In the late 1960s, depending upon one’s political perspective, the United States was either on the brink of revolution or consumed with disorder. Many Americans were especially concerned about the effect that urban uprisings during the “long hot summers” could have on the country. A 1967 Gallup Poll reported that one in eight Americans anticipated “serious racial troubles in their community.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that the civil rights movement had reached a crossroads in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967) He wrote, “The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge.” The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders famously warned the nation that racism and civil unrest posed an existential threat: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. […] Discrimination and segregation […] now threaten the future of every American.”
The nation threatened to combust in the wake of Dr. King’s murder on Thursday, April 4, 1968. African Americans in 120 cities took to the streets in anger at Dr. King’s death. Unlike the unrest in Detroit and Newark the year before, the Holy Week uprisings took place in large and small cities in the North and the South like Baltimore, Detroit, and Kansas City. Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Baltimore were the largest in terms of scale, damage, and casualties. Eleven people died in Chicago’s uprising. Law enforcement arrested around 350 people. In Washington, D.C., 13 people died, more than 7,000 were arrested, and thousands of military service members were deployed. Chicago and Washington, D.C. suffered around $13 and $24 million in damage respectively.
The unrest in Ferguson in August and November 2014, following major violent disturbances in Miami (1980), Los Angeles (1992), and Cincinnati (2001), reintroduced Americans to the phenomenon of civil unrest. Ferguson also highlighted an issue that would become a national crisis—not one of cities, per se, but one of race and law enforcement, especially militarized policing. Community members took to the streets in protest on August 9 in response to police officer Darren Wilson shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown. Residents and allies angrily demonstrated that November after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced that the state would not indict Wilson. The protests turned violent in both cases with some participants looting and burning businesses. Although there are similarities in the riots that took place between the 1968 King uprisings and Ferguson disturbances—all sparked by cases of actual or alleged police brutality, as were many of the riots before the King assassination—Ferguson, in some ways, represented a culmination of and a marked distinction from what had gone and serves as a particularly incisive example to use in comparison to the King riots, which were ignited entirely by the public, non-police murder of a highly revered political and spiritual leader. Much of the important distinction centers on media coverage of the two cataclysmic events, as in effect, the King riots and Ferguson were turning points saw violence as a political tool and the reportage of political violence.
To be sure, President Lyndon Johnson deployed battle-tested soldiers in Washington, D. C., and Chicago during the King riots, but this only underscores the fact that the police were considered distinct from the military, rather than taking more of the appearance and tactics of soldiers as they were to do in later uprisings such as Ferguson.
How did media sources make sense of the upheaval in 1968 and 2014? In both cases, media sources paid attention to the relevant “facts” of rioting—casualties, property damage, the areas of riot activity, and numbers of those arrested. News media also reported the numbers of people working for the police, fire department, and the National Guard. Yet, when examining how news coverage of the 1968 and 2014 uprisings, one finds that media sources sought to make sense of different types of crises for their audiences. The Holy Week unrest following the King assassination not only underscored the problems of cities—poverty, discrimination, middle-class, white, and job flight—it seemed to highlight the notion that the nation had reached a crossroads. To echo Dr. King’s question, would the United States choose chaos or community? Yet, in Ferguson, some media outlets captured and transmitted images of fatigue- and gas-mask wearing police pointing guns at unarmed protesters, which provoked outrage. To be sure, President Lyndon Johnson deployed battle-tested soldiers in Washington, D. C., and Chicago during the King riots, but this only underscores the fact that the police were considered distinct from the military, rather than taking more of the appearance and tactics of soldiers as they were to do in later uprisings such as Ferguson. The civil disturbances of 1968 signaled a nation that threatened to tear itself asunder but, significantly, Ferguson became a harbinger for a movement against state violence and a conversation about policing because it had become more militarized, not only because it could be brutal or highly insensitive in dealing with African Americans.
