The Ferguson Uprising through a Historical Lens
Scholars Clarence Lang and Ashley Howard explain the historical and national context in which the recent protests against the killing of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, have unfolded
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Over the Labor Day weekend in Ferguson, Missouri, protesters marched and rallied to mark the three-week anniversary of the fatal shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police. Demonstrators also blocked a local highway on Monday to draw attention to the case. Brown’s family and supporters are vowing to keep up the pressure on local authorities to assign a special prosecutor to the case, among other demands.
Now joining us to offer a historical and national context to the events in Ferguson are two guests.
Joining us from New Orleans is Ashley Howard. Ashley is an assistant professor of African-American history at Loyola University, New Orleans. She’s currently completing her book Prairie Fires, which analyzes the way race, class, gender, and the region played critical roles in 1960s urban rebellion.
Also joining us, from Lawrence, Kansas, is Clarence Lang. Clarence is an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, a former Langston Hughes Visiting Professor, author of Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75.
Thank you both for joining us.
ASHLEY M. HOWARD, ASSIST. PROF. HISTORY, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY NEW ORLEANS: Thank you.
CLARENCE LANG, ASSOC. PROF. AFRICAN AND AFRICAN-AMERICAN STUDIES, UNIV. OF KANSAS: Thanks for having us.
NOOR: So I just returned from Ferguson, and one of the things that kind of hits you in the face when you land even at the airport is how segregated all of St. Louis County is. And even within Ferguson itself you see the deep divisions in just the housing across the community. And so that led to conversations with white members of even Ferguson that had no idea that issues like racial profiling were such a problem for African-Americans.
Lang, you’ve called this area a “national laboratory of residential segregation” going back to 1916, when St. Louis became the first city to pass housing segregation through a city ordinance and a direct vote. Give us some historical context. How did things get so segregated in St. Louis County and in St. Louis?
HOWARD: That’s a good question in terms of where it comes from. I mean, what we can say is that St. Louis, I mean, it’s been a pioneer in many of these methods of racial apartheid and housing. So there is the ordinance that you mentioned in 1916. There were restrictive covenants. St. Louis was a pioneer in restrictive housing covenants, whereby owners were legally barred from selling their homes to people of color or to Jews or whomever. And it’s no surprise that St. Louis, that area, also becomes a place where some of the landmark cases combating housing discrimination issue from–so Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948, which rules–where the Supreme Court rules that restrictive covenants are unenforceable in court; Jones v. Mayer, 1968; the city of Black Jack, Missouri, 1974. So there’s a long and infamous history of a very virulent forms of spatial, racial, and economic separation in the region, St. Louis city as its center, but we also see as well that occurring in areas of St. Louis County.
Now, part of it–a little bit more context is that the boundaries of the city of St. Louis are locked, essentially, 1876. And so, as in other cities, for example, where people would settle in unincorporated areas and the city would eventually annex that area and it would become part of the city, this is not the case in St. Louis, because by law the map is set in stone at the end of the 19th century. So what you have now are almost 100 different municipalities surrounding St. Louis, and they have all in their own ways replicated this very intense practice and pattern of housing discrimination as people move further and further westward and northward from the city to escape the problems, quote-unquote problems of the city and the populations of the city, particularly as they became blacker, so to speak, and more working-class. And so in that regard, Ferguson is a result of many different kinds of historical and social factors, but certainly it’s in part the result of this very deep, entrenched network web, if you will, of housing segregation, which is exacerbated, is intensified by the fact that you just have so many different competing municipalities around that city, which gives it a very fragmentary character politically, racially, and otherwise.
NOOR: And one of the reasons I brought that question up is that St. Louis County itself is majority white and it’s minority African-American. Places like Ferguson are majority African-American. And so the protesters have a whole series of demands there, and one of the demands is to get cameras on all police officers, which is something that police officers in Ferguson now have received and have started to wear them. So I wanted to get your thoughts on that, Professor Howard. This is a very short-term goal. And when you have statistics like 13 percent of the Ferguson police have been or are currently facing or have faced excessive-force investigations, certainly you have to say that that’s a good thing, that’s a positive step. But how does this fit into the broader goals, and as stated by the movements in Ferguson, of ending mass incarceration and stopping the criminalization of people of color?
HOWARD: Sure. Well, I don’t want to diminish the importance of it. This is a huge first step. And it’s hopefully a mechanism that will help keep police accountable, make them conscientious that people are going to watch them and watch how they police. But when we think about the problem of mass incarceration in this country, a police camera is really just a drop in the bucket. We really need to drastically rethink the structures and the perceptions that allow African Americans to be disproportionately–excuse me–African Americans, people of color, and poor people in this nation to be disproportionately incarcerated at numbers that are ten- and sometimes twentyfold greater than the average population.
And this is a context that’s nothing new. The police have always been used as an agent for social control in the United States. So people who go out of prescribed norms, people who are deemed to be threatening in some way, whether it be ethnically at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, whether it’s being outside of gender or sexual norms, trans people, homosexuals, etc., police have been used is very powerful way to keep in check those that society writ large thinks are out of the way.
But in order to have real and meaningful change, we need to think of not only the way that incarceration and policing take place in communities of color and among poor communities, but also the reasons why these communities are often disproportionately engaged in these types of activities. And this goes back to economic power, this goes back to political power, and this goes back to social power. People are often not participating in illegal events for fun. It’s something that is the circumstances of their condition. And I think that’s a really important thing that folks need to discuss and understand, and how we understand those perceptions of crime and the ways in which people are disproportionately stopped, criminalized, and just perceived as being criminal. And I think this is a very important thing to continue to remind ourselves here. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, the people who ended their lives had no knowledge of them committing any sorts of crime. However, they’re profiled, they were stopped, and they were killed because of who they were perceived to have been.
