Black amnesia: Lessons of Rodney King lost in Ferguson

Has nothing been learned since April 29, 1992?

That was the date in which mayhem erupted in Los Angeles after a jury exonerated four police officers for beating Rodney King during a traffic stop. The memory of incident also hangs like a shroud over Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The mayhem that has erupted in the small town can’t be justified by frustration and anger with the decision – unrest has been roiling Ferguson since the early days of the incident. In the intervening years since the Rodney King protests led to dozens of deaths and about $1 billion in property damage, the biggest takeaway should have been that violence and looting are never an acceptable response to injustice.

To be fair, Missouri’s authorities erred by waiting until after nightfall to announce a decision they surely understood was fraught with controversy and rage. For obvious reasons, darkness tends to embolden those who like to perpetrate criminality under the cloak of anonymity. By waiting until daylight to announce the grand jury’s decision, at least some of the aftermath currently rocking the Midwestern town could have been averted.

Sadly, it wasn’t long before the world was transfixed by images of burning cars, gunfire and widespread looting that appeared on broadcast networks. Too many of the violent protesters in Ferguson – many of which aren’t even local residents – have gleaned little from the lessons of the past, and in fact have been primed for destruction since the early days of Brown’s shooting.

Despite that fact that Michael Brown’s supporters and Darren Wilson’s defenders were mostly united in their disdain for the militarization of the local police, much of that good will has been lost in the appetite for rioting. Alongside the cars and buildings they’re torching with reckless impunity, the protesters are also destroying their own credibility and Ferguson’s chance for eventual normalcy. To be fair, those who are creating chaos on the streets of the Missouri town do not represent the majority of protesters who have assembled peacefully for months.

However, a contingent of the protest movement has embraced violence with alacrity, and in doing so highlight an inconvenient truth about urban riots: they always hurt the communities whose rights and interests they ostensibly claim to defend.

Civil disturbance has always been a component of free speech, but not when it leads to the looting of businesses, theft of property, personal injury and a loss of livelihood. Ferguson’s network of shops and stores employ residents in a town where unemployment and poverty have become the norm for its predominantly black residents. Some vandals even seem determined to inspire fear in the residents – perhaps as a way of dissuading cooperation with authorities.

It seems as if, after every burst of racial tensions, the country finds itself in the exact same place. Regardless of whether one felt Darren Wilson was innocent or guilty, destroying private property in an act of indignation does nothing to improve the lot of local residents. Businesses that employ Ferguson’s citizens may well decide the risk of staying in the city isn’t worth it and take their jobs with them after they collect on insurance payments.

In fact, the violence raging in Missouri buttresses a controversial claim made by former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani earlier this week. Guiliani, who of course is no stranger to racial tensions, said the more prevalent problem in urban communities is less police brutality than black on black crime.

As politically incorrect as that may be, the former mayor makes a valid point. And without realizing it, the angry denizens of Ferguson are proving it. Violence only begets more violence, virtually assuring a more muscular police presence – and the inevitable overreaction that often accompanies heightened tensions between citizens and authorities.

In the modern era, outrage seems awfully selective and painfully fickle. Make no mistake: police corruption and overreach is a legitimate problem. That said, the argument gets exacerbated and overwhelmed any time a community responds with blind, self-defeating rage – or for that matter, remains deafeningly silent in the face of blacks that die at the hands of other blacks at a far more alarming rate.

Unfortunately, the mistakes of the Rodney King verdict are replicating themselves in Ferguson. Meanwhile, the most instructive takeaways from 1992 Los Angeles are being lost in an orgy of violence and self-destruction.

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