On Aug. 10, shortly after a gathering held one year after Michael Brown’s death and the violence that followed it, a state of emergency was declared in Ferguson, Missouri. It is in this climate that we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts racial riots. It all started on Aug. 11, 1965, in the Los Angeles neighborhood where Marquette Frye, a young black man, was booked for driving under the influence. His brother, who was in the car, left to go and warn their mother. After the arrival of the latter to the scene, tension escalated rapidly. Neighbors and passers-by witnessed the altercation. When the three family members were finally arrested, the neighborhood went up in flames. But police brutality was just the spark. The major causes for the violence were misery, segregation, racism and mediocrity of the education system and housing …
This year as well, the United States has seen urban violence, especially in Ferguson, and also in Baltimore, where riots divided the city for two weeks in April, after Freddie Gray’s death. Fortunately, the toll is not the same. In 1965, there had been 34 deaths, more than a thousand casualties, approximately 4,000 arrests and nearly $40 million worth of damage in just six days; while in 2015, there were 250 people arrested, around 20 wounded police officers and a few million dollars worth of damage. But the similarity between the reasons is troubling. Fifty years later, police violence still happens every day; segregation, discrimination and stigmatization of black Americans are still systemic. And there are the same calls for calm directed toward demonstrators who want their right to equality respected, to keep their dignity and put an end to police brutality: 708 deaths in 2015 at the time that I write these lines.
But thanks to the activism of a new, very active generation in the media and on social networks, things also evolve and black militancy is seeing a rebirth. A major development since the death of Michael Brown a year ago, is the emergence of more radical speech, a redefinition of violence itself. They have succeeded in touching the American public, even white Americans, by showing that true violence is not burned stores, but it is a country which over militarizes its police force to control certain districts – those where public policies isolate the poor and the minorities – violence which leads to black Americans seeing themselves in Michael Brown, Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland. It’s a great milestone.
If the Watts riots marked the radicalization of the black liberation movement and the end of non-violence, the 2015 movement around the issue of police brutality and institutional racism also constitutes a historical moment; one that relies on a multitude of local leaders instead of counting on charismatic figures. This national, popular movement supports a complex discourse on identity and reaffirms the value of black lives. “Black Power” is reborn.