Riots are media phenomena. Images and footage of smoke rising from buildings, participants looting stores, and law enforcement engaging protesters make for good drama. Uprisings also help facilitate rather truncated conversations about a variety of issues related to race, class, gender, and urban and suburban life. Media reporting of collective violence become fields of debate where activists, politicians, policymakers, scholars, and journalists and news correspondents argue about race and the direction of the nation, black Americans’ protest tactics, whether collective violence is politically significant, and how the state should respond to civil unrest. In doing so, cable news stations and print and internet media provide consumers with visual aids—still images, aerial coverage, on-the-ground footage, news segments, and documentaries—which frames conversations about policy and may help shape and/or reinforce attitudes about particular racial groups.
The increased number of partisan news outlets coupled with the rise of amateur news reporting on social media have made two things possible: it is easier for people to get the slant on news that they want and to tune out any that they do not want; and it has made it more difficult for the mainstream, elite media to control the narrative of any given major event, as they used to. In short, news coverage has become a site for political organizing and constant insurgency.
The transformation of media between 1968 and 2014, itself, and its landscape also changed the way news sources depicted collective violence. While print and television media dominated news coverage of uprisings during the 1960s, various interrelated market, political, and technological developments after 1968 set the stage for Ferguson coverage. The roots of cable news reporting of Ferguson can be found in the Cable News Network’s (CNN) around-the-clock coverage featuring in-time analysis and aerial coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles unrest. Scholars such as political scientist Matthew Levendusky and historian Nicole Hemmer have illustrated how deregulatory measures such as the elimination of the fairness doctrine paved the way for the creation of partisan cable news networks like Fox News and MSNBC. News analysis shows such as Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor, Sean Hannity’s Hannity, as well as MSNBC’s and All In with Chris Hayes featured hosts who presented their own take on daily news. As news coverage became more openly partisan, it became more polarizing, as it became less concerned in persuading the independent or the skeptical and more concerned with affirming and activating the passions of the believers.
The internet also restructured the media landscape, leading to a proliferation of more sources catering to various, yet specific, types of news consumers. Online sources such as Vox and Huffington Post typically lean leftward while Breitbart and The Blaze appeal to the right. The Root targets black Americans. Also, the advent of social media accelerated and occasionally democratized coverage of uprisings. Social media platforms like Twitter have influenced news coverage and allowed users to receive information about a particular story closer to real time. In Ferguson, citizen journalists utilized smartphones, laptops, and other digital devices to challenge elite media representations of blackness and interpretations of civil disturbances on social media. The increased number of partisan news outlets coupled with the rise of amateur news reporting on social media have made two things possible: it is easier for people to get the slant on news that they want and to tune out any that they do not want; and it has made it more difficult for the mainstream, elite media to control the narrative of any given major event, as they used to. In short, news coverage has become a site for political organizing and constant insurgency.
Holy Week, 1968
Dr. King’s assassination and the scores of riots not only shocked Americans, it seemed to point to a crisis for the civil rights movement and the nation front and center. The Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Floyd McKissick declared “nonviolence dead.” Stokely Carmichael told reporters the next day that “White America declared war on black people” after Dr. King’s murder. Even the writer Herbert Mitgang asked in a New York Times analysis of the meaning of Dr. King’s death and the collective violence that followed, “Has nonviolence died with the death of Dr. King?”
A month before Dr. King’s assassination and the Holy Week uprisings, members of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders released its report in response to the 1967 Newark and Detroit revolts. In the wake of the civil unrest in July 1967, President Lyndon Johnson called for the creation of the Commission.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed Illinois Governor Otto Kerner as chairman. However, the Commission’s Vice President, New York City liberal Republican mayor John Lindsay, the Commission’s vice chair, played a more central role in shaping the report’s findings, “[assuming] virtual leadership of the panel.”
The Riot Commission’s report criticized the media’s coverage of civil unrest. The Commissioners concluded that “the portrayal of violence that occurred last summer failed to reflect accurately its scale and character. The overall effect was … an exaggeration of both mood and event.” The Commission proceeded, “We believe that the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations.” The Commission recommended that media companies diversify, train journalists in urban affairs, and create a privately-owned and run “institute of urban communications,” to implement the Commission’s recommendations for media reform.
