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Echoes of the past: police violence and civil disorder

Stephen Menendian, assistant director, Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley | July 8, 2016

The shocking deaths of Alston Sterling and Philando Castile this week, accompanied by wrenchingly painful video, are tragic reminders that all the protests, national attention on race and policing, and calls for reform have failed to abate, let alone slow, the epidemic of extreme violence against black bodies by law enforcement.  Despite the outcry over the deaths of men and women such as Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner, and the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, 2016 is on track to outpace 2015’s outrageous number of police killings.

Moreover, justice and accountability has proved frustratingly elusive. Three trials have been held for police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray, resulting in two acquittals and a deadlocked jury.  An Ohio grand jury decided last December not to indict the officer who killed 12-year old Tamir Rice. This, after grand juries in 2014 decided not to indict the officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown or Eric Garner.

Some say that ‘those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.’  Mark Twain retorts that history rhymes rather than repeats.

The horrific shootings of police officers in Dallas last night in the midst of a peaceful protest signals a darker turn of events, and echoes the violence and civil disturbances of 1960s triggered by similar circumstances.

In 1967 alone, 150 cities in America experienced spasms of civil unrest ranging from major riots involving deaths, snipers, injuries, National Guard troops, and major property damage to less serious incidents marked with skirmishes and minor property damage.

Critically, these disturbances peaked in late July with large scale riots in Newark and Detroit. At the end of that fateful month, President Johnson convened a commission to investigate the causes of these events, and the Kerner Commission’s “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” stands as a landmark statement on racial inequality in American history. Consider a few of the inciting incidents described by the Report:

  • In Tampa, following reports of a robbery from a local camera store, a white police officer shot and killed 19-year old Martin Chambers in the back after a foot chase.
  • In Harlem, a white off duty police officer shot and killed 15-year old James Powell. The officer claimed that the boy attacked him with a knife, although other witnesses claimed the boy was unarmed.
  • In Los Angeles, a California Highway Patrolman pulled over 21-year old Marquette Frye for reckless driving. After an officer produced a shotgun, Frye’s mother attacked the officer, fearing for her son’s life, and a scuffle broke out that led to six days of rioting.
  • In Detroit, police raided an unlicensed bar that was the scene of a party for two black servicemen, home from Vietnam, arresting almost 90 patrons. This occurred shortly after black veteran Danny Thomas was killed by a white gang, and only one of his attackers were arrested.

Although different in the particulars, such incidents are all-too familiar.

In another frightening historical parallel, this month features the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. The 1968 Democratic Convention, held in Chicago the same year that both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and in the heat of anti-war protests, was marred by violence between protesters and police (with historians generally blaming the police for the violence). The city of Chicago sought to tamp down possible violence by denying protester permits, and by calling in more than 20,000 law enforcement officials, including the National Guard.

Already, the ACLU settled a lawsuit with the city of Cleveland regarding security restrictions on protest sites for the Republican convention this year. Given Donald Trump’s demagogic campaign for the presidency, featuring a litany of racist, xenophobic, and otherwise bigoted remarks, and the violence that has already erupted in several of his campaign events, it is not difficult to imagine how the Conventions may become a focal point for civil disorder and further violence.

As the Kerner Commission observed, “[a]lmost invariably, the incident that ignites disorder arises from police action.” This was also true of the 1968 Democratic Convention. Importantly, however, the Commission noted that, among the incidents it investigated, “[d]isorder did not typically erupt without preexisting causes… Instead, it developed out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a shared reservoir of underlying grievances.”  In particular, the Commission cited discrimination, segregation, disadvantaged conditions, and police harassment and abuse, as underlying causes. These inciting incidents then became the trigger, “culminating in the eruption of disorder at the hands of youthful, politically-aware activists.”

The Commission concluded with a wide ranging set of recommendations relating to housing, employment, education, and policing, only a handful of which were ever implemented. Little wonder the Commission ruefully acknowledged, in 1968, that “the conditions underlying the disorders will not be obliterated before the end of this year or the end of the next,” and called for a “commitment to confront those conditions and eliminate them.” And, in a warning that we have failed to heed, explained that “so long as these conditions exist, a potential for disorder remains.”  Little wonder we are dealing with many of the same issues nearly five decades later.

