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Selma, a Catalyst for Voting Rights, also Put Protesting and Policing in the Media Glare

By Dave Oedel, Macon Georgia, March 14, 2015:

President Obama visited Selma, Alabama here in the Black Belt a week ago, March 7, 2015, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” Five decades ago, under orders from Alabama Governor George Wallace, Alabama state patrol officers with unnecessary violence suppressed a peaceful if knowingly confrontational march for voting rights organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Alabama Governor George Wallace had advised the chief of the Alabama state highway patrol “to use whatever means are necessary to prevent a march,” which Wallace and the chief had concluded would violate state highway traffic laws. They could also have concluded that most cars were about to violate some highway law or another, but of course cars weren’t being stopped – just the protesters. When the chief officer and the chief protester approached one another that day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the county line, the officer declined discussion, saying only that there was nothing left to discuss.

If you need a refresher or an education about what happened next, you might take a look at the first 3 minutes of this newsreel footage.

Seeing the police rush and trample the nonviolent marchers in Selma was disconcerting then and now. Although no one was killed that day in the confrontation, the skull of 25-year-old Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman John Lewis (now a revered Atlanta congressman) was fractured. The photo accompanying this article is the famous NBC News photo of Lewis holding his head, about to be struck again by the baton of a state trooper.  The visceral Selma scene of police aggression so upset and embarrassed the nation that it helped pave the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Selma incident, and the subsequent marches to Montgomery from Selma, catapulted to the international stage the concept of using film media to advance civil rights and other political causes. It also put police, especially in the South, on notice that they needed to develop better approaches for dealing with racially-charged protests.

As former Macon Mayor Jack Ellis notes in the Macon Monitor today, Selma’s implications are most historically profound with respect to voting rights. In 1965, Selma was 58% black, but less than 1% of its voters were black. Then, there were no black elected officials in Selma. Now, most of Selma’s elected officials from the mayor on down are black, and its voting population is majority black both in registration and turnout.

While Selma’s significance for voting rights nationwide has been huge, another issue that was raised by Selma’s Bloody Sunday remains unresolved and contentious. That is the ongoing dance between protesters and police in racially charged or otherwise politically volatile situations. Given the racial politics of America in 2015, tension between police and protesters has emerged as a hotter, more pressing concern today than voting rights.


One Inflaming Answer: Militaristic Policing, and Macon’s Experience

One possible official response to racial tension, on display in the Selma newsreels, and in some of the police and national guard responses to the Ferguson protests just last year, is forceful, military-style policing. That’s a poor answer if the goal is to keep tension from mounting, and Macon knows only too well why that’s true.  Macon experimented aggressively with that model of policing during the tenure of Ronnie Thompson, Macon’s mayor from 1967 to 1975, not so long after Selma’s Bloody Sunday.

Ferguson isn’t the only place where shootings of black citizens by white officers have occurred. In the summer of 1971, a black Macon city employee was shot and killed by a white Macon police officer. When white officer John R. Beck went to the home of African-American Sanders White on June 24, 1971 to arrest White on a charge of disorderly conduct, White’s brother, Jimmy Lee White, interfered, allegedly used a large flashlight as a weapon, and possibly also tried to collar or strangle Beck to stop the arrest. Beck responded by emptying all chambers of his gun, hitting and killing Jimmy Lee White with six slugs.

In a response similar to the Ferguson case, protestors within four days sought Beck’s suspension, removal of white officers from black neighborhoods, and the creation of a diverse board to review the situation.

Although Beck was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, a grand jury cleared Beck on July 15, 1971, only three weeks after White’s death. That was faster than Darren Wilson was cleared by the grand jury in Ferguson on November 24, 2014, after the August 9, 2014 killing of Michael Brown. Beck remained on Macon’s police force after the grand jury declined to indict him. Thompson defended Beck by saying that “it was either kill or be killed.”

The Rev. Julius C. Hope of Macon’s First Baptist Church and head of the state chapter of the NAACP directed, “If the grand jury turns this man loose, we must plan to do something, but we want to stay within the law.”

Race rioting had taken place the summer before, and Mayor Thompson quickly moved to squelch any public disturbances in reaction to the police shooting. He declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew on the city from 9:30 p.m. until dawn, and ordered the suspension of gun, ammunition and alcohol sales after 5:00 p.m.

Thompson’s militaristic police tactics in the context of ongoing racial tension in Macon included Thompson himself theatrically driving a tank onto an elementary school property to make a show of force. Thompson authorized billboards indicating that robbers would be met with “shoot to kill” orders.

