Charles E. Richardson

RICHARDSON: Déjà vu all over again

The year was 1965. I was all of 14 years old living in Stockton, California. I sat in wonderment watching the Watts Riots on our old black and white TV that made the scenes look even more dreary.

The neighborhood I was watching go up in smoke was one of my old neighborhoods. As a third-grader, I attended 111th Street Elementary School and lived in the Nickerson Gardens housing project. As a fourth-grader, we lived on 105th Street right off Compton Avenue.

I was familiar with the stores and shops being destroyed. The fire station on 103rd Street, where I had met all the firefighters, was probably one of the first called into action.

I remember watching those riots that went on for six long days and cost 34 people their lives, and wondered what all the fuss was about. And I wondered why they were burning down their own neighborhood.

Fast-forward 49 years. I’m sitting with my wife watching St. Louis County chief prosecutor Robert McCulloch tell the world that Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson would not be charged for killing Michael Brown. It would have been a surprise if he had said anything different.

Ferguson, Missouri, had already experienced its Watts moment for several days and nights after Brown’s death by policeman. And again, the response was predictable. Rioters started trying to burn down their own town. The scenes looked no better in high-def than they had in black and white. For all of the calls for calm -- even from Brown’s family -- it just wasn’t enough to keep stupid people from doing what stupid people do.

The Watts Riots and Ferguson are eerily similar. The riots in ‘65 started after a white California highway patrolman pulled over a black teenager. No one was killed in the initial confrontation, but rumors spread through the tiny enclave faster than cellphone technology that had not yet been invented. The traffic stop was, just as in Ferguson, the spark that lit the fuse leading to a keg of slights, grievances and recriminations.

For at least 49 years and I’m sure many more, there have been calls for police departments to step up outreach efforts to poor communities. And after all these years, not much has changed. The Ferguson police force initially went in like an invading army, much like the response in Watts almost five decades earlier when almost 4,000 National Guardsmen were called to re-enforce the more than 1,600 Los Angeles police officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies.

I’m not sure the tally of damage in Ferguson, but in Watts, it totaled $40 million in 1965 dollars. Are race relations any better today than in 1965? You be the judge.

I can’t, with any accuracy, know what went on in Ferguson the day Michael Brown was killed. I’m not a conspiracy theorist. We are a land of laws, and my prayer is that those laws are applied equally. I’m also not naive enough to think that routinely happens.

Should people who live in poorer communities fear police? You would hope not, because the police are there to serve and protect. But sometimes, too many times, that protection comes at a loss of life. Such was the case last week in New York where a rookie policeman accidentally shot and killed 28-year-old Akai Gurley in the stairwell of a housing project. Though still under investigation, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton has already stated the victim did nothing to provoke the fatal confrontation with the officers.

Law enforcement agencies and poorer communities have problems communicating with each other because there is no trust. Both sides have reasons to fear, and both sides have weapons. But only one side can use theirs with a pretty good chance of escaping prosecution. Why? Dead men tell no tales.

The state trooper who shot a black man in South Carolina during a traffic stop had an entirely different account of the incident than his own dashboard camera. Fortunately, the victim lived after the trooper fired his weapon five times. In Ferguson, Wilson fired 12 shots at Brown, according to the grand jury report. Not that it matters. Being killed by one bullet or a dozen doesn’t make you any less dead.

I’ve become cynical in my old age. The brouhaha in Ferguson will die down. People will go on with their lives. Twenty years from now, I predict Ferguson’s issues will look pretty much as they do today. The required period of outreach will kick off only to fade away -- until next time.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at Tweet @crichard1020.