In some ways, it doesn’t matter anymore what happened in Ferguson, Mo. this summer.
But just to recap: Darren Wilson, a 28-year-old white cop, fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager.
The incident manages to be both horrible and mundane at the same time. Black kids are killed by white cops in this country just about every week.
But this time was different, and also somehow the same as racially tinged incidents of the recent past.
Protests in Missouri and elsewhere this summer echoed the riots of 1965-68, when young, urban and poor blacks became frustrated with lack of progress under middle-class civil rights leadership. And on Monday night, when a grand jury declined to indict Wilson for the murder, the ensuing insurrections reawakened some of the darkest days of the struggle: bloody conflicts with law enforcement, National Guardsmen in full armor, gunfire, shouting, looting, fire and smoke.
This is how far we’ve come?
In the 1960s, a combination of peaceful protest — as advocated by activists like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and genuine outrage that sometimes morphed into street violence brought an end to legal discrimination and the system we know as Jim Crow.
But like most successful social movements, the civil rights crowd became corrupted and co-opted until it was scarcely recognizable from its original form.
Civil rights is a business now, not a movement. And the bottom line has grown significantly in the ensuing decades through the lecture circuit, the publishing world, academia and museums. But on the ground, it still seems like a poor, black kid can’t get a fair shake in this country.
The perception in Ferguson and elsewhere is that white cops can shoot innocent black kids and walk away like nothing happened. In Cleveland, an officer shot a 12-year-old black child who had a toy gun, and a New York police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in Brooklyn. And that was just last week.
There’s something wrong when a cop shoots an unarmed kid and the system implicitly excuses it. There’s something wrong when people feel compelled to take to the streets and torch buildings in rage. There’s something wrong when our government’s only response is to send in heavily armed soldiers.
Now the perception, for those who study history, is that we’ve learned nothing from the last go-round, and that we haven’t come very far at all.