Thompson readily accepted the nickname by which he became infamous, “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson. Among other things, Thompson ordered the firing of a machine gun in the woods for practice, joking that the gun should have been tested in the neighborhoods “where a lot of unpatriotic people and radicals” could hear it. Thompson’s aggressive tactics were picked up by the New York Times, which reported in a July 8, 1971 article that Thompson, “armed with a submachine gun, led an assault against a suspected sniper’s nest during racial unrest last week,” though no sniper was later found.  Thompson recently disputed that he shot with a machine gun; he described it as a carbine.  For more details on that era of policing during racial unrest in Macon, check out Andrew M. Manis’s fine 2004 book, Macon, Black and White.


Modern Policing in the South: A Gentler Approach

With race tension in Macon still rumbling, Rev. Hope ran for mayor in 1975. Though Hope lost to Buckner Melton, Hope’s showing gave some promise of changes to come, and Melton himself ushered in a new, more racially inclusive approach, in part by lightening up on the policing approach taken by his police chief.

Meanwhile, Hope over-optimistically predicted that a black mayor would be elected in eight years. It took twenty before Jack Ellis would be elected. During that time, though, racial unrest in Macon grew noticeably less intense than during the Thompson era – at the same time that Macon’s policing strategies changed dramatically as well.

What Macon learned in its own case was that aggressive, militaristic approaches to calming the racial waters were not productive. Since Bibb Sheriff David Davis first became a deputy here in 1979, and even before, Macon and Bibb County have largely jettisoned their old militaristic approach, especially in the context of racial tension. Macon has by now fully embraced a gentler approach. Davis, for example, though white, is credited with maintaining a well-integrated force, encouraging a community-oriented form of policing, and discouraging strong-arm policing tactics.

The movement to the more accommodating, less confrontational mode of policing in the context of civil rights protests was pioneered well before Selma’s blow-up in 1965. In 1961-2, Albany Georgia Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett maintained his composure despite deep personal opposition to desegregation.

Pritchett carefully commanded his police force to use nonviolent means when dealing with protestors, at least in public and before the cameras. Pritchett’s methods dampened Martin Luther King, Jr.’s enthusiasm for using Albany as a primary site for the civil rights movement, according to historians. King moved on to other sites like Selma, and Albany was viewed as a “stinging defeat” for King and his non-violent but still-confrontational methods of civil disobedience.


The Changing Dynamics Between Protestors and Police Since Selma

While some things have remained the same in the age-old stand-offs between youthful protestors and stale authorities in the past 50 years, others have changed. Significant shifts in the approaches of protestors and police alike, and in the general environment, have altered the equation.

One factor is that the media context is different. Now everyone has a cellphone camera, and everyone is a broadcaster. Every event becomes a possible media moment. Little is left unrecorded. Whereas in Selma the bridge confrontation was almost staged on both sides, now media moments can be generated in ad hoc settings with only modest if any organization.

On the other hand, the ubiquity of the over-recorded American landscape leaves one thing the same: the main media channels remain drawn only to the most dramatic stories among a host from which to choose. Therefore the media focus now unexpectedly shifts on a dime from Ferguson to Staten Island, from Brooklyn to Norman, where protests can be almost instantly generated in a rolling political conflagration facilitated by social media.

Moreover, social media means that the power of protest has devolved to the individual, or at least the social media crowd. This tends to fracture the meanings, and give disproportionate credence to possibly-marginal voices in a protesting “group.” Although Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, we would not have heard about the incident had not the very-well-organized Martin Luther King, Jr. been her pastor.

Meanwhile, police are not standing still. Police have become considerably more sophisticated, now wary of rising to the bait of protesters goading them into controversial reactions. Aware of their vulnerabilities, and increasingly trained, the police are themselves beginning to turn cameras on the protestors. By contrast, many men involved as “officials” in the Selma events were deputized that very day. With the new policing strategies in force at most places except, perhaps, for places like Ferguson unready for dealing with national-scale protests overnight, there are simply fewer opportunities to incite real controversy of the blood-and-guts kind.

Another big change is in some protestors’ sense of boundaries. Today’s young protestors are increasingly inclined to ignore legal limits on violence, and to stray from the instincts of those like Rev. King and Rev. Hope who remained committed to a strategy of nonviolence.

By contrast, steeped in an entertainment culture that glorifies violence, force and acts of lawlessness, young protesters today can sometimes initiate blood-and-guts incidents of their own if the police won’t do it for them. It’s as if shooting at or throwing fists or rocks at police are legitimate forms of protected expression that some young firebrands feel entitled to engage in. Looting and arson have also been considered by some Ferguson protestors to be fair game in their mocking challenges to authority. Peace and love, Ferguson is not.

The increased tolerance for violence among contemporary protestors makes one recognize how carefully selected President Obama’s wording was when he characterized the common aims of young protestors today and the young protestors of Selma. In his Selma speech on March 7, 2015 that some have proclaimed, including Ellis, as among the best of the Obama presidency, President Obama artfully declared that the young Ferguson protestors of today “just want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago -– the protection of the law.”

