On July 16, 1964, the NYPD gunned down James Powell, an unarmed black 15-year-old, on the streets of the Bronx. This event set-off nearly a week of uprisings in New York City that ushered in the era of “the long, hot summer.” Over the next half-decade, inner cities from Watts to Detroit burned as the “language of the unheard” roared over waves of tear gas and National Guard bayonets.
A unique event set each incident off. Most were connected, at least on their face, to occupation-style policing. However, beneath the surface, a long history of racial supremacy, segregation, and enormous economic inequality percolated. Not only had America failed to solve its race problem, it failed to address the coming apart of the working class that was only beginning to make itself felt—primarily, at least at first, in black urban communities.
On August 9, 2014, police gunned down Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri. Much like the NYPD of the 1960s, nearly all of Ferguson’s police force is white. And although the city is almost 70 percent black, the mayor and all but one of the members of city council are white. Without real representation in local government or the police force, Ferguson’s citizens are engaged in a new uprising for the twenty-first century.
The forces of deindustrialization that began in earnest in the 1960s have completely hollowed out the nearby City of St. Louis. They are now eating away at the surrounding areas.
Today, suburbs are becoming the new battlegrounds as the forces of joblessness and racial inequality spread throughout metro areas across the country.
Many had hoped the Los Angeles Riots would mark the end of major urban explosions. But the next urban—and now suburban—explosion will always just be around the corner until America comes to grips with its history and begins to radically restructure its economy.
The questions of Ferguson in 2014 are the questions of 1964. Are we, regardless of color, truly brothers and sisters? Do we all share a common destiny as Americans, or are we but strangers fighting for an individual slice of an ever-shrinking pie?
The answers to those questions will decide whether or not we face a hopeful future. If we do not, our national destiny will be a future of Fergusons.