Can Ferguson spark new civil rights movement? How times have changed.
The protesters who have gathered in Ferguson and beyond want to start a national movement. But the changes ushered in by the civil rights movement mean today's issues are more deep-seated.
Starting from the patch of pavement upon which black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white policeman on Aug. 9, a group of 150 protesters – praying and singing hymns – began a seven-day, 120-mile march to the governor's mansion in Jefferson City.
The goal is ambitious: to turn Ferguson into a tipping point, as the Selma-to-Montgomery marches did during the the civil rights era.
It is, to some degree, the goal of the protest movement that has swept through the St. Louis area and across the nation in recent days. As the anger at the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson fades, what will remain? Can Ferguson begin to change America?
Clearly, the Ferguson protests have already created enormous energy and awareness nationwide. Protesters rallying for Mr. Brown have shut down highways as far away as Rhode Island. But the movement appears to be largely where it was two years ago in Sanford, Fla., where the same groups raised many of the same issues to protest the killing of another unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch captain.
Why have such moments so far failed to kindle more-lasting momentum to address lingering racial concerns? In many ways, the NAACP's "Journey for Justice" is an interesting parable.
For one, the march points to the fractured nature of the modern American protest movement. As the Monitor's Harry Bruinius pointed out last week, Ferguson protesters see their decentralization as a point of pride. Each group gets to do its own thing in support of a broader cause, and most revel in their disdain for politics.
Problem is, this is not how social movements are begun, say experts. Social movements need to connect with and influence officials who hold power in order to sustain themselves and effect change, said Rory McVeigh, director of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame, in a Wall Street Journal interview.
"It strikes me as one of those issues that can easily fade from the public radar screen unless people are well organized and continue to put the pressure on," he added.
Yet the issues themselves are also subtler and more multifaceted than those faced by the Selma marchers in 1965.
The Selma marches were launched to protest efforts by white officials to disenfranchise blacks. Today, blacks in Ferguson have essentially disenfranchised themselves, with only 6 percent – in a city that is 67 percent black – voting in the most recent municipal elections.
The Selma marches were held after a young black deacon, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot and killed by white police while walking from a church to the Marion, Ala., jail as part of a protest against the imprisonment of a civil rights worker. Brown was shot during a confrontation over jaywalking after having apparently robbed a local liquor store of a pack of mini-cigars.
The Selma marchers were attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas. On Saturday, police shut down a lane of traffic to allow the marchers in Ferguson to walk in the street safely.
None of this, of course, changes the fact that Officer Wilson shot an unarmed teenager, say the NAACP and others. But Ferguson is not so clear-cut as Selma. Jim Crow's separate water fountains, schools, bathrooms, and bus seats involved little nuance. "Separate but equal" was a transparently thin veneer for racism and a sense of racial superiority.
The work of the civil rights activists in the 1960s exposed and helped root out those most blatant forms of racism. Now, Ferguson is bringing America face to face with deeper-seated racial perceptions on both sides.
On one hand, commentators including Juan Williams suggest that the black community is to some degree complicit in its own problems.
"More than 90% of the young black men killed by gunfire today are not killed by police but by other black men. About half of the nation's murder victims are black even though blacks account for only 13% of the U.S. population," he writes in the Journal. "If we are to stop angry clashes between police and poor black men, it is time to admit that thuggish behavior creates legitimate fear in every community."
Yet blacks are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than whites – a number out of proportion to the black crime rate – reports the watchdog journalist organization Pro Publica. In Ferguson, some commentators reviewing Wilson's grand jury testimony raised questions about whether racial perceptions might have come into play. Speaking of his encounter with Brown, Wilson likened the teen to a "demon" at one point.
The marchers who set off from Ferguson Saturday have specific demands. They want the chief of the Ferguson Police Department out, they want new laws that address racial profiling, they want all police to wear body cameras, and they want police reform.
Some of these potential reforms have shown promise, such as when the Rialto, Calif., Police Department put body cameras on its cops and saw a dramatic decrease in complaints of police abuse.
But the deeper sense of fear and mistrust surfaced in Ferguson perhaps found greater catharsis this weekend in the photo of young black protester Devonte Hart reaching out to the Portland, Ore., police at a demonstration, and Sgt. Bret Barnum stepping forward to embrace him.
In the scheme of things, it was only a single moment captured as an iconic image. But it spoke eloquently to the outreach and vulnerability needed on both sides for healing and further progress.
"The unrest in Ferguson revealed something," said Michele Norris, a journalist who started The Race Card Project to facilitate discussions on race, in an NPR interview. "It pulled back the cover and showed us something that probably should have been evident to us – was always there, but suddenly we couldn't ignore it."