That was interesting phrasing. It does appear that wanting the “protection” of the law may be a common goal. However, a noticeable number of protestors today appear simultaneously to lack respect for the very law that they also want to have protect them.

It’s true that there was always a calculated bit of civil disobedience that King and his followers were willing selectively to engage in to dramatize their plight as victims of an unjust legal system. Nonetheless, they were careful to eschew actual violence in the process, and trained their followers in the practice. By contrast, it was unmistakable to even a casual observer of the Selma newsreels that the highway patrol officers acted unlawfully and wildly in physically overrunning and brutalizing the Pettus Bridge marchers.

In the Ferguson situation, however, the situation is largely reversed. Now it appears even to Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department that officer Darren Wilson was at least arguably justified in shooting Michael Brown. Evidence suggested that Brown appeared to be a dangerous aggressor, himself an exemplar of a media-amped, drug-pumped, authority-resistant culture that we also caught sight of in subsequent instances of looting, arson and violence in Ferguson.


The DOJ Report on Ferguson’s Policing Problems, and Comparisons to Macon

While backing off a possible civil rights prosecution of Darren Wilson in light of the grand jury testimony about his altercation with Michael Brown, the Justice Department did issue a companion report on March 4, 2015 that was critical of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court system, and called for “reforms.”

However, the 102-page report is perhaps most interesting for what it lacks: critiques of specific policing practices or policies in the ordinary course of police business that might typically be described as police brutality or police misconduct.  Rather, the report focuses on an insidious but transparent system by which relations between the police and the predominantly-poor African-American community in Ferguson are soured because of a pattern of using traffic stops and other minor infractions to generate revenue for the city.

In particular, the report showed that revenues generated from municipal fines and fees were typically over 10 percent of all revenues collected annually to fund city operations, and that the 2015 budget calls for a whopping 23 percent – more than $3 million from over $13 million in total expenses — to be raised from municipal court fines and fees in conjunction with infractions cited by Ferguson police.

In sharp contrast, Bibb County Georgia’s sheriff’s department generates about two percent of budget annually from fines and fees. Imagine what it would be like locally in Bibb County if more than ten times as many traffic stops occurred resulting in fines and fees. Then you would have a feel for the magnitude of the imposition felt by Ferguson’s citizens, especially for those without the economic resources to pay fines.

On the Jimmy Kimmel Live show on March 12, President Obama summarized the essence of Ferguson’s problem, which he called “not the norm.”

PRESIDENT OBAMA: What was happening in Ferguson was that you had city government telling the police department that stop more people, we need to raise more money. Folks would get stopped, they’d get tickets. Then they’d have to wait in line to pay it. Take a day off work. Folks would lose their jobs. In some cases they were thrown in jail because they didn’t have enough money for the fines. Then they’d get fined for that.

And so there was a whole structure there, according to the Justice Department report, that indicated both racism and just a disregard for what law enforcement’s supposed to do. As I’ve said before, I said this at Selma. It is not unique, but it’s also not the norm. And we’ve got to constantly, when we’re thinking about issues of racial progress or any kind of issue recognize that things are better but there is still more work to do. And we shouldn’t get complacent about the very real existence of problems out there, but we shouldn’t despair and think nothing’s changed. If people of goodwill, which is the overwhelming majority of Americans working together, these are problems we can solve.


Another Issue: Does the Force Reflect the Racial Balance of the Population?

In his Selma speech on March 7, President Obama called for law enforcement to “raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on –- the idea that police officers are members of the community.” This was also reflected in the DOJ report as a prime recommendation.

In Selma back in 1965, all the officers were white, and the vast majority of the marchers were African Americans. When Dallas County sought to deputize men that day to assist in the operation of crowd control, only the white men were asked to be deputized, though the majority of Dallas County was African American.

Ferguson’s force isn’t all that much more representative. Although two-thirds of its citizens are African American, only 6 percent, 3 of 53 officers, were African American before resignations this week. The DOJ report called for greater diversity in the Ferguson force.

By contrast, Bibb’s force overall generally matches the racial characteristics of the population being served. As of the 2013 census estimates, Bibb County’s population is 53 percent African American, 43 percent white, and 4 percent other.  According to Sheriff Davis, Bibb’s law enforcement and detention employment is about half African American, and the leadership structure is about evenly balanced on racial grounds as well. Although some say that improvements could be made in increasing the number of street-presence law enforcement officers of color, Bibb’s force is generally balanced, and a marked contrast with the force in Ferguson.


Did Holder Do His Part to Help Foster “Mutual Trust”?

