53 Years and We Haven’t Learned a Thing

We can’t pray our way out; we can’t train our way out; technology won’t find a way out of the problem of racism and police violence. There must be rules, structure, and accountability. We must be rethinking the role of police and the community. Police should not have “relations” to the community; they should be the community.

In several articles I’ve written about the police, I have said we don’t need more studies or recommendations. We need to do what the Kerner Commission said in 1968. I was a junior in college majoring in correctional administration and we had to read all 461 pages of it. I was impressed then with its depth and breadth and recommendations. So before I suggested Kerner again, I thought, I had better go read it. I’m just as impressed. It is an astounding piece of work. If we had followed it 53 years ago, the issues would have been solved. But we didn’t and they aren’t.

Reviewing the Report

Someone looking at the report today would no doubt find fault. The Commission used the term “Negro” which at the time was the accepted term of respect. The headings of the chapters seem to put the blame on the riots, disorders, and ghetto residents. However, upon reading the report, that is not the case at all.

The report first summarized eight uprisings between 1963 and 1967 from Tampa to Detroit.  Then they looked at the patterns of the uprisings i.e. the participants, background of the area and programs, and the aftermath. They covered the organized activity, history of protests, and basic causes leading to the uprising.

The next section is what has caused the report to be attacked when they talked about the formation of racial ghettos, unemployment, family structure, social disorganization, crime, health, exploitation, and comparison to immigrants. However, upon reading what they actually said, they were very clear that the problem was white racism and legal rules that created segregation. “This is our basic conclusion: Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal. It’s not inevitable, it can be reversed, if not, it will destroy our democratic values. What white Americans have never fully understood— but what the Negro can never forget— is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The remainder of the chapters focus on specific responses with hundreds of recommendations.  These include a community response with neighborhood task forces, legal services, political representation, and community participation. The actions of the police and control of disorder received a lot of attention. The aftermath in the administration of justice and payment of damages was also covered along with the impact of the news media which is much less relevant today. The Commission outlines the future of cities if we do nothing and their predictions have come true. In addition to local action, they devote a chapter to national action in employment, education, welfare, and housing and make the point that the nation has plenty of money if we choose to spend our money for good. The supplements and appendices overflow with interesting factual data.

Like today, many claimed that some outside group or other country was behind the uprisings, but the Commission was clear that was not true. The main reason the riots happened was white racism resulting in complete frustration in the Black population. However, just saying “white racism” or admitting we are racist ala Robin Diangelo changes nothing.  Action must follow. They used the term “urban jungle” that would be criticized today. However, they did make clear that it was conditions, laws, discrimination, and white racism that resulted in that urban jungle not any deficiency in the people forced to live there.

The police were not only commonly the spark to set off the conflagration, but they were the problem as the symbol and enforcement of racism and many reflect and express racism themselves as we have witnessed in AZ. Every major episode of violence was foreshadowed by unresolved grievances and the refusal of local government to respond. Local police remain a very large part of the problem.

The factual data about neighborhoods, employment, education, health, sanitation, and food presented by the report was much the same as today. Therein lies the problem. “One of the first witnesses to be invited to appear before this Commission was Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, a distinguished and perceptive scholar. Referring to the reports of earlier riot commissions, he said:

“I read that report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission — it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland — with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

He was right.

The only solution

The commissioners concluded that the only solution was enrichment for those deprived and full integration of Blacks into society so we have one American society. We do this by opening up opportunities, allowing full political participation, increasing communication, and creating common ground for social justice. Rather than doing any of that, our schools are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board of Education; we have abolished job training programs and replaced them with prison; we have ended “welfare as we know it,” and our affordable housing stock has dropped dramatically.

Two identified problems were a weak mayor style of local government and ineffective formal complaint channels with no police civilian review board.  Phoenix still has both of those problems.  “Police practices were, in some form, a significant grievance in virtually all cities and were often one of the most serious complaints.”  That is precisely the problem that we have attempted to address in Phoenix since 1980 with no headway. Even the passage of an ordinance to create a civilian review board resulted in a board controlled by the unelected city manager and then was made illegal by the state legislature.