The Riot Commission’s report criticized the media’s coverage of civil unrest. The Commissioners concluded that “the portrayal of violence that occurred last summer failed to reflect accurately its scale and character. The overall effect was … an exaggeration of both mood and event.”
News agencies had little time to adjust, or respond, to the Riot Commission’s suggestions prior to the unrest in April. Much of the coverage of the Holy Week uprisings in mainstream and black press outlets led with the “facts” of riots. New York Times reporter Douglas E. Kneeland offered a detailed accounting of the damage that participants inflicted in Kansas City in the April 11 edition: “Windows were broken in about 200 businesses” and “75 incendiary fires were reported.” Willard Clopton, Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser stated that over 500 fires were reported in the April 7 edition. The Chicago Daily Defender’s Donald Mosby reported “more than 1,000 fires have been set in the riot areas” in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune offered “facts on rioting” as it related to the disturbance in its city, which included the curfew time, the number of dead, injured, arrested, and displaced, or homeless and those working for the police, fire departments, Army, and National Guard. They also listed the number of fires and looting as well as the areas of riot activity.
News consumers who watched nightly reports or read print media would encounter imagery of the destruction that not only showed a nation in turmoil, but one that resembled a war zone. The April 8 edition of the Chicago Daily Defender images of destruction in Chicago to “war-torn Europe.” The photos feature a building hollowed out by fire, firemen battling a fire near a movie theater, and a picture of gas mask-wearing and bayoneted rifle-carrying guardsmen surrounding a black girl, who, according to the caption, appeared “afraid, lost, and homeless,” as the soldiers “seem to frighten her more.” The Washington Post published pages of photos containing violent imagery of uprisings. They accompanied headlines emphasizing property destruction and looting. The Washington Post published another set of images of property ablaze in “Washington: Burning, Looting Mark the City.” In a set of photos entitled, “The Flames of Violence in Washington,” the paper compiled a series of images of firefighters extinguishing a burning store.” Similarly to the Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Courier featured images of burning buildings in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in “Cities Burns As Aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Death.” The April 5 edition of the Chicago Daily Defender includes a photo showing National Guardsmen holding bayoneted rifles as they gather near firefighters seeking to tame a blaze. The April 8 edition of the Chicago Tribune featured an image of U.S. troops marching down 63rd Street.
Many of the editorials from the mainstream and black press echoed Dr. King’s and the Riot Commission’s observations that the country had reached a crossroads on April 4. The New York Times called Dr. King’s murder a “national disaster.” Editorial boards at The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the black Pittsburgh Courier declared that the United States had approached a crossroads. Wall Street Journal’s Monroe W. Karmin conjured the Riot Commission when he asked, “Can America, avoid splitting into two societies—one black, the other white—separated by a chasm of hate?” An article in the Pittsburgh Courier posed the following questions, “Tonight, from his Valhalla, Dr. King looks at what his death has triggered … He understands our grief … Where does America go from here? Will our nation’s political leaders face up to their responsibilities, to pass and enforce meaningful Civil Rights legislation? […] America—the answer is in YOUR hand.”
Some sources even viewed Dr. King’s assassination and the ensuing violence as an existential threat. In the Chicago Daily Defender’s “A Man of Peace” the editors state, “Shadows of a race war are falling on land and sea. There is no voice sonorous enough, persuasive enough to stay the evil course of events … The disorders that erupted in the wake of King’s assassination are mere skirmishes in comparison to what is to come when summer arrives.” The Wall Street Journal saw the violence as “dangers to democracy.” The editorial declared, “We have not only the black-white separatist tendencies but also a group of people, both Negro and white, who appear to feel they have no stake in society and consequently no obligation to it.” The Los Angeles Times called the occasion “a time for introspection” and stated that “Americans will either agree to live together as one people under one standard of law and humanity, or we will be the witnesses and passive conspirators in the process of our own self-destruction.”
