ST. LOUIS — McKendree University political scientist Ann Collins began researching American race riots in 2000 while she was a graduate student at Washington University.
At the time she lived in Bel-Nor, Mo., about three miles south of the of looting and protesting in Ferguson that erupted after Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer.
Collins is the author of “All Hell Broke Loose,” which examines dozens of race riots from the early part of the century, chiefly led by whites. During World War I, for example, whites rioted when African-American soldiers began to more forcefully assert their rights as citizens in the military. Some 25 riots broke out in 1919 alone in what was called the Red Summer.
Collins is currently writing a book on 1964 race rioting titled “The Dawn Broke Hot and Somber.” It was a year when blacks responded violently to white oppression and allegations of white police misconduct.
Collins said Brown’s shooting is strikingly similar to an incident that sparked the 1964 Harlem riots, one year prior to the Los Angeles Watts riots. On July 16, 1964, New York Police Department Lt. Thomas Gilligan shot and killed James Powell, 15. The police officer alleged the boy lunged at him with a knife. Others say the boy was merely playing with friends. Prosecutors declined to charge the police officer, sparking six days of riots.
Collins has found rioting typically erupts in a community dealing with haves and have-nots; some form of economic turmoil or angst. There’s typically rapid demographic change, and political and police structures that have failed to keep up with that change.
“These factors can be found everywhere in America,” Collins says.
“And then there’s always the spark,” she said. “During my research it was usually some alleged or real attack or murder or some infraction.”
In an interview, Collins discussed how that history pertains to events in Ferguson.
“There’s large unemployment among African-American youth in and around Ferguson,” Collins said.
Also, Ferguson has had rapid demographic change. U.S. Census statistics show that in 1990, a quarter of the population was black. Ten years later more than half of its citizens were black. By 2010, African-Americans accounted for 67 percent.
As has been pointed out repeatedly by protesters, Ferguson’s power structure has not changed to reflect that rapid change, Collins said.
“You see a police force that does not reflect the community,” she said. “The Ferguson-Florissant school board is nearly all white.”
This winter the district’s board forced out the district’s black superintendent, Art McCoy. In response the community elected one African-American member this spring.
Ferguson’s city council has one black elected official. Dwayne T. James is an engineer.
And then the spark: “In Ferguson the spark was the shooting of Michael Brown,” Collins said. “What’s interesting is the flames are still being stoked in Ferguson and a lot of that has to do with the response of the police, local and county. First of all, she said, people found leaving Michael Brown’s body in the street appalling.
The release of video stills to media at the same moment protesters were given the name of the police officer, again sparked outrage. Collins noted social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and pervasive use of cellphones to shoot pictures and video has likely extended the rioting and looting and brought in more outsiders. Typically riots last about three days before petering out, she said.
And Collins said there were also almost daily angry flash points regarding an imposed curfew. Collins said within hours of protesting there were murmurs of a 9 p.m. curfew among town leaders. That was never enacted. Then Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced a midnight curfew. It was later rescinded.
Why would a curfew arouse such anger?
Collins said curfews imposed by white power structures – particularly at 9 p.m. or twilight — echo the legacy of “sundown towns” that pervaded the Midwest through the 1960s. Small towns had alarms and signs signaling African-Americans to get out of sight.
“The 9 o’clock curfew talk especially just evoked the image of these sundown towns where blacks had to be off the streets,” she said.
So how do we solve Ferguson?
In the short term: “What we really need to happen is a much more honest and open communication between the police and the citizens of Ferguson. They feel like and it appears to be that they are not getting straightforward answers,” Collins said.
In the long term: “There needs to be more emphasis on education (and) civic engagement.”
That starts with voting. Collins said in the April 2013 Ferguson municipal election just 6 percent of black eligible voters went to the polls, while 17 percent of whites voted. Compare that to the November 2012 presidential election when black and white voter turnout in Ferguson was nearly the same.
“Changing the municipal elections to coincide with presidential elections would bring more people out to vote,” she said.
Is history repeating itself?
Quotes and descriptions in newspaper accounts of riots in 1964 are strikingly similar to the things being said in Ferguson today, Collins said. As one 1964 newspaper account put it, people are “mad, mad, mad.” With Ferguson, those similar angry accounts, both by media and pundits are being broadcast instantly on social media.
“Just looking back into newspapers and seeing the quotes — they’re saying the same things,” she said. “The people are mad, mad, mad. They’re angry that there are two societies in the United States and two standards.”
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