Fredrick Harris is a professor of political science and the director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University. He is the author of “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.”
When does a moment become a movement?
Events such as the killing of unarmed, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., can provide the moral shock that political movements need to build their ranks and bring attention to a community’s afflictions. They can be like the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 or the beating death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 — transformative episodes that remake perceptions and force a society to abandon abhorrent practices.
Or they can be like the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers: a horrific moment that failed to create a sustained push for broader, nationwide reforms of policing practices.
For black Americans, the outrage against the police that we’re seeing in Ferguson has appeared in roughly 10-year intervals — from the 1979 beating death of Arthur McDuffie by police, which sparked protest and violence in Miami; to the attack on King, which led to more than 50 deaths and several days of unrest in Los Angeles; to the 2001 shooting death of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati, which also erupted in protest and rioting and produced a costly economic boycott against the city.
So perhaps America was due for another bout of unrest. But will Ferguson recede in the coming days and weeks, becoming the scene of just another tragic slaying that didn’t lead to meaningful change in police conduct toward black or brown communities? Will history remember Michael Brown less like Emmett Till and more like Rodney King?
I’m optimistic that Ferguson can lead to real change. The church rallies, street demonstrations, marches, looting and targeted violence against police are familiar responses. But there are four key differences in what is unfolding in Ferguson: first, the cumulative effect of recent cases of police misconduct against black people across the nation; second, a backlash against rhetoric that blames poor black youth for the way they are treated by police; third, the use of innovative protest tactics; and finally, the support of allies beyond the black communities that are demanding justice for Brown and reforms in policing…
(Read the entire article at The Washington Post)