For black activists and members of the print media, Dr. King’s assassination and the uprisings raised questions about the efficacy of nonviolent resistance and signaled a major shift in black political strategy. Chicago Daily Defender reporter Dave Potter asked locals about the prospects of the civil rights movement and nonviolent resistance in the April 5 edition. Chicago Republican State Committeeman Bill Stewart declared, “’The nonviolent movement died with Dr. Martin Luther King.” Robert Conda told Potter, “I feel this is the opening of the door through which will come violence.” In the editorial, “Assassination of Dr. King,” the Los Angeles Times stated that Dr. King’s death hurt advocates of nonviolence. “They said that the most radical advocates of Black Power violence had had their hands strengthened by the brutal killing. It was pointed out that many Negroes who had urged a middle-road, nonviolent course would now be vulnerable to the ‘get a gun and protect yourself’ arguments of the militants.” In this way, blacks generally were coming to embrace a view about “Arm Yourself or Harm Yourself,” about having weapons to protect themselves from the police and white reprisals that mirrored white Middle Americans who also felt an ever-increasing need to own guns to protect themselves from blacks and urban disorder. As an oppressed minority, blacks’ fear was more justified than whites, but the fear on both sides was palpable. The Chicago Daily Defender’s Betty Washington explored this issue in multiple articles on Dr. King following his death. Signaling a crisis in national black leadership, Washington wrote: “What cannot be ignored, however, is the philosophy that speaks for total black rebellion – a violent one – has also been strengthened as a result of Dr. King’s assassination. The questions, ‘What are we going to do next,’ and ‘Where do we go from here,’ are being asked both by the advocates of violence and nonviolence.”
For black activists and members of the print media, Dr. King’s assassination and the uprisings raised questions about the efficacy of nonviolent resistance and signaled a major shift in black political strategy.
Many black publications criticized the violence. The Baltimore Afro-American’s critique of the uprisings appeared in a nuanced editorial—entitled “Reflections”—which listed various “facts” critiquing black militants, riot participants, and skeptics of the oppressive roots of unrest. Several of their points also criticize “hoodlums” for taking advantage of Dr. King’s death and those who entertain armed struggle. Los Angeles Sentinel columnist A.S. Young declared, “I believe that anyone…who employs the assassination of a great man like Dr. Martin Luther King as an excuse to burn and loot is essentially a hoodlum.” Alma Brown wrote in a letter to the editor at the Baltimore Afro-American: “Those people who are using Dr. King’s death as a reason for physical violence can only defile the dream and defer the reality of that dream,” Brown wrote. She continued, “Let’s continue Dr. King’s program which got results.” While the black press generally saw the King riots in the same way as the white press, black newspapers understood that the death of King meant a desperate search for a new political tactic, a new method, as faith in nonviolence as a political and moral imperative had ended. Certainly, African Americans would not entirely abandon nonviolent protest after King but it would no longer have quite the same moral or intellectual authority that it previously held.
Members of the media took up Dr. King’s question—“Where do we go from here?” Many argued that the nation should respond swiftly by enacting some of Dr. King’s demands to eradicate poverty, or even act on the Riot Commission’s recommendations, although on a federal level this was hardly realistic as Lyndon Johnson, the most sympathetic president to civil rights in American history, had made himself a lame duck by announcing just a week before King’s death that he would not seek reelection, making it impossible for him to fight the white southern and Republican backlash in the Congress. Nonetheless, the calls for action on King’s vision were vociferous. “From all sides there were also demands that the nation must take affirmative steps to end the conditions that Dr. King was fighting against—inequality and poverty, hatred and bigotry,” Ben Franklin wrote in the New York Times. New SCLC leader Rev. Ralph Abernathy told more than 800 congregates at the Hunter Street Baptist Church in Atlanta, “White America has the opportunity to rise to greatness at this moment by burying hesitation and delay, by properly honoring the most moral man of this century, by liberating black Americans and all the poor, both black and white.” Excerpts of a forthcoming article on the problem of uprisings written by Dr. King appeared in the April 7 edition of the Washington Post. Entitled, “U.S. Plays Roulette with Riots,” Dr. King agreed with the Riot Commission’s conclusions that racism threatened to split the nation apart and called for “a massive wave of militant nonviolence” as an alternative to rioting. The article underscored many of the themes that Dr. King spoke publicly about in the last years of his life such as ending the Vietnam War and addressing poverty. Dr. King called for an “economic bill of rights” that would guarantee jobs for those who wanted work and an income for those who were unable.
