Ferguson nothing new, not so far away

The following Op-Ed by CFT President Joshua Pechthalt originally ran in the Los Angeles Daily News on Sept. 10. You can read the Op-Ed below, as well as here

Ferguson is not so far from Los Angeles.

On April 29, 1992, I was wrapping up another day teaching at Manual Arts High School in the heart of South Los Angeles, preparing to return to my home in nearby Leimert Park, when the civil unrest in response to the acquittal of four police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King erupted around the school. After six days, more than 50 people lay dead and burned-out buildings reflected more than a $1 billion in property damage.

In 1965, as a young boy of 12 growing up in the Mid City neighborhood of Los Angeles, I also lived through the Watts Rebellion, which exploded after a confrontation between the police and the African-American community and resulted in 34 deaths and tens of millions of dollars in damage.

And now we have Ferguson.

 

The killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer triggered two weeks of protests and civil unrest as it played out in front of media from around the world.

Sadly, none of this is new.

A police officer gunning down an unarmed black man is not new. A community being ground down by the lack of decent jobs and little hope for the future and then eventually erupting in anger is also not new.

When people get to the point that they engage in destructive behavior, even damaging their own community through looting, arson and other violent acts, it’s because years of anger and frustration can no longer be contained. Decent jobs have disappeared, once thriving communities have been abandoned and the interaction with law enforcement too often results in unnecessary deadly force.

What ails Ferguson, and a growing number of communities in this country, are the underlying issues of racism, class bias and growing economic inequality. Over the last decade Ferguson’s poverty rate doubled. This is a result of a lack of opportunity when it comes to education, jobs and access to resources. Meanwhile 95 percent of the economic gains of the “recovery” have gone to 1 percent of the population.

In Ferguson, 65 percent of the population is African American, but 50 of the department’s 53 full-time police officers are white. Furthermore, African Americans make up 86 percent of traffic stops and 93 percent of arrests after stops, though they make up two-thirds of the population. No wonder there’s distrust and an outright fear of authority, not to mention the heinous killing of an unarmed black teen.

So what to do? Clearly there needs to be more people of color elected to positions of authority in diverse communities, and police departments need to better reflect the communities they serve. Furthermore, the militarization of our police departments across the country is a disturbing trend, as is the lack of gun control measures within the community.

But most importantly, we need massive investment in struggling communities, particularly communities of color, by government as well as the private sector. We need the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for America that invests in education, creates good-paying jobs and provides services and offers real hope — not just television make-believe. A national dialogue on racism is imperative but without a real commitment to alleviate economic disparity the tragedy of Ferguson will sadly be repeated over and over. And if history is any guide, Los Angeles will not be immune to that repetition.