Until last summer, the issue of law enforcement’s treatment of young minorities was far down the list of political topics likely to get high-level attention. Even among most mainstream civil rights groups, it was one of several agenda items, and usually not at the top.
Since then, young activists working to end police brutality have been welcomed to the White House, protesters in Ferguson, Missouri have found themselves among the finalists for Time’s person of the year, and slogans like “Hands up Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter” have reverberated on the streets and online. The issue’s sudden prominence, of course, was caused by a string of police shootings of unarmed blacks, starting with Michael Brown in Ferguson in August, and a flawed response from a justice system that has often added insult to injury for minorities. But it’s also a testament to the energy and idealism of the mostly young activists who have seemed to shake their fellow Americans by the collar and demand they pay attention.
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There's no question that, thanks to activists across the country, the issue is on the radar of politicians and the press. But as the year ends, questions remain about what the movement will accomplish. Will the White House or Justice Department follow through with substantive changes at the federal level? Will local police forces reform procedures for engaging with community members in a way that filters down to ordinary cops on the beat?
More broadly, will the protests form the basis of a lasting movement for change, justifying the comparisons to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that some are already tentatively suggesting? Or—like Occupy Wall Street, another progressive street-level uprising that briefly gained national notice—will they fade away without leaving a clear mark?
The passion and commitment of the protesters was evident just hours after Brown's death, when a crowd of people from across the St. Louis region began gathering at the spot where Brown’s body lay in the street, demanding answers and justice. And it was clear in the days and weeks that followed, when that gathering morphed into angry demonstrations that drew people from across the country. That response—along with a clumsy over-reaction by police—forced a national conversation not just about police tactics, but about the broader ways in which the criminal justice, education and economic systems too often fail young minorities.
All of a sudden, the country was talking about race and policing with a seriousness not seen since the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots back in 1992. In Congress, lawmakers from both parties, eager to look engaged, vowed to crack down on the transfer of military equipment from the federal government to local police.
Protesters themselves, who had formed new organizations like Millennial Activists United and the Hands Up Don’t Shoot Coalition, had broader demands, which they expressed in increasingly concrete form: an end to racial profiling by police, far-reaching reforms to the criminal justice system, and more educational and economic opportunities for young minorities.
In Ferguson, a visit from Attorney General Eric Holder shortly after Brown's death seemed to calm tensions and reassure much of the black community that the federal government, which opened a civil rights investigation into Brown’s death, saw the need to respond.
“I am the attorney general of the United States. But I am also a black man," Holder said, recounting his own experiences with what he perceived as racial profiling by police.
Even Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, no favorite of protesters, announced a panel to examine the underlying problems exposed by the unrest in his state and pledged action to address it.
Life in Ferguson began to return to some version of normal, but the community remained on edge as it waited to learn whether Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, would face charges. Meanwhile, the toll of young black lives taken senselessly by police would continue: In September, a 23-year-old black man named John Crawford was shot and killed by police as he talked on his cellphone while casually holding a pellet gun in the aisle of an Ohio Walmart; the week before Thanksgiving, Akai Gurley, 28, was shot to death by an NYPD officer in the dark stairwell of his Brooklyn housing project; and the following day, Tamir Rice, just 12, was gunned down by a Cleveland police officer while holding a toy pistol. But to the extent that these deaths received national news coverage, they were often treated as isolated tragedies.
That all began to change the evening of Nov. 24, when a St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict Wilson in Brown’s death, launching several days of renewed protests in the region. Though the vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful, some buildings and police cars in St. Louis and Ferguson were set on fire, and stores were looted and vandalized.
Those protests within days were eclipsed by similar demonstrations across the country. From Seattle to San Diego on the west coast and Boston to Miami in the east—not to mention unlikelier places like Omaha, Nebraska and Beaumont, Texas—people blocked intersections and shut down bridges and tunnels. They demanded justice for Brown, but didn’t hesitate to draw parallels between what happened in Ferguson and how many young minorities experience their own treatment by law enforcement every day.
The following week brought a visit to the White House for some of the young protest leaders. President Obama announced some modest but concrete steps to address activists’ concerns: funding for body cameras and training for local law enforcement, and a task force to propose ways to improve police-community relations.
Ashley Yates, a St. Louis area protest leader, called the meeting “affirmation that the movement is working.”
Then, nine days after the decision in the Brown case, came news that seemed like an echo: Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who killed another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, by putting him in a choke-hold, also wouldn’t be indicted. Garner’s death in July hadn’t received much coverage beyond New York City. But now the news that Pantaleo, like Wilson, wouldn’t face a trial added to the sense that the deck was stacked against minorities.
What had been disparate protests were now showing all the signs of cohering into a movement: not just specific demands for change, but groups planning further actions, and burgeoning alliances with related causes, including the campaign to raise workers’ wages. Young activists, who often pushed demands beyond the point where more experienced leaders were willing to go, seemed to be in the driver's seat.
Then came more violence: An apparently deranged man shot and killed two New York City police officers in a planned attack as they sat in their patrol car days before Christmas. The man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, had posted online about his hatred of the police. Some supporters of the police blamed the protest movement for contributing to an anti-law-enforcement climate. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, whose comments after the Garner decision about having to train his own biracial son to behave around cops had angered some officers, also was in the cross-hairs.
All of a sudden, protesters, who for months had seemed to set the agenda, found themselves on the defensive, forced to put out statements condemning the police shootings and underscoring that they did not support violence.
But protest leaders have also been clear that they won’t back down from their core demands. As the year ends, there’s a long road ahead before they’ve won lasting change. But there’s no doubt the country is listening.