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After Ferguson, some see a movement taking shape

Protests over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have grown into a powerful force that could drive real change. And they're entering a pivotal moment.
Demonstrators storm the Macy's on 34th Street protesting the Staten Island, N.Y. grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July on Dec. 5, 2014 in New York City. (Andrew Burton/Getty)
Demonstrators storm the Macy's on 34th Street protesting the Staten Island, N.Y. grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July on Dec. 5, 2014 in New York City.

Within hours of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in August, a crowd of protesters had gathered near the spot where the unarmed teen fell. Now, four months later, those instant expressions of shock and anger have exploded into what some are cautiously calling an emerging nationwide movement to decry not just systemic racial bias by police, but also, perhaps, a broader economic and social system that leaves many young minorities feeling the deck is stacked against them.  

In places far beyond traditional strongholds of black activism like Harlem and Oakland -- places like San Diego, Pittsburgh, Boston, Anchorage, Omaha, and even Beaumont, Texas -- a strikingly diverse and well-organized coalition of ordinary Americans has voiced its anger in recent days, often blocking bridges and shutting down highways to capture attention.

"... we will look back on this and judge it to be a social movement."'

Celebrities and pro football players have joined the cause. The national news media, from The New York Times to Vogue, have offered mostly sympathetic coverage. And even the president of the United States has made sure to show he’s paying attention.

“This is more than just some of the things that we’ve seen in the past, where people respond to a moment, and then it dissipates,” said Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University and an expert on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. “I’m inclined to believe that what I’m seeing in terms of the grassroots organizing being done, the kinds of small-group organizations that are emerging -- that we will look back on this and judge it to be a social movement.”

Already, protesters and their allies have a set of relatively specific and consistent demands, which include an end to racial profiling and police brutality; the de-militarization of local law enforcement; criminal justice reforms to end the “school to prison pipeline"; legal and procedural reforms that would make it easier to hold police accountable; and investment in educational and economic opportunities in minority communities.

On Monday, in a striking sign of protesters’ growing clout, young activists, including a 20-year old leader of the Ferguson protests, were welcomed to the White House for a meeting with President Obama. The White House also has announced some modest but concrete reforms, including funding for police body cameras, aimed at easing police-community tensions, and Attorney General Eric Holder has signaled an openness to going much further.

The mayor of New York has spoken in starkly personal terms about having to "literally train" his own black son to be careful around police officers -- comments that angered local cops. Even Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, no favorite of protesters, has appointed a diverse panel to examine the underlying problems exposed by the Ferguson unrest and pledged action to address it.

All this activity has been spurred by a series of deadly interactions between black men and police, beginning last summer, in which each successive event has seemed to play off and reinforce the outrage each one generated on its own—pushing many Americans toward a breaking point.

In July, Eric Garner, who was black and unarmed, died after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a white New York City police officer who was trying to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. The following month, Brown, 18, also black and unarmed, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, sparking weeks of furious protests that included some incidents of looting and angry clashes with police.

In September, John Crawford, also black, was gunned down by police as he talked on his cellphone while casually holding a pellet gun in the pet aisle of an Ohio Walmart. Then the week before Thanksgiving, as Ferguson waited to learn whether Wilson would face charges, a 12-year old Cleveland boy, Tamir Rice, was shot to death by a white officer while holding a toy pistol—an incident that remains under investigation. 

Two days later came news that Wilson would not be indicted, which prompted peaceful protests as well as arson, vandalism, and looting in the streets of Ferguson and St. Louis. That was when protests gained momentum nationwide—and they were kicked into higher gear Wednesday, when news came that Garner’s attacker, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, also wouldn’t face trial.

Comparisons with the civil rights movement of the 1960s can often feel strained and overused. Perhaps most important, that movement wasn't the civil rights movement as we know it today until it achieved its capstone successes in 1964 and 1965, historians stress. While it was ongoing, its success was very much contingent and uncertain. That's why it's impossible to say much with certainty about what the current moment will turn into. 

But some activists are starting to point out the parallels.

A clumsy response to the August protests by Ferguson police, captured on camera, helped galvanize public attention, just as TV images of far more brutal police tactics brought the horror of Jim Crow into American living rooms half a century ago. Rallying slogans like “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” “Black Lives Matter,” and now “I Can’t Breathe,” have spread quickly online, just as “We Shall Overcome” became a mantra for civil rights activists. And in both cases, young people have been at the forefront of the movement, demanding action with an energy and idealism that has at times caught their more cautious elders off guard.

“Suddenly, it feels like the 1960s again, with swirling movements for social justice finding inspiration and a powerful common denominator in the struggle for black equality,” Peniel Joseph, a history professor and the founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University wrote Friday.

Jeffries, the Ohio State historian, compared the current moment to the student sit-ins of 1960 in Greensboro, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn. The momentum from the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott had then dissipated, until the sit-ins, organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, brought a wave of youthful energy that gave the movement new life. Similarly, tentative organizing in response to the execution of Troy Davis and the killing of Trayvon Martin, in 2011 and 2012 respectively, had begun to peter out when this summer's developments -- especially the raw response from young people -- gave the movement a fresh spark.

“That’s the moment we’re at right now,” said Jeffries. “What we’re seeing now is the infusion of new energy from young people into this much longer struggle.”

Of course, there are a host of to-be-sure’s.

Khalil Muhammad, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, pointed out that for all the energy of the protests, there’s not yet a national strategy -- particularly in terms of litigation -- that could reform criminal justice law in a manner comparable to the dismantling of legal segregation through court victories in the 50s and 60s.

“At this point, it still seems to be piecemeal. It’s not clear that any reform in New York will affect anything in Missouri,” said Muhammad, stressing that he thinks that’ll happen with more time.

Beyond the courts, the chances of far-reaching federal national legislation also seem remote at the current moment -- not only because of conservative control of Congress, but also because little groundwork has been laid on the issue, Muhammad added. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts emerged after over two decades of patient, long-term organizing and strategizing.

"At this point, it still seems to be piecemeal. It’s not clear that any reform in New York will affect anything in Missouri."'

That means there’s no mechanism to achieve victories other than on a state-by-state level.

“If a state hasn’t experienced a major uprising of concern around police violence, do they change?” Muhammad asked. “Probably not.”

And of course, plenty of recent moments have seemed at first like potential harbingers of change, only to fizzle. After the 2012 Newtown shooting that killed 27 people, most of them young schoolchildren, hopes were high that the tragedy would galvanize a push for gun reform. Those hopes soon faded at the hands of a Congress where gun-rights advocates still wield undue clout.

It’s also worth remembering that the civil rights movement gained crucial strength from the international climate of the 1950s and '60s, when Jim Crow undercut America’s claims to offer a morally superior alternative to Soviet communism. No such dynamic exists today.

But neither did the civil rights movement include the kind of spontaneous, nationwide mass demonstrations we’ve seen in recent weeks, Muhammad said. Instead, its events tended to be meticulously planned in advance, the better to capture media attention at a time long before cell-phone cameras and Twitter ensured almost everything is documented.

“That’s what makes this moment fantastic,” said Muhammad. “It’s what makes the possibility of a national movement really obvious.”