Memorializing Unfinished Business: Remembering Ferguson, Watts, and More

Michael Brown Memorial, Ferguson MO
Photo from Newsweek Magazine
Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. His death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson was the spark that lit the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has cast this country’s attention firmly on the ongoing problem of police-community relations, police violence, and racial economic disparity all over again. Tomorrow, meanwhile, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots of 1965, a massive outburst of pent-up anger and frustration by African Americans in the crowded Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Coming only days after Lyndon Johnson’s landmark Voting Rights Act was signed, it signaled a new front in the Civil Rights Movement which took the struggle into the complex and difficult landscape of the urban north.
That these two events occur within days of one another is, of course, coincidence, but not an extraordinary one: the history of racial violence in American cities – especially during the hot summer months – is so replete with examples that it’s not hard to find such intersections. As far back as the tense 1910s and 1920s – and in locations as diverse as LA, Tulsa, Chicago, Boston and DC – the ‘race riot’ is a powerful symbol of the very deep racial divisions that continue to haunt the north. This year, as the issue of Confederate symbols and symbols of Southern slavery are heavily debated, it is worth thinking also about the very real lack of memorials and public exhibits on northern race relations and the violence that is so frequently caused by them.
Like Ferguson, the Watts section of Los Angeles was as predominantly black community, with a predominantly white police force, that had silently suffered the sting of segregation for decades. This was not Jim Crow segregation; there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs (or at least none with the backing of local law), and African Americans had legal equality in California. What Watts suffered from was a problem much harder to identify and attack: institutionalized racist policy that hid itself behind real estate agents, housing law, and coded language so as to avoid the obvious markers of racism while retaining its hierarchical reality. It was not alone: in virtually every major northern city – especially those like LA that had been major destinations of African Americans leaving the South during the two Great Migrations of the 20th century – this ‘hidden segregation’ (which was anything but hidden) controlled settlement patterns, employment, education and crime.
Nickerson Gardens Projects – Names of the Dead
Photo from Los Angeles Times
Also like Ferguson, the spark that lit the fuse was not a clear cut case of racial discrimination, but a complicated, morally gray interaction between police and citizen where the system revealed itself in assumptions and reactions more than in the actions themselves. On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye was stopped by an LA Highway Patrol car. The officers alleged Frye had been speeding, a charge he denied. The argument grew heated. It drew a crowd, and one of the officers drew a gun, fearing a riot. Frye’s mother, who had seen the standoff, emerged to see an officer pulling a gun on her son; fearing his life was in danger, she assaulted the officer. That conflict ignited the riots, which would take over 30 lives and cost over $40 million in damages over four days.
After the riot, President Johnson convened a special committee to study Watts and determine the cause of the conflict. That commission, led by former CIA Director John McCone placed blame for the riots on endemic poverty, housing discrimination that created densely-populated, inescapable ghettos, and a poor and segregated education system. Others saw them as the result of African American cultural or racial inferiority, while still others saw them as a Communist plot. Subsequent studies of subsequent disturbances throughout the 60s unsurprisingly back the McCone Commission report.
These findings are not unlike those of the Justice Department, whose groundbreaking report on policing in Ferguson found that police routinely and disproportionately targeted African Americans in the city for traffic violations and drug arrests, dragging them into a Kafkaesque hell of fines and court dates that were impossible to manage and which only served to drag people further into debt and the justice system. The extreme housing segregation of the St. Louis region – seen as some of the worst in the country – was also highlighted.
Rioters attack an African American lawyer during
Boston, MA’s Busing Crisis, 1974
They are also not unlike the findings of reports that studied the 1967 Detroit and Newark riots, or the wave of urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. They are not unlike post-mortems like J. Anthony Lukas’ award winning book Common Ground, which analyzed the causes and conduct of Boston’s 1974 Busing crisis and riots. They are not unlike studies of Los Angeles’ 1992 riots caused by the acquittal of officers accused in the assault and battery of Rodney King. They are not unlike discussions of race, economics and policing in Baltimore Maryland, the site of urban disturbance earlier this summer.
Despite these conflagrations, which seem to grip our nation at semi-regular intervals and which have left indelible impacts on both their cities and their nation, we have no public memorials to them. While the heroic struggle of Civil Rights in the South is memorialized even in areas far more associated with racism and segregation in the American imagination, the north has not publicly grappled with its own legacy. Months after a massive celebration of the march at Selma, there will be only limited, local acknowledgement of Watts and its legacy.
The reason for this lies in what we in the north tell ourselves about race: that we are not the problem. We can sit in judgment of South Carolina, and cheer approvingly as pressure from activists brings down its flag, but we live in cities deeply scarred by our own segregation. The South cannot avoid recognizing theirs, but we cannot bear to see our own. Yet it remains clear and damaging. That has been one of the biggest stories of #BlackLivesMatter: a new accounting of the unwritten segregation that has dominated life for African Americans in the north during much of the 20th century.
It is hard – if not impossible – to properly memorialize an open wound. This should not keep us from trying, however. If we truly hope to address the systematic roots of racism in the United States, we need to start confronting its legacy not just in the home of slavery, but in the home of redlining; not just in the cradle of the Confederacy, but also in the cradle of ‘white flight’. We need to take another critical look at the riots that are too often seen as base lawlessness, and try to understand root cause. Public memorials – of many kinds – can be a first step in that process. The opportunity for Watts has passed, but – unfortunately – there are many anniversaries yet to come. Hopefully we will not have to wait another 50 years.
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