In his March 7 Selma speech, President Obama talked about generating “mutual” trust between the police and the people being served. The DOJ report about Ferguson itself had a conciliatory tone.  After suggesting a number of practical reforms, the reported concluded on page 102 with the following:

“Our investigation indicates that Ferguson as a City has the capacity to reform its approach to law enforcement. A small municipal department may offer greater potential for officers to form partnerships and have frequent, positive interactions with Ferguson residents, repairing and maintaining police-community relations. . . . These reform efforts will be worth the considerable time and dedication they will require, as they have the potential to make Ferguson safer and more united.”

However, in his March 4 remarks releasing the report, three days before President Obama gave his Selma address, Attorney General Holder struck a markedly different tone from the report’s own conclusion, re-characterizing the DOJ analysis in a less conciliatory way:

“As detailed in our searing report – also released by the Justice Department today – this investigation found a community that was deeply polarized; a community where deep distrust and hostility often characterized interactions between police and area residents.

“A community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue. A community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents. A community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias – both implicit and explicit. And a community where all of these conditions, unlawful practices, and constitutional violations have not only severely undermined the public trust, eroded police legitimacy, and made local residents less safe – but created an intensely charged atmosphere where people feel under assault and under siege by those charged to serve and protect them.

“Of course, violence is never justified. But seen in this context – amid a highly toxic environment, defined by mistrust and resentment, stoked by years of bad feelings, and spurred by illegal and misguided practices – it is not difficult to imagine how a single tragic incident set off the city of Ferguson like a powder keg.”

Ferguson mayor James Knowles distinguished between the report’s language and language from the Attorney General personally, calling Holder’s language “hostile.” Knowles said on Friday, March 13 that when Knowles speaks with the “bureaucrats at the DOJ — and I mean bureaucrats in that they’re lifelong, career DOJ officials — there is a great sense of optimism from them, and from us, about working together. At the same time, I turn on CNN and watch Eric Holder — that’s not the same language the DOJ uses with us. So, I think that is frustrating, and concerning.”

Holder said on Friday, March 6, 2015 that law enforcement in Ferguson was “appalling,” and that “we are prepared to use all the powers that we have, all the power that we have, to ensure that the situation changes there.” Holder elaborated that DOJ-enforced change “means everything from working with them to coming up with an entirely new structure.” In response to a question, Holder said that “we’re prepared to” dismantle the police force in Ferguson.

It was not immediately clear what constitutional authority the Attorney General was referring to in threatening immediate changes in Ferguson.  States, under traditional constitutional analysis, are presumed to have “police powers” primarily constrained only by federal court rulings after police misconduct has been found to violate constitutional provisions. No court has so ruled with respect to Ferguson at this time, no DOJ case is pending, and Holder’s DOJ declined on March 4, 2015 to pursue the Michael Brown killing as a constitutional violation.

Nonetheless, hearing Attorney General Holder’s tone, and how it was being received in Ferguson, some of the top officials in Ferguson besides the mayor seemed to intuit that community members might read Holder’s remarks as a sort of license to target the “appalling” Ferguson officials with street violence were they to stay on.  On Monday, March 9, the municipal court judge resigned. On Tuesday, March 10, the city manager resigned. On Wednesday, March 11, the police chief resigned. A number of other officers obliquely referred to in the DOJ report also resigned.

And then on Thursday, March 12, as if fulfilling Holder’s prophecy that people might understandably be “set off” by the conditions described in the DOJ report that Holder had termed “searing,” two police officers were shot outside Ferguson police headquarters by an unidentified person during a late-night “First Amendment” protest, in part celebrating the resignation of the chief of police, Tom Jackson, on March 11.  Shots, and the immediate cries of pain apparently by the officers shot, can be heard in a recording by a bystander.

On March 14, 2015, Jeffrey L. Williams, who lives outside Ferguson proper but nearby in Ferguson’s greater St. Louis County, was arrested for the shooting.  Williams admitted firing the shots.  The connection between the shooting and Holder calling out overaggressive traffic enforcement and fining in Ferguson seems at least circumstantially plausible.  Williams was arrested in 2014 twice, and jailed twice for two days each, for failure to appear on a traffic speeding fine in Ferguson’s municipal court.  That court shares its space with the Ferguson police department, outside of which Williams admits having shot the officers.

Williams, however, claims that he was just a bad shot.  Williams says he was really trying to shoot others.

Neither officer was killed.  One was shot in the face, the other in the shoulder, but both were later released from the hospital.  Later that day, President Obama on the Kimmel show seemed to gloss over the implications of the shootings.

One is left to wonder just what kind of “mutual trust” is being generated in Ferguson in the wake of Attorney General Holder’s stoking of fires instead of relying on the DOJ reports. President Obama’s Selma speech had some soaring tones, but not everyone was listening to those tones. Some were listening to other tones – ones of hatred and violence. The verdict is still in doubt about which tone shall overcome.

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