One year after Michael Brown's death, the lessons of Ferguson still haunt us: Even when police violence is caught on video, "most of the nation still doesn’t really care"

Salon speaks to Darnell Hunt, author of a book on the '92 L.A. riots, on racism, police brutality and civil protest

Published August 4, 2015 3:25PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jeff Roberson)
(AP/Jeff Roberson)

On Sunday it will have been a year since Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, by white police officer Darren Wilson. The killing itself provoked violent protests, and a grand jury’s decision in November not to indict Wilson unleashed another wave of unrest. At least superficially, the events resembled, on a much smaller scale, the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King.

Pretty much everyone who pays attention knows about this, but the echoes are harder to interpret. And the unrest in Ferguson has been reinforced by similar killings in Charleston, Baltimore, and elsewhere. Has the last year or so of highly publicized police killings of black men led us to a new understanding of race, law enforcement, or urban crime? Are black and white people seeing these events similarly? Will African-Americans ever trust police to treat them fairly?

Salon spoke to Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociologist who watched the violence in L.A. unfold. He is the author of “Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’: Race, Seeing, and Resistance.”

Has the killing of Michael Brown, one year later, changed the way we, as a society, look at race? Has it changed the way we look at ourselves? At police violence? What kind of impact has it had in the year since it happened?

Well, I think the biggest impact has probably been with the continuing raising of awareness, and the mobilization of African Americans and other minority groups who feel like they’ve been on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, when it comes to police justice, to being targeted and profiled by the police.

There have been a number of movements. Most notably would have to be the Black Lives Matter movement (which really came out of the Trayvon Martin case after the acquittal of George Zimmerman). But it certainly has grown with each additional incident like Ferguson.

After Ferguson, there was the Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore, and Walter Scott being shot in the back in South Carolina. There have been a number of incidents like this, that have involved either police profiling or some combination of police profiling and the use of excessive force. Questions have been raised of whether the police officers should be indicted for murder, or whether the police authorities were going to try to rationalize an excuse for policing tactics.

So the question is, of course: what is the proper role of the police in society? How is the African American community viewed? Particularly black males, who are viewed as a threat that needs to be contained by the police, where any type of force has been justified in those types of encounters. So this is the ongoing debate, and really prepping for black youth in particular. Millennials have really been behind this movement, and other generations as well, but they, in many ways, have been the most immediate targets of these police practices. They’ve been very engaged in the year or so post-Ferguson.

Black people have probably known that there were problems with the way the police treat them — there’s been talk about racial profiling for years, and the discussion of driving while black, etc. Did this confirm the problem for African-Americans, or did it spread the news to people who were skeptical that this was happening? Tell us something we didn’t know about the way police treat urban minorities?

I know that following the Trayvon Martin incident, there were a number of opinion polls that showed a huge divergence between white Americans and black Americans regarding the meaning of the case: Whites, for the most part, felt that blacks were blowing it out of proportion, that it wasn’t this stunning indicator of racial inequality or the targeting of African-American youth, that it was an isolated incident, that maybe there were circumstances that warranted what George Zimmerman did, etc.

I myself haven’t seen similar surveys with results that indicate real movement in terms of this divergence. It almost goes back to what happened decades ago, with the O.J. Simpson case. What it really boiled down to was this overarching perspective that African Americans have about the criminal justice system, which I refer to in my book as the “Just-Us System,” meaning that African Americans are not only singled out, but dealt with differently. They’re often seen as direct targets, and the burden of proof is on them to prove that they’ve been wrong, as opposed to the other way around. Whereas white Americans, for the most part function under the assumption that the police are there to protect and serve, and with these claims of targeting, a person must have done something wrong, because after all the system is okay. So that fundamental difference in views of reality have shaped the way African Americans versus other groups have responded to these incidents when they occur.

To get back to your original question, I don’t know that much has changed in that regard, despite the fact that we’ve had a series of high-profile cases involving the targeting of young black men by police officers, and with various types of outcomes. Obviously in the Ferguson case, the grand jury decided not to indict, and it was later learned of course that the prosecutor was quite zealous in protecting, as opposed to prosecuting [the officer]. And then later the U.S. Justice Department came in and said, “lo and behold, there appears to be discrimination against African Americans in Ferguson, there appears to be practices of unlawful conduct,” etc.

In the Freddie Gray case, there were some differences, I suppose, in that Baltimore was trying to learn from the lessons of Ferguson, albeit not as successfully as they had hoped. Even so, at least the prosecutor's response was quite different from what we saw in Ferguson.

I’m a professor at UCLA, and one of the things that has been very palpable to me has been the sense of malaise among black students. They were distraught by the whole thing, to the point where we had to have teach-ins, and we’re organizing a series of courses. We just felt like the atmosphere in America is somewhat toxic as it pertains to the prospects of black youth who hope to just live their lives peacefully and walk down the street without being targeted.

