The scenes of rioting that began August 9 in Ferguson, Mo. look like many others. Historian Thomas Snegaroff, however, is convinced that the violence has a different significance.
The rioting that has been taking place every night in Ferguson since Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was shot in broad daylight by a white police officer seems to fit into a long history of urban violence in the United States. And yet, according to the United States expert — and occasional Rue89 blogger — Thomas Snegaroff, the violence in Ferguson has a different significance than that which has regularly inflamed the United States in the past.*
These rioting scenes look like others — many others. Like Watts, in Los Angeles, in 1965. There too, plumes of thick smoke smothered the main roads of the city. The police officers who stood before the black protesters were still mostly white.
They still resembled small urban soldiers, lined up on the asphalt like a real front line. Those riots, too, were born from an altercation between the police and a young African-American. The black and white images from that period aren't as clear, but they testify to the same anger as that of protesters in 2014. The face of bitterness has not been changed by the victories of the civil rights movement.
The same images were repeated in Newark, N.J. only two years later. The police were accused, wrongly that time, of having lashed out violently at a taxi driver.
The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 set off violence in more than 100 cities. Chicago was devastated. One hundred sixty-two buildings were destroyed. There, too, the National Guard was sent in as reinforcement. The decade ended with the same scenes that began it.
The ‘90s are also tainted by exceptionally bloody uprisings. Like the one in 1991 at Crown Heights, in Brooklyn, where the death of an African-American child, run over by a vehicle driven by a rabbi, led to four days of rioting.
A year later, riots in Los Angeles inflamed the poor neighborhoods of the city. They were particularly violent, causing 59 deaths and several thousand injuries. Police misconduct was again the start of the escalation of tensions: Four police officers accused of having beaten Rodney King, a young black man, were acquitted in April 1992.
After that court ruling, 100,000 people rushed onto the streets of the California city. The rallies against racism went beyond the authorities’ control, and the army was mobilized after four days of intense combat.
At the time, Rodney King said on television, "Can we all just get along?" The rioting in Ferguson shows that Rodney King's question is still being asked.
Isn't the current uprising that is disturbing Missouri just a new episode in the long history of race riots? Snegaroff, a historian and specialist in American geopolitics, is convinced that the violence in Ferguson has a different significance than that which has regularly inflamed the United States in the past: "Many white people no longer trust the justice system to condemn police errors in this kind of situation, and that's something pretty new."
A study published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center in the United States shows that 44 percent of whites who responded to the survey judge that the death of Michael Brown "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed," markedly more than during the Trayvon Martin affair only two years ago.
The gap between white people and black people’s view of inequality is still noticeable, but it is getting smaller. Another survey, published by The Huffington Post, also highlights this trend, since it shows that 47 percent of whites surveyed recognized that the police are more severe with blacks.
Snegaroff points out another break with the earlier crises, which, for him, is fundamental: "Important figures in the Republican party, like Rand Paul, are incredibly moved and affected by the situation of young black people."
The remarks of the libertarian, published by Time magazine on August 14, made waves. Rand Paul let drop, among other things: "Anyone who thinks race does not skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention." An extremely important change of direction, according to Snegaroff: "Rand Paul is taking on the struggle of black people in order to condemn a pervasive government that deprives an important population of its liberty."
For the American politician, the current riots are nothing but a symptom of an increased militarization of the police, and therefore a dominance of the state in the life of American citizens.
The historian evokes new shared struggles that could change everything: "We are seeing an agreement between the demands of civil rights groups and those who criticize the state." Which, for Snegaroff, is a clean break with the past: “In previous big crises, the right wing was on the side of order, and never went as far as to accuse the state of going against people's freedom."
Yet those who are opposed to the influence of government are making headway with public opinion and could push more whites to see the claims of black citizens differently. Snegaroff is unequivocal: “Something explosive is happening in Ferguson." Enough to put certain subjects back on the table before the 2016 presidential primary, where Rand Paul means to win the nomination for the Grand Old Party.
*Editor’s Note: Rue89 is the French publication from which this article originated.