The Wall Street Journal, instead, suggested for a more focused approach to addressing the crisis. Rather than an “emotional catharsis over race” and broad federal programs to address poverty, they suggest reforming urban public school systems should be the first priority. “The big task remaining to public authorities is to get the urban public schools into something approaching working order,” they declared. To the end of rehabilitating public schools, the editors suggest recuperating money from “the present scattergun approach to poverty and race problems, and to concentrate them on the slum schools in the 25 or 50 cities where the problems are critical.” The editors do not outline a detailed strategy for reform. Their critique of the War on Poverty left open a question about strategy: Should such an approach be left to the communities, themselves, state governments, the federal government?
Many black publications criticized the violence. The Baltimore Afro-American’s critique of the uprisings appeared in a nuanced editorial—entitled “Reflections”—which listed various “facts” critiquing black militants, riot participants, and skeptics of the oppressive roots of unrest. Several of their points also criticize “hoodlums” for taking advantage of Dr. King’s death and those who entertain armed struggle.
The Chicago Tribune editorial, “Law and Order First,” captured the editors’ views on what needed prioritizing in the wake of the civil disturbances. It seemed, for Tribune’s editors, that the only solution to the urban crisis was to use law enforcement and the National Guard to put down the rebellion. The editorial not only emphasized the criminality of the disturbances, they argued that liberal policymakers in the Democratic and Republican parties were culpable. They criticized Otto Kerner’s perceived role in putting together the Commission’s report, as well as John Lindsay and President Johnson. The Chicago Tribune seemed to be conjuring Republican Party presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s law and order rhetoric.
Republican Party presidential candidate Richard Nixon made civil disorder and law and order issues in the 1968 presidential campaign, aided by the fact that the general increase in violent crime during the 1960s made this a major concern. In fact, media portrayals of unrest influenced political culture during the election. Nixon capitalized on images of collective violence in American streets in his law and order campaign ad. As Nixon told viewers that “it was time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States,” images of firefighters putting out fires, police firing tear gas, and wounded protesters flashed across television screens. The ad conflated the antiwar and student protests with the urban rebellions. The viewpoint simultaneously depoliticized the participants’ rioting while utilizing the imagery as a tool to gain political power. But, ultimately, the commercial exploited fears and concerns about national collapse.
The shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 and the St. Louis County Prosecutor’s announcement that the grand jury would not indict officer Darren Wilson in November ignited the latest round of rebellions. One difference between the coverage in 1968 and 2014 is that images of militarized police forces confronting largely unarmed protesters sparked debates about the nature of policing in the United States. Similar to the coverage of the Holy Week uprisings in 1968, most sources reported the “facts” of rioting—the numbers of burned buildings, arrested, and police, firefighters, and National Guard deployed. And while there was occasional overlap in analyses of police militarization, general debates about race and racism and the unrest often played themselves out on parallel tracks in partisan media as news sources such as MSNBC, Fox News, and Breitbart focused on their own talking points.
As many scholars and media critics have illustrated, social media usage by citizens and trained journalists helped shape how we interpreted information about Michael Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson. Black activists and citizen-journalists such as Ashley Yates, Johnetta Elzie, DeRay McKesson, local hip-hop artist Tef Poe, and former St. Louis city alderman, Antonio French offered real-time reporting of the protests before national media outlets escalated its coverage. Other members in the media took note. Vox’s German Lopez published a list of social media activists on the ground in Ferguson. African American observers also launched their own social media campaigns such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to support Michael Brown and to call attention to racist representations of Brown and African Americans in the midst of the nonviolent and violent protests in Ferguson.
One difference between the coverage in 1968 and 2014 is that images of militarized police forces confronting largely unarmed protesters sparked debates about the nature of policing in the United States.