Police violence was by far the leading cause of disorder with unemployment the second cause, housing third and education fourth. But what was the result of the widespread riots in the 1960s?  Nothing. The bitter fruit before and after the riots was discrimination and segregation, frustrated hopes, legitimation of violence by white terrorists who got a pass, and powerlessness in the Black community. The local authority’s response was to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons, which did not reduce crime but did create even less trust between whites and blacks. Where whites see progress; Blacks see resistance.

In the community section, they showed how government policies often make the situation worse with lack of communication, exclusion, inability or unwillingness to respond, and no accountability. They outlined many things we are still asking for today:

  • Neighborhood action task forces and city halls
  • Effective grievance response
  • Expanded legal services
  • Hearings on the problems and enactment of appropriate legislation
  • Expanded employment of ghetto residents
  • Multi service one-stop centers
  • Improved political representation
  • More effective community participation

In the police section, they discussed that one side was dismayed by the rise of violence and the other by the practice of order maintenance at the cost of justice. The same dichotomy presents today with the “law and order” crowd on one side and the “No Justice No Peace” crowd on the other. The five basic needs are the same today:

  • Change of police operations to ensure proper conduct and eliminate abrasive practices
  • More adequate and appropriate police protection for residents of Black areas
  • Effective mechanisms for resolving citizen grievances
  • Policy guidelines regarding police conduct (note that Phoenix police do not meet national or international guidelines)
  • Develop community support for law enforcement

Issues discussed in 1968 were police profiling, police shootings, and how police officers are selected and screened. The Commission suggested that police should send their best officers into Black areas not their worst. It’s easy to patrol a gated community in Scottdale so new officers should start there not in a ghetto or barrio. Nor should patrolling alienated areas be a punishment for bad behavior. The Commission looked at patrol practices such as stop and frisk and suggested police focus on measures for crime abatement not control of people. They encouraged police to have knowledge of the neighborhoods, to get out of the car, and to keep the same officer on the same beat so relationships could develop.

They even argued over civilian review boards – 53 years ago!  They concluded, as we did in Phoenix years ago, that internal review boards cannot work. Police must have an external review. The Commission suggested recruiting, assigning, and promoting Blacks. They argued that police should work on community service functions such as noisy neighbors, bad streets, and building code violations. Police are the only 24/7 service and the benefits to being involved include identifying problems ahead of time, developing relationships, and having non-adversary contact with residents. Community relations bureaus in police departments have had mixed reviews. It would be better if the police were in the community rather than creating a “bureau” to pretend they are addressing problems.

When discussing how to control the disorder, the Commission emphasized that preserving civil peace is important but not at the sacrifice of the rule of law. The entire community must be involved not just the police. When the uprisings occurred the police had major problems with staffing, prior training, discipline and command capabilities, tactics, overreaction, and deadly force – the same problems as today.

The role of the community was rumor control and negotiation with local leaders they trust. The role of public officials is to be there on the ground. A chapter looked at the administration of justice including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and facilities. Emergency response and representation is still mostly left to the community with the NLG and ACLU to step up and represent those arrested and a community go-fund-me bail project.

Review of the news media stated there was some good and some bad but mostly competent.  They made clear that photos can really impact how people think and respond. Social media has certainly reinforced that. The failure of the media was largely in not reporting the truth of the ghetto and the pre-existing problems before an uprising was necessary. The Commission suggested that police need information officers and information centers.  While those have largely come to be, they have been rendered mostly useless over the years as well when they don’t give out accurate or timely information.

Looking at the future of the cities, the Commission offered thee choices:  stay where we are and expect future civil disorders and polarization; keep segregation but offer enrichment i.e. help those we confine in the ghettos; or integrate all Americans into one country. “But we must choose. We will choose. Indeed, we are now choosing.” Today we can see that we have made the wrong choice. The Kerner Commission prediction was correct –  we have two countries, Black and white and unequal.

Those of you wondering what your parents or grandparents were doing in the years of 1963 – 1967 in Phoenix or Tucson, they were rising up. Phoenix and Tucson both had disturbances in July 1967. The Phoenix uprising was preceded by several smaller incidents. The Tucson disturbance was much smaller but included vehicle destruction. Tucson also had at least four outbreaks. It began over the arrest of an unknown 14-year-old.

