Author Carl Root is a criminal justice adjunct faculty member at Eastern Kentucky University in the School of Justice Studies.
“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 revolts 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.
The present stirs echoes of the past and the platoons of heavily armored National Guard soldiers and police in riot gear facing down protests in Ferguson are similar to scenes from the Watts Rebellion. In response 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:
Echoes to this sentiment can be found in the Department of Justice report following their investigation of the Ferguson Police:
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.