The imagery coming out of Ferguson highlighting the militarized police response to protesters seemed to symbolize a crisis in police power run amok. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published various slideshows in the days after the uprising. The Post-Dispatch’s Robert Cohen took one of now-deceased Edward Crawford hurling a tear gas canister back at police became an iconic depiction of resistance. Days after Brown’s death and the ensuing unrest, MSNBC staff published a slideshow of photos from the protests that included police peeking out of armored vehicles and images of law enforcement tear-gassing protesters. They also featured the photo of a black person holding up his hands as a group of fatigue- and gas mask-wearing police approach. The image starkly symbolized the power imbalance between protesters and authorities. Similar to the Pittsburgh Courier’s series of photos that compared 1968 Washington and Baltimore to “war-torn Europe,” Vox’s German Lopez published a series of images of militarized police forces confronting protesters with the title recalling the U.S. war and military occupation in Iraq, “Iraq or Missouri?”
Reporters and analysts from The Atlantic, New York Times, Washington Post, and Vox sought to place Michael Brown’s death and the ensuing protests and riots in the context of systemic racism in metropolitan St. Louis. In addition to telling stories about deindustrialization, white flight, and residential segregation in St. Louis and its surrounding municipalities, journalists also reported on the lack of representation and imbalance of power in local government and law enforcement. The fact that whites formed the majority on city council, served as mayor, and dominated its police force emerged as a talking point among reporters looking to contextualize Brown’s death and the ensuing protests.
So did stories of past police abuses. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie told the story St. Louis police shooting 25-year-old Cary Ball, Jr., 25 times after a high-speed chase. On an MSNBC report on Ferguson, Chris Hayes asked three local protesters if they all had a story about negative interactions with law enforcement and they all replied affirmatively. The protests and the civil disturbance were years in the making. Former St. Louis University historian Stefan Bradley expressed the sentiment that the Ferguson unrest was a response to a longer history of police abuse. He told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “What set it off, of course, was the death of Mike Brown, Jr. […] But this had been boiling for a long time. […] And the only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.” As the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report confirms, law enforcement targeted black Americans disproportionately for ticketing, fines, and fees to bolster the municipality’s revenue. It was true that Ferguson was plagued by fiscal troubles. But, as historian Walter Johnson illustrated, this partly was due to state law prohibiting the government from raising taxes.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered a range of topics in its reporting on the August and November protests and civil disturbances. A majority of the 93 articles published in August and November focused on the protests, especially demonstrators’ clashes with police. Unlike the coverage from sources such as MSNBC, The Washington Post, Vox and others outlets that questioned the police response, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporting mostly described the police’s engagement with protesters. Several stories chronicled law enforcement’s use of tear gas, but not in a critical manner. “Police fired the tear gas into an increasingly unruly crowd that had reformed near the QuikTrip …,” a staff report stated. The looting and burning of Quik Trip on Florissant Road garnered attention as the Dispatch published a slideshow and several stories on its symbolism for the protesters. The publication also covered the facts of the riot after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced his office would not indict Darren Wilson. “Businesses burn, police cars torched as violence ‘much worse’ than August” surveyed the damage to the city on the night of November 25. Much of the coverage, however, focused on the details of the nightly protests, Darren Wilson’s case, and the County Prosecutor’s announcement.
As the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report confirms, law enforcement targeted black Americans disproportionately for ticketing, fines, and fees to bolster the municipality’s revenue. It was true that Ferguson was plagued by fiscal troubles. But, as historian Walter Johnson illustrated, this partly was due to state law prohibiting the government from raising taxes.
