Barbara Arnwine was 14 when the police barricades went up around Watts and the National Guard tanks rolled in.
“I remember being horrified,” she says, “and trying to go home and being told you can’t enter this city. My people, my family, everybody I loved was there.”
The August 1965 riots were raging, incited by the arrest of a young black motorist by a white highway patrolman, and a violent clash between police and the community.
Today, as Arnwine, an attorney who leads the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, has watched escalating protests and police crackdowns in Ferguson, Mo., she has an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself.
“We’re in a time warp,” she says. “Watts was bad, but this is the worst thing I’ve seen.”
In Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer killed an unarmed young black manon Saturday, community anger has been stoked by a vacuum of information and the use of militarized police units. There are always specific conditions that lead to racial disturbances, but a broader question might be: Why do they keep happening? Are lessons ever learned?
Sometimes, but experts say enduring racial inequality and police failings practically guarantee more wrongful killings and civil disorder.
“It’s a darn shame,” Fred Harris says. “There’s too much of this going on — police shooting people.”
Harris, an 83-year-old former Democratic senator from Oklahoma, has a unique perspective on recurring racial tensions and police violence in America. He is one of the last living members of the Kerner Commission, which examined the social inequalities that led to rioting in black communities in Detroit, Newark and 21 other cities in 1967. It also made recommendations to reduce police overreaction to protests, build trust within communities and increase racial diversity of police forces.
“With all that’s happening in Ferguson, I’m hoping we can go back to recommendations we had on the Kerner Commission,” Harris, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said Thursday.
But across the country, experts say, many police forces have yet to adopt some of the most basic techniques to curb the possibility of police brutality and subsequent unrest. These strategies include having police live in the communities where they enforce the law and building connections with the residents.
“The only way to stop these situations is before they happen, not after they happen,” said Chuck Wexler, a law-enforcement expert who has studied federal civil rights investigations of local police departments.
The response by law enforcement to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., is being criticized for its level of force and use of military-style equipment. We’ve labeled the weapons and gear being used by police in these photos from Ferguson. (Tom LeGro and Thomas Gibbons-Neff/The Washington Post)
“It’s particularly important to establish credibility with the community, and particularly with the black community, because there isn’t a built-up reservoir of trust.”
He recalled what an aide to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan once told him: “Make friends before you need them.”
“The default is to have this strained relationship between the police and communities of color. That emanates from our history,” says Lorie A. Fridell, a criminology professor and chief executive of Fair and Impartial Policing, which trains police to address implicit racial bias. “Where there is trust and confidence, that’s been produced with a lot of hard work on the part of the police and law enforcement.”
Among the trust-building tactics: putting out information quickly and owning up to mistakes, which, protesters point out, has not happened in Ferguson.
With 18,000 police departments in the United States, achieving a conformity in training and community relations is impossible.