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.