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How not to handle protests? Look to the 1960s

The recent spate of shootings, rising extremism, protests and counter-protests have left our society on edge. Police brutality against black Americans inspired Dallas shooter Micah Xavier Johnson to murder cops; in St Paul, Minn., police officers clad in riot gear launched tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, who returned fire with rocks and glass bottles; former Congressman Joe Walsh tweeted: “This is now war… watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” He claims to have received more than 17,000 death threats in response.

The tone of America today feels like America in the late 1960s, which was similarly riven by cyclical violence and discontent. Our elected officials and law enforcement authorities can learn from how their predecessors responded to civil unrest — but mostly by negative example.

During the five summers of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, the nation witnessed 250 separate incidents of urban unrest. A majority of these emerged in response to some form of police brutality, as the Kerner Commission revealed in a 1968 report on civil disorder.

Yet the Johnson administration and Congress held the citizenry — specifically, the African American citizenry — accountable for the turmoil. As a solution to instability, policymakers deployed militarized police forces in urban neighborhoods.

Congress granted local police departments a 90% off coupon to purchase walkie-talkies, bulletproof vests, tanks, computerized fingerprinting systems, helicopters and surplus M-1 military carbines via the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 — the first major piece of national law enforcement legislation. By contrast, federal representatives funded crime-prevention efforts at up to 40% of their cost.

The Safe Streets Act’s initial 3-year, $300-million allocation (roughly $2 billion in today’s dollars) enabled law enforcement authorities at all levels to smoothly build up their weapons arsenal and technological capacity. No less than three out of every four dollars of this funding went to police departments. Meanwhile, innovative police-community relations programs — including resident patrols, block watches, cultural enrichment classes for officers and community dialogues — constituted less than 5% of the measures supported by the legislation.

State and local officials followed the federal government’s incentive structure, prioritizing the effort to expand police forces in targeted neighborhoods and provide officers with cutting-edge equipment. Community-based crime prevention initiatives, on the other hand, were often short-lived or fell by the wayside. 

Black activists, residents and civil rights organizations had different ideas about how to address crime and disorder: with job creation measures, access to decent housing, educational resources and comprehensive rehabilitation programs.

Unwilling to accept these alternatives, in the long-term, policymakers at all levels of government consistently responded to socioeconomic grievances with more and better-equipped police on the streets. Nor did they heed the residents and activists who pleaded for greater degrees of oversight in police operations — which is precisely why the dynamics the nation confronted in the 1960s have resurfaced in our own time.

Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Baton Rouge, La., last week, might still be alive today if the two officers involved in his shooting had been charged and disciplined for any of the four “use of force” complaints between them. Sterling’s death underscores the urgent need for responsive grievance boards, a measure many organizations and activists have been recommending for decades.

We won’t solve the policing crisis in our society without fundamental changes within police departments. Officers act the way they do because that is how they have been conditioned and trained, and they are trained that their duties differ depending on the groups of citizens they are charged with protecting.

In white and middle-class communities, police seldom initiate contact with residents, waiting for 911 calls or reported incidents instead. They are typically expected to guard property from outsiders. In black communities, law enforcement authorities are assigned the opposite task.

Less than 24 hours after police killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, officers pulled over Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., because his “wide set nose” fit the description of an armed robbery suspect. Castile had no felony convictions, but had been stopped by police 52 times over the course of his 32 years. The last time was fatal.

There are signs, though, that the tide is finally shifting. The rise of anti-racist social movements has forced new conversations about our national priorities.

Following the Dallas shootings, the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, committed to “building bridges” of dialogue and understanding between vulnerable communities and law enforcement. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, among others, has made similar comments in recent days. That’s familiar language, of course, but some officials are actually beginning to implement the principles behind such rhetoric. During the demonstrations in Inglewood on Sunday, for instance, law enforcement took a “hands-off” approach, and the protests proceeded peacefully as a result.

We will, however, need more than simple restraint on the part of the police if we are to realize the unfinished struggle at the heart of our society: for every citizen to be treated like a full human being by their government and the public, regardless of their identity. To be afforded the same protections under the law. To be free from the oppression of exploitative institutions. And, on the most basic level, to no longer have to tell children how to “comply” during routine interactions with police officers, lest they turn dangerous, as Philando Castile’s mother had once taught him.

Elizabeth Hinton is an assistant professor of history and African and African American studies at Harvard University and author of “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.”

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