When History Repeats Itself

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“If you know your history, then you will know where we’re coming from, then you wouldn’t have to ask me, who the Hell do I think I am.” – Bob Marley

August 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Watts Rebellion, which continued until August 17th, 1965. Similar revolt took place in several major American cities over the next couple of years including Chicago, Detroit and Newark. Set off by police violence and racism the nation would not see civil disorder on this scale again until the L.A. riots in 1992, which were a reaction to the Rodney King beating. In the past two years Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland have experienced similar uprisings as a result of the killings by police of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.

Echoes of the past are impossible to ignore in the official response:

Juxtaposed image of Watts riots (1965) and Ferguson Protests (2014)

In addition to the use of militarized force to the Watts Rebellion (and others that followed in its footsteps) President Lyndon B. Johnson formed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders known as the Kerner Commission. A quote from their subsequent report is instructive:

Image of white police officer frisking African American man whose hands are against a wall with a caption that states, "To some negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism, and white repression. And the fact is that many police to reflect and express these white attitudes. -The 1968 Kerner Commission Report"

Echoes to this sentiment can be found in the Department of Justice report following their investigation of the Ferguson Police:

Image of African American man with arms raised facing a line of heavily armed police in military-style clothing with a caption that states, “Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping.  The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race. Department of Justice Report of Ferguson PD 2015"

An excerpt from Chapter 4 of the Kerner Commission Report:

In addressing the question “Why did it happen?” we shift our focus from the local to the national scene, from the particular events of the summer of 1967 to the factors within the society at large that created a mood of violence among many urban Negroes.

These factors are complex and interacting; they vary significantly in their effect from city to city and from year to year; and the consequences of one disorder, generating new grievances and new demands, become the causes of the next…. Despite these complexities, certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans.

Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.

White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.

Similar investigations have recently taken place in several major American cities including Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Seattle with similar results. Will the current situation yield another Commission like Kerner? It seems evident that rather than learning from the past, America has instead been doomed to repeat it. Hopefully it won’t take another 50 years to recognize and rectify this failure.

Carl Root
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

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