We must hope and pray that July, 2016 is nothing like July, 1967, but little more than a week into the month, we have a long way to go.


Comments to “Echoes of the past: police violence and civil disorder

  1. Republican Party
    Who is worse: Richard Nixon, Bush or Donald Trump?
    Psychological warfare (PSYWAR), or the basic aspects of modern psychological operations (PSYOP, Masters of War)
    have destroyed traditional family values (Legalization of drugs and pornography)
    Donald Trump Is Running for Richard Nixon’s Third Term
    From the ‘Silent Majority’ slogan to the secret plans to win the war, a prodigious enemies list, and a surreal commitment to ‘bring us together,’ it’s Tricky Dick all over again.

  2. Stephen Menendian’s biased, racist blog post relies heavily on confirmation bias, i.e. selectively choosing examples that confirm his racist bias.
    A Facebook post by a black cop in Florida is far more data-truthful and heartfelt:
    “Heartbreak weighs me down, rage flows through my veins, and tears fills my eyes. I watched my fellow officers assassinated on live television, and the images of them laying on the ground are seared into my brain forever. I couldn’t help but wonder if it had been me, a black man, a black cop, on TV, assassinated, laying on the ground dead,..would my friends and family still think black lives mattered? Would my life have mattered? Would they make t-shirts in remembrance of me? Would they go on tv and protest violence? Would they even make a Facebook post, or share a post in reference to my death?

    All of my realizations came to this conclusion. Black Lives do not matter to most black people. Only the lives that make the national news matter to them. Only the lives that are taken at the hands of cops or white people, matter. The other thousands of lives lost, the other black souls that I along with every cop, have seen taken at the hands of other blacks, do not matter.”

  3. “The testimony of a half-dozen black observers at the scene had demolished the early incendiary reports that Wilson attacked Brown in cold blood and shot Brown in the back when his hands were up. Those early witnesses who had claimed gratuitous brutality on Wilson’s part contradicted themselves and were, in turn, contradicted by the physical evidence and by other witnesses, who corroborated Wilson’s testimony that Brown had attacked him and had tried to grab his gun. (Minutes before, the hefty Brown had thuggishly robbed a diminutive shopkeeper of a box of cigarillos. Wilson had received a report of that robbery and a description of Brown before stopping him.”

  4. dave pacific, sorry about the name blunder I just made. BB needs to give us a grace period to allow us to read and correct our comments one more time after posting.

  5. Black Lives Matter movement is becoming a terrorist group committing hate crimes against the police.

    According to Heather Mac Donald:

    “Twelve percent of all whites and Hispanics who die of homicide are killed by police officers. Four percent of all blacks, homicide victims, are killed by police officers. So if we’re going to have an Anti‑Cop Lives Matter movement, it would make more sense to call it White and Hispanic Lives Matter.”

    McDonald’s research showed more than 6,000 blacks die of homicide each year. And that was more than white and Hispanic homicide victims combined, even though blacks are 13 percent of the nation’s population.

    She said the reason they are dying of homicide at a rate six times higher than whites and Hispanics combined is “because they commit homicide at eight times the rate higher than whites and Hispanics combined.”

  6. “Black officers account for a little more than 10 percent of all fatal police shootings. Of those they kill, though, 78 percent were black.” *
    But no revenue bump for the media to spotlight these intra-racial police killings because they lack the sensational racial conflict aspect that hooks and enrages viewers.
    The Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, however, should recognize this fact and along with Stephen Menendian should consider “hope and prayer” as too abstract and instead come up with solid proposals to improve American society.


    • Amen, to Steve Pacific’s recommendation for Berkeley to “come up with solid proposals to improve American society” before global warming destroys our opportunities to do so.

      We must focus on guaranteeing an acceptable quality of life for all future generations with the greatest sense of urgency or our academic system shall be a total waste of resources that destroyed instead of improved the human race.

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