks a lot like Newark or Detroit in 1967.

Gar­ry Wills’ 1968 book The Sec­ond Civ­il War: Arm­ing for Armaged­don offers anoth­er piece of the puz­zle. One of its chap­ters pro­filed a polic­ing expert who schooled Wills inci­sive­ly on police tac­tics: how to cor­don off dis­tur­bances where they begin and con­tain their spread; how to de-esca­late vio­lence with less-than-lethal tech­nol­o­gy and tac­tics; how white politi­cians and police offi­cials could build trust on the street. And indeed, as the expe­ri­ence of New York City seemed to have shown, trust worked. In 1965, the year after that first riot in Harlem, John Lind­say was elect­ed may­or. Fac­ing a sim­mer­ing neigh­bor­hood dis­tur­bance in a tran­si­tion­ing” Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood, his police com­mis­sion­er ordered cops to keep their bil­lies on their belts and their guns in their hol­sters.” Lind­say him­self, famous­ly — it made it onto an episode of Mad Men — walked the streets of Harlem him­self after King’s assas­si­na­tion, calm­ing nerves, assur­ing res­i­dents of offi­cial concern.

Police forces, for a time, seemed gen­er­al­ly to be becom­ing more pro­fes­sion­al­ized, less cor­rupt. In 1970, Lind­say, inspired by the pub­lic­i­ty sur­round­ing Frank Serpico’s brave wit­ness, empan­eled the Knapp Com­mis­sion, which thor­ough­ly reor­ga­nized New York’s rot­ten police. Else­where, cities act­ed on anoth­er of the Kern­er Commission’s less dra­mat­ic rec­om­men­da­tions: Hire police forces that looked more like the cities they patrolled. The influ­ence of Stoke­ly Carmichael, iron­i­cal­ly, helped. Gen­uine black pow­er came to cities like Gary, Indi­ana, Cleve­land and Detroit, which elect­ed their first black may­ors. Affir­ma­tive action in the work- place helped cre­ate at least some sense of African-Amer­i­can buy-in with the pow­er struc­ture. The impe­tus for diver­si­ty came almost entire­ly, as the polit­i­cal sci­en­tist John David Skrent­ny demon­strat­ed in his clas­sic 1996 book, The Ironies of Affir­ma­tive Action, from cor­po­rate exec­u­tives who sought To Pre­vent a Chain of Super-Watts” — the title of a 1968 arti­cle in the Har­vard Busi­ness Review, which read: If the busi­ness­man does not accept his right­ful role as leader in the push for the goals of the Great Soci­ety,’ we will be increas­ing­ly smoth­ered by a grow­ing wel­fare state rid­den with riots and arson and spread­ing slums large­ly unchecked by the pro­lif­er­at­ing pro­grams for the unem­ployed poor.”

That means that some of the things that stopped riots then are the kind of things that are being sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly un- done now. (And the cities where riots have tak­en place in the inter­im — Mia­mi, Los Ange­les, Cincin­nati — are the places where either police forces or city gov­ern­ments reformed the least.) What busi­ness­man” now wor­ries about his role in cre­at­ing a great soci­ety? What cop, in our mil­i­ta­rized, knock-kneed post‑9/​11 soci­ety, wants to keep his bil­ly on his belt and his gun in his hol­ster? (Think of all those ter­ri­fy­ing images of the shock troops in Fer­gu­son, instinc­tu­al­ly draw­ing their mil­i­tary- grade rifles in their Robo­cop gear on women hold­ing babes in arms.) Then there is the fact that cops, mar­i­nat­ed in the same reac­tionary polit­i­cal cul­ture as the rest of the coun­try, watch Fox News, too. That San Fran­cis­co precinct house that sacral­ized a KKK impe­r­i­al wiz­ard in 1966? Think, today, of Offi­cer Dan Page of St. Louis, who became famous for shov­ing a CNN reporter on live broad­cast from Fer­gu­son, and was lat­er revealed to have record­ed a speech in which he rant­ed about rag heads” and the four sodomites on the Supreme Court.”

And of course, in all our cities, the poor blacks left behind by white flight are ter­ror­ized by our increas­ing­ly hor­ri­fy­ing mod­ern police state, with its full com­ple­ment of sur­veil­lance, incar­cer­a­tion, and all the nihilis­tic vio­lence that ensues. It’s good that we don’t have mass civ­il vio­lence,” Michael Katz con­clud­ed, in an inter­view with The Atlantic’s City­Lab web­site. But the ques­tion is: Why don’t we have more polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion?” Blame the hope­less nihilism. Blame politics.

Soci­ol­o­gists in the 1960s, reach­ing for an expla­na­tion of why cities were burn­ing, often spoke of the prob­lem of ris­ing expec­ta­tions.” It wasn’t that the times were espe­cial­ly mis­er­able for blacks, or even that the neigh­bor­hoods that riot­ed were the most unin­hab­it­able ones. Watts was a neigh­bor­hood of neat bun­ga­lows and well-tend­ed lawns. Detroit was one of the biggest ben­e­fi­cia­ries of Great Soci­ety largesse. But, in a time of dynam­ic change and an expand­ing sense of social pos­si­bil­i­ty, the frus­tra­tions that were all too pal­pa­ble — police forces that act­ed like occu­py­ing armies and munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments that wouldn’t give them the time of day — became all the more the focus of rage, pre­cise­ly because they felt so cru­el­ly ves­ti­gial. Riot­ing, para­dox­i­cal­ly, was at least par­tial­ly an act of faith: At least we can do some­thing to get their atten­tion. Or, as Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. famous­ly put it, A riot is the lan­guage of the unheard.”

So in that sense, Fer­gu­son feels like a sort of wel­come blast from that past: a place where hopes whet­ted by a black pres­i­dent who seemed to promise so much more than what he could deliv­er were dashed; where lin­ger­ing racial bound­aries in an inte­grat­ed” city are still the site of every­day con­tes­ta­tion; and where, because of all that, the every­day humil­i­a­tions of dis­pos­ses­sion and dis­en­fran­chise­ment burn, and burn, and burn. At least Black Fer­gu­son has expec­ta­tions. Maybe the rest of us should take some solace from that. Let the polit­i­cal mobi­liza­tion begin.

Rick Perl­stein, an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor, is the author of The Invis­i­ble Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Rea­gan (2014), Nixon­land: The Rise of a Pres­i­dent and the Frac­tur­ing of Amer­i­ca (2008), a New York Times best­seller picked as one of the best non­fic­tion books of the year by over a dozen pub­li­ca­tions, and Before the Storm: Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Con­sen­sus, win­ner of the 2001 Los Ange­les Times Book Award for his­to­ry. His book Rea­gan­land is forth­com­ing from Simon and Schus­ter in August.
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