Why Ferguson touched a raw, national nerve

Updated 7:05 AM EST, Sat November 29, 2014

Story highlights

Nationwide protests bring back memories of civil rights era to some observers

Protesters motivated by more than anger over Ferguson, experts say

Controversial case for many is latest reminder of justice system failures

CNN —  

The rage echoing across the nation after a grand jury’s conclusion in Ferguson, Missouri, goes far beyond the decision not to indict white police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.

Protesters have blocked bridges and tunnels, spilled into roadways and disrupted Black Friday shopping in more than 150 cities in mostly peaceful protests that conjure memories of the civil rights movement for some. The demonstrators were furious at the grand jury decision, but their frustration transcends anger over what happened between Wilson and Brown in the shadow of St. Louis one Saturday afternoon in August.

“It’s bigger than what happened in Ferguson,” said Dorothy Brown, a law professor at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

After the grand jury completed its work, many around the United States have interpreted what happened in Ferguson squarely in the context of a larger, historic narrative about race and justice in America.

To them, Ferguson is just the latest reminder that the American criminal justice system doesn’t treat blacks and whites the same – and that young black men in particular are often killed with impunity.

“It’s sort of a quasi-movement that’s afoot,” said Matthew Whitaker, a history professor who directs the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. “And what we can attribute this to is the fact these things seem to happen so regularly now that the frustrations folks are feeling are leading them to plan almost in advance.”

A week ago in Cleveland, a white police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, seconds after a squad car pulled up. The officers were investigating reports of someone pointing a gun at people. Police said Tamir had an air gun that looked real.

Some protesters in Cleveland linked Tamir’s death with Brown’s. One held a sign that said “Michael Brown to Tamir Rice, this must stop.” Others had signs that said things such as “the whole damn system is guilty!”

Last year, marchers took to the streets in several cities after a jury in central Florida acquitted George Zimmerman, who identified himself as Hispanic, in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was black. Zimmerman said he killed Martin in self-defense after the teenager attacked him.

The visible reaction to Brown’s death was even more widespread.

“Ferguson’s hell is America’s hell,” hundreds of students chanted this week at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his first degree.

Echoes of the past

The case in Ferguson has reminded some people of unsavory episodes from America’s past.

Wilson described Brown to grand jurors and a national television audience, for example, in a way that offended some, buttressing their view of how too many white police officers see and treat black men.

Wilson told the grand jury that Brown looked “like a demon.” In an interview with ABC News, he described Brown as almost super-human.

“I just felt the immense power that he had,” said Wilson, who is about 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. “It was like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big this man was.”

Brown was about the same height as Wilson. He weighed nearly 300 pounds.

Whitaker, the history professor, heard echoes of the past in the way Wilson described Brown.

“That’s always been one of the painful realities on the black community, is the perception of black men,” Whitaker said. “We’re regularly portrayed as being these gigantic, threatening, dangerous, oversexed individuals.”

He added, “At the end of the day, Michael Brown was essentially a kid, and if you can’t see the humanity in a kid, even a recalcitrant kid, there’s something wrong with that.”

Another aspect of the case that caused some to draw historic parallels: The fact that authorities left Brown’s body on the street for four hours.

“The nicest thing you can say is that it’s the most insensitive thing we’ve seen in a long time,” said Dorothy Brown, the law professor. “The other extreme is, this was done deliberately. It’s sending a signal. We don’t want anybody challenging the status quo. Here is a body as a reminder.”

Some people compared the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death to a lynching in the old South. They drew parallels to a time of public hangings, when mobs killed blacks, sometimes for perceived infractions such as stealing, and left the bodies in public to sow fear.

Police said officials couldn’t reach the area where the body lay because a crowd had gathered, making it too dangerous. Ferguson’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, later apologized to Brown’s family.

“I’m truly sorry for the loss of your son. I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street,” he said in a videotaped statement.

Whitaker sees links between Michael Brown and historical figures such as Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly violating an unwritten Southern racial code by whistling at a white woman.

Assailants abducted him at night from his great-uncle’s home and tortured and murdered him. Their actions drew national attention to a prejudiced and corrupt legal system in the Jim Crow South.

“Certainly there are connections,” Whitaker said. “All you have to do is say, ‘Emmett Till,’ and images and a time period and feelings come to mind. It’s the same with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.”

Jason Johnson, a professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio and CNN contributor, grew up 30 minutes south of Ferguson and spent time there studying the government response to Brown’s killing.

Police in riot gear use tear gas to clear the street in front of the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department on Monday.
Charlie Riedel/AP
Police in riot gear use tear gas to clear the street in front of the Ferguson, Missouri, Police Department on Monday.

“I have been saying sort of tongue in cheek and very seriously, institutional racism actually works better than this,” Johnson said. “This is incompetence.”

Dorothy Brown drew a similar conclusion.

“They’re not used to being held accountable,” Brown said of Ferguson officials. “This is what absolute power looks like. That’s why it reminds me of the South in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

The nationwide interest in the case also had people making historical comparisons.

Before the grand jury decision, U.S. Rep. John Lewis predicted that a “miscarriage of justice” in the case would create the “same feeling and climate and environment that we had in Selma.” Lewis is a black Democrat from Georgia who was among demonstrators police beat in a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

“Selma was the turning point,” Lewis told