Cities Rocked by Past Unrest Offer Lessons

Police attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police shot smoke and tear gas to disperse the protestors with as they became unruly.
Police attempt to control demonstrators protesting the killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 18, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Police shot smoke and tear gas to disperse the protestors with as they became unruly. –Getty Images

The trigger for civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a police officer — has also provoked riots in American cities both small and large in the last two decades. But few of those disturbances were as stubbornly resistant to resolution as the Missouri protests, which now have drawn the National Guard and even the White House into efforts to restore calm.

And as the unrest in Ferguson stretched into its ninth day after the black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a white officer, Darren Wilson, political and civic leaders in other cities that endured similar violence said their experiences may offer lessons in how to manage such protests — or, in some cases, how not to.

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Large mobilizations of police or National Guard forces have played a role in calming many riots. But by studying unrest in Cincinnati, Oakland, Los Angeles and elsewhere, big-city police officials have learned that the speedy release of information and close ties to religious and civic leaders are perhaps even more crucial to stopping violence once it starts, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington.

That Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri was forced to summon the National Guard on Monday to restore order in Ferguson speaks to the extent that the situation there has spun out of control, he said.

“Bringing in the National Guard, it’s hard to get your hands around what that strategy does for you,’’ Wexler said, “because at the end of the day, you’re going to have to live with the community. And the National Guard are going to be leaving.’’

Critics say officials in Ferguson have added to tensions by making contradictory statements, declining to release details about the shooting and dispatching police units bearing military-style equipment into the streets.

But outside experts like Wexler noted that Ferguson officials began their efforts to quell violence at a disadvantage. Bigger cities can have racial animosity between police departments and minorities that can be even more bitter than the divide in Ferguson. But they also have established networks of neighborhood organizations with ties to City Hall, and years of experience dealing with large protests.

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Experts said Ferguson appears to have little of the social infrastructure that helps other cities restore calm in time of crisis. A suburb of about 21,000 people, it is two-thirds African-American, but only three of its 53 police officers are black.

Nor did its leaders seem prepared to respond to unrest, a lesson some leaders in other, larger cities have had to learn the hard way.

Cincinnati burst into rioting in 2001 after the police shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old African-American with a record of minor offenses after a chase through the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The shooting inflamed tensions between minority residents and the Police Department, which had led to a lawsuit two years earlier charging the department with discrimination.

After the shooting, “We kind of threw up a wall and said ‘We can’t talk about it because it’s under investigation,’’’ the mayor at the time, Charles Luken, said in an interview. Protesters besieged City Hall, where the City Council remained inside for hours but issued no statement responding to demands for justice.

“In hindsight I think we now know that the excuse of, ‘We can’t say anything because it’s under investigation,’ that doesn’t float,’’ Luken said. “You have to be straight with people, and that was our big lesson.’’

The riots lasted four days, and led to a curfew and a stepped-up presence by 125 Highway Patrol officers brought in to reinforce the local police. Luken said city leaders made a decision not to call in the National Guard.

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“We didn’t think that tanks and big military things, that large shows of force were going to help,’’ he said. Instead, there were times when the police backed off completely and “let people peacefully vent.’’

Wexler, of the Police Executive Research Forum, said: “You have to get information out quickly, you have to build inroads with the community well before something happens, and if you don’t, it’s just an uphill battle from there.’’ He added, “Cincinnati didn’t do that and they paid for it.’’

On the other hand, experts say, Cincinnati and some other cities in similar situations made the right call by deploying enough police officers to restore order, but limiting the amount of firepower they had.

That was true in Los Angeles in 1992, when riots broke out after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of brutality in the infamous beating of Rodney King, a black man who had fled when the officers tried to stop his car.

“The police stood down in the inner-city communities. They took a lot of heat for that,’’ said Darnell Hunt, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’: Race, Seeing and Resistance.’’ “But as a response, it was in some ways better than what Ferguson is doing, in that there weren’t direct confrontations that could have led to a loss of life.’’

“Things start to calm down once things run their course,’’ he said.

Cathy Lisa Schneider, a professor at American University and the author of “Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York,’’ said many riots burn themselves out as anger and frustration are vented.

But “police forces can keep it going, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in Ferguson,’’ she said. “They’re constantly reinvigorating it by creating a new grievance for people to organize around or explode about.’’

She also noted that in Ferguson, there seemed to be an absence of community-based groups that could act as interlocutors, negotiating with the police. In New York and Washington, such intervention has at times prevented rioting in tense situations involving race.

“I’m not sure who you could talk to in Ferguson because we haven’t heard their voices at all,’’ Schneider said. “Who is representing the community?’’

Oakland rioted in 2009 after a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager — by accident, he said — as he lay on the ground. The officer immediately resigned and initially refused to talk to the authorities, but the transit agency met with residents and listened to complaints about the shooting for six hours, then agreed to review its policing procedures.

In Miami in 1989, rioting began in the mostly-African American neighborhood of Overtown after two unarmed black men were killed by a Hispanic officer. But the unrest settled a week later, when prosecutors charged the officer with manslaughter, without waiting for the findings of a police review panel or a grand jury.

In Cincinnati, repairing the wounds of the riots took years. The city entered into a voluntary agreement with the Justice Department to review and correct police procedures, and gradually worked through the problems.

“People were generally worried about the future of this city and how it was going to come out,’’ said Luken, the former mayor, “but curiously, it has come out of it bigger and better.’’

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