NOOR: And, Dr. Howard, how is the wearing of cameras on police officers? Like you were saying, that really is a drop in the bucket as far as what the protesters want for justice. How does that play in historically to what the responses have been of authority to uprisings like we’ve seen in Ferguson?
HOWARD: Sure. So, in the 1960s, beginning with the some of the earliest uprisings, in Paterson, New Jersey in ’64, you see police brutality as being one of the central core grievances and which participants in uprisings recited as one of the reasons that they’re out in the street. So police brutality is nothing new in African America.
What you saw coming out of the 1960s is people explicitly asking for control over police review boards, to have a police community relations oversight committee, and thinking about the ways in which officers could more effectively be engaged in the black community. So some of the examples of the things that came out of the 1960s were citizen-led police review boards. So if a police officer was indicted on charges or was placed on administrative leave, the citizens of that community would be part of the board to listen to what happened.
There is also programs which ask for more beat cops. So instead of police officers just patrolling neighborhoods in their cars, you have people on foot with the thought that you know your community, you know the people and who you’re policing, and you begin to build up a rapport. I think one of the most innovative programs–but it also shows the limits to such a program–occurred in Omaha, Nebraska. They had a camp in which young, mostly African-American kids from the black enclave in Omaha would go and spend two weeks at summer camp with police officers in this notion that this would get away of this notion of pathology or nefariousness that young black males carry, and at the same time build trust between young children and African-Americans. And so this was a program that was began in 1966 after the first uprising in Omaha. By 1968, this program had been going on two years. There was another, a subsequent uprising, and in that uprising, a young man by the name of Howard Stephenson [spl?] was shot and killed by an off-duty policeman who was working as a security guard, and both of them had been attendees at that summer camp.
So the novelty and the really far-thinkingness of these type of programs are only effective if we can truly systemically change the notion of policing and perceptions of black criminality.
NOOR: And, Professor Lang, I wanted to ask you about–we’ve seen the parallels made between what’s happening today in Ferguson in the 1960s. But what about the war on drugs? Why is that an important context to be discussing these events in?
LANG: Well, I think that this is–I’m glad you asked this question, because, I mean, there definitely is some continuity here. So, as Dr. Howard was saying, I mean, there have always been very tense relationships between communities of color, particularly working-class communities of color, and police. In that respect there’s nothing new about that.
But certainly the war on drugs, it does have an impact, and it does shape also a very particular kind of context. So there is a way in which African Americans–there’s a long, long history of black people and bodies being criminalized. The war on drugs, in its own way, it re-inscribes, it reproduces, it realigns those relationships. And in some ways what it does is that it intensifies the conflict that had existed for some time. So when you have a situation where you’re waging a war on drugs–and the war on drugs has been waged as a war, right, where you have the identification of combatants. And if the goal becomes to intercept people in the distribution of illegal drugs and you are dealing with a society where black people are already criminalized, then they become the likeliest targets of that kind of surveillance and control. And so we go from a situation where the prison population was, what, in the ’70s about 300,000, and there’s the leap and it grows to about 2.3 million over the course of a few decades, a disproportionate number of those being people of color.
So there’s a long context, but then there is also an immediate context, and the war on drugs and the way in which that’s fought, the kind of forms of surveillance, the particular kinds of attacks on Fourth Amendment protections, unreasonable searches and seizures, the ways in which when you have that kind of scale of incarceration and the impact that that has on the social fabric of black communities, where going to prison or having been convicted of a felony becomes a right of passage more so than even going to university, those are qualitatively different, maybe not in terms of the ideas that underpin them, but in terms of how they have manifest the scale of their criminalization, the scale of the incarceration, the scale of people being denied opportunities because they have a felony, the scale at which people are prevented in some cases from being able to vote, the impact that that has on families, the impact that that has on children who either are having to grow up with relatives or, in the worst-case scenarios, also being taken by the state in the same way that their parents are. Mass incarceration, incarceration, I would argue, becomes on a scale very similar to the mass migration of African Americans in the 20th century in terms of its impact on the economic, the social, the cultural life of black communities. The scale that mass incarceration has, I mean, it has the same sweep as the great migration of the 20th century. It’s a major thing.
And in some ways, part of the solution, if we can talk about that, is that we have to walk back those legacies, whether we’re talking about removing the black box on a job applications of people who have been convicted of felonies. And let me sort of add that most of these are nonviolent offenses as well, so we do want to be clear about that, even though we know and all the data tells us that black people don’t use or sell drugs at any appreciably higher rates than their white counterparts. So we have to undo those legacies.
And we might have an opportunity, because we are in a period of austerity, that that might create the opportunity for people to argue that in the same way that we build bridges or roads, that maybe we can’t afford any longer to sustain this large carceral system, one hopes. I mean, I think that there is an opening, perhaps, to make that argument, and I know that in communities around the nation people are on the move, arguing about, I think, sort of arguing for various kinds of reforms. So that context is very, very pertinent here, I think, the immediate context of the war on drugs.
NOOR: Well, Professor Lang, I think that’s a great part to wrap up part one of our discussion. We still have a lot more to discuss, so I hope you can both stay with us. Thank you both for joining us, Professor Ashley Howard and Professor Clarence Lang.
And we’re going to continue this discussion, and you can catch it at TheRealNews.com. Thank you so much for joining us.
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