We’re talking about students who are otherwise the “talented tenth.” You still feel that they’re not full citizens, and there’s no justice for their peers who may not be quite as fortunate as them, and they have a linked fate -- that they similarly could be profiled and targeted. And then they think about being on a college campus, where they’re underrepresented, and they don’t feel fully part of the campus community in the same way because there are ways in which policies which have restricted the use of affirmative action have undermined the diversity of the campus. So you have this racial climate that feels similar to what they get when they look at the nation as a whole, with these incidents occurring all over the place.

Some people have compared the unrest, in the sense of grief and betrayal, to the L.A. riots, and you were in L.A. at that point. Ferguson is much smaller than L.A., but do you see it being similar in its impact or its causes? Or is it entirely different? How do you compare them?

There are certainly similarities; the biggest similarity being you always have in urban unrest a series of events that occur that lead to simmering in-bursts, so to speak, in terms of tensions. Then all of a sudden, something happens that triggers the actual unrest or uprising. So of course in L.A. it was the news of the acquittal of the officer of the Rodney King beating, and in Ferguson, it was the stubborn stance of the police, to not acknowledge that a wrong occurred: they had the guy’s body laying out in the middle of the street, there were reports that memorials that had been erected in the name of Michael Brown had been defaced by police. There were military tactics being used in Ferguson, and reporters being arrested, and all these things just exacerbated the tensions, and led to the prolonging of the unrest.

And it’s been very similar, in terms of the stance of the police. Darryl Gates in L.A. in 1992… similarly it was a standoff more or less between the community and the police, as opposed to an attempt to generate a dialogue and to acknowledge that something wrong had occurred that needed to be addressed systematically.

So it took, again, a commission report in 1992 in the same way that it took the Justice Department investigation in Ferguson, to at least get to the point of acknowledging that something wrong had happened, so how can we work towards resolving it? At that point, of course, you already have the unrest, because members of the community are fed up, and it’s not only the last straw, it confirms their lingering sense of injustice, of being second-class citizens. So I think you have those commonalities between Los Angeles and Ferguson.

Was there some kind of new consensus, or re-thinking that came out of the Rodney King riots, that can be applied to this series of recent events? With Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray-- it seems that every week there’s a new case. Do you think there’s any way American society at large is rethinking this? Or are we just getting more polarized?

I think that there is the potential to refashion the way we think about minority-community relations. But the progress has been glacial; we’re talking about the 50-year anniversary of Watts coming up, and we’re still having this conversation. On the other hand, the McCone Commission, which tried to understand and study the Watts uprising, was notably tone-deaf when it came to underlying racial conditions. They talked about a bunch of other conditions, from the education problems, to the unemployment problems, but the whole frame of race was notably downplayed in the report. It’s almost laughable, 50 years later, to think that this report could be written, not acknowledging the racial tensions that directly led to what happened in 1965.

Even in an era of “post-race,” as this era is often thought of because of the election of Obama, anyone who was to prematurely believe that we are beyond race would have to revisit the whole idea, given what’s been happening in the last couple of years with black men and police brutality. That said, I think there’s been many major technological changes since 1965, and certainly since 1992, especially since the whole thing was triggered by a videotape: If it hadn’t been for that videotape, which was made possible by the recent introduction of camcorder technology, we wouldn’t be having a conversation about 1992. I don’t think the Rodney King case would have ever risen to the level where the whole nation was riveted by the outcome of that trial. It was only because of the videotape and the fact that everyone saw it. In 1965, there was no videotape.

The Internet perhaps is doing the same thing here, especially with Charleston.

Yes, it has been, even with the Eric Garner case, which was caught using a smartphone video camera. So, again, were it not for that technology, we wouldn’t be talking about any of these cases. Only recently, in America, have most of us actually been privy to the actual footage, and have the words and complaints of those who were victims or observers actually taken seriously as evidence, in ways we haven’t had in the past. It used to be the word of the police versus the word of whoever and the police typically won out.

To go back to your original question, I think there is a linkage between the technology and the original questions you were asking.

I think that, for most African Americans, it’s kind of come as a slap in the face: finally, we have visual evidence, and most of the nation still doesn’t really care, or doesn’t quite get it. In the past, it was one person’s word against another’s, and they could be accused of exaggerating, but most black Americans believe, “okay, we have video evidence. What else do you need?”

Maybe what it boils down to is that we just don’t value black lives; they’re not seen as important. [Despite] the Black Lives Matter movement saying our lives matter, too. Again, I haven’t seen recent surveys, but if I take the Trayvon Martin case as a point of reference, there was this huge racial divide, and it’s a product of different racial frames of what reality is. Like I said before, most white Americans do in fact believe that the police are there to protect and to serve, and it would really take a lot for them to give up faith in that particular sense of security.

Meanwhile, African Americans never had that sense; the police were always an occupying force, who, even before we had video and other evidence, we knew by either word of mouth or personal experience that the police were acting this way.

So I don’t know that increased polarization is the right word, because I don’t know that we’re pulling further and further apart. I think we’re just reinforcing a difference of perspective that’s always been there. I think there is the possibility that we could come closer together, in terms of our views of reality aligning, but like I said it’s a glacial process. How much of this will it take before we get there?

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Ferguson Mo. L.a. Riots Michael Brown