The Phoenix uprising began on July 25, 1967 at noon until 9 p.m. The precipitating event was police investigating a rape. By 6 p.m. rocks, firebombs, and Molotov cocktails were reported.  The protest spiked at 6 a.m. July 26 and started up again at 3 p.m. rising to its height at 10 p.m. with rocks, firebombs, looting and reported snipers. The damage was listed as “serious.”  On July 28 at 9 p.m., rocks, firebombs, looting and snipers were still being reported. The uprising ended at 6 a.m. on July 29.

Police reported the crowds as one large i.e. up to 300 people, one sizeable i.e. 50-300, and several small. In Tucson, they reported fistfights among the participants. From July 25 to 6 p.m. on July 26 in Phoenix only local police responded. In the evening of July 26, law enforcement from other towns and the state came in and remained until the end.

On the 25th the mayor, city commissioners, and police chief met with two Black youth leaders and then met them again on the street on July 26th at 6 p.m. The participants in these uprisings would be in their 70s or older today.

The majority of criminal charges laid were breaking and entering and trespassing. After the riot, the city promised to find jobs for participants and the antipoverty agency trained 2,500 heads of household for better jobs. I find that still a “bootstrap” argument i.e. the problem is yours and will abate if we just give you a job and you get to work. That doesn’t address the underlying problems.

Where do we go now?

Our society continues to refuse to learn any lessons from history. As Dr. Kenneth Clark said – same riot; different day. I just finished reading a book about “philanthropy washing” like  “green washing” i.e. rich people throwing money at a problem to relieve their guilt at causing the problem in the first place but actually making no change whatsoever in the underlying structure that caused the problem. At one such event, they were discussing that since education is now equal, we should eliminate affirmative action. One person suggested that if we did that, then we should eliminate legacy programs at the famous universities too. That suggestion was met with a blanket rejection. Philanthropy – tax-free donations from people who exploited people to get the money in the first place is not a substitute for justice.  As Audre Lorde has reminded us time and time again, you cannot fix the masters house with the masters tools.

The people in the community are the ones who must take the lead in setting up the structures to protect their communities from those who would do harm, but not harm those who are simply lost, confused, forgotten or in need of help. We can start by changing the language in every statute and ordinance to talk of peacekeepers not police, not law enforcement. They are not warriors; they should be protectors. Only a very small part of any law enforcement agency needs to be devoted to armed response while the vast majority should be focusing on mediation amongst the community, remediation of unhealthy or unsanitary situations, provision of a safe environment for children walking to school, elders out for a stroll or bicyclers getting exercise.

The solutions have been here for a long time – at least 53 years but in fact much longer. The problem is our stubborn refusal to heed them. White people cannot turn away. We cannot retreat into suburbs and gated communities, private schools and concierge health care. My fear since George Floyd’s death has been the same as my fear after Rodney King’s beating has been the same as my fear after the murder of Fred Hampton has been the same as my fear after two 16-year-olds in a group of Wisconsin teens were beaten at a White Sox game in Chicago in 1963 when we were there to bridge the racial divide – whites will go home and do nothing.

So what do we do? Anti-racism work must be incorporated into every movement because without it, we have no democracy. It must be incorporated in church groups, political groups, civic groups, political parties, women’s groups, voting rights and reproductive choice battles, education fights and union organizing and every single thing we do. Black people cannot go one minute without knowing about white racism, they cannot go one day without being angered by it, they cannot go one week without being harmed by it.  We shouldn’t either. Until it ends.





2 thoughts on “53 Years and We Haven’t Learned a Thing”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that citizens have to be involved with most every part of their being. And not rely on a magical pill or prayer. With that said I’m reminded of the quote of rev. Martin Luther King about law and morality. Time is the emphasis and work on changing the issues of hate fear and racism has to be all encompassing as you spelled out my well in your post :

    “Well, it may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me; and I think that is pretty important also. And so, while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and even the heart may be changed in the process.”

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