For many reporting for mainstream liberal outlets, Ferguson not only represented a crisis in militarized policing, they often discussed law enforcement and the protest in militaristic terms. Vox published several articles contextualizing the militarized police response in Ferguson in several articles such as “Why America’s police forces look like invading armies.” Julie Bosman and Matt Apuzzo of the New York Times compared images of militarized police in the United States with state responses to protests abroad. “To the rest of the world, the images of explosions, billowing tear gas and armored vehicles made this city look as if it belonged in a chaos-stricken corner of Eastern Europe, not the heart of the American Midwest.” Max Fisher’s, then writing for Vox, and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes’s critiques of Ferguson’s police response recalled James Baldwin’s and the Black Panthers’s views of police as an “occupying [force] … like a foreign troop.” The New York Times Editorial Board explained why people in Ferguson rebelled in November, “For the black community of Ferguson, the killing of Michael Brown was the last straw in a long train of abuses that they have suffered daily at the hands of local police … In this context, the police are justifiably seen as an alien, occupying force that is synonymous with state-sponsored abuse.” In a manner reminiscent of the coverage of National Guard repressing the Holy Week uprisings, Jelani Cobb penned a first-person account of the Ferguson protests where he described the clashes in a militarist tone. “What transpired in the streets appeared to be a kind of municipal version of shock and awe.”
However, The Nation’s Steven Hsieh’s interviews of Canfield Green residents presents a little more nuanced discussion of law enforcement. Adrian Wilkerson told Hsieh that they “we’re basically living under martial law” in the midst of the protests. Yet, Wanda Edwards understood the heavy police presence. “’I understand they have to do their job. I understand they have to protect themselves as well as the community. Though some of the things were over the top—all that riot gear and such.” Even though Hsieh illustrates how the story of policing in Ferguson can be complex, the imagery of asymmetrical power during the Ferguson unrest opened the space for the legacy of a more critical perspective of law enforcement to enter into mainstream conversation.
Some conservative and libertarian observers and politicians also critiqued police militarization. In his criticism of the protests and unrest, “7 Lessons From Ferguson,” former Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro admitted that “militarization of police should trouble Americans.” Critiquing police militarization, however, does not necessarily amount to a liberal perspective of urban uprisings. As some Republicans like Senator Rand Paul demonstrated, one could criticize police militarization on libertarian grounds—the state should refrain from outward militarized repression of protests. However, it is possible to launch this critique while arguing that collective violence was, a.) apolitical and criminal, and b.) deemphasize the role that racism and economic exploitation played in creating the conditions for rebellion. Shaprio couched his observations on police in a critique of anti-racist activists, media who would “always run with a racism angle,” and of “race-baiter extraordinaire” Rev. Al Sharpton.
The issue of “black-on-black violence” emerged as a conservative counterpoint in Ferguson coverage. Black conservative commentator Jason L. Riley criticized anti-racist activists and liberals for their failure to act. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Riley argues that black criminality is at the root of police killings and racial profiling. “Racial profiling and tensions between the police and poor black communities are real problems, but these are effects rather than causes, and they can’t be addressed without also addressing the extraordinarily high rates of black criminal behavior—yet such discussion remains taboo,” Riley wrote. National Review writers Victor Davis Hanson, Heather MacDonald, and Deroy Murdock also argued against liberals and leftists who focused on “bigoted white cops” rather than African Americans who commit violent crimes.
Many scholars and journalists have explained why the issue is often a red herring in conversations about race and racism in the United States. Historian Heather Ann Thompson argues for the importance of placing post-1960s inner-city violence in the context of deindustrialization, suburbanization, changes in policing, mass incarceration, and, especially, the War on Drugs. Thompson explains, “The level of gun violence in today’s inner cities is the direct product of our criminal-justice policies—specifically, the decision to wage a brutal War on Drugs. When federal and state politicians such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller opted to criminalize addiction by passing unprecedentedly punitive possession laws rather than treat it as a public health crisis, unwittingly or not, a high level of violence in poor communities of color was not only assured but was guaranteed to be particularly ugly.” Vox’s Lauren Williams took up this issue in the wake of the Ferguson uprisings. Rather than rely on pathological explanations, Williams explained how inner-city violence and systemic racism and poverty intersect.
The conservative position was also more explicitly pro-law enforcement than the mainstream liberal analyses. Unlike The Washington Post and New York Times who published articles raising questions about policing, generally, conservative pundits such as O’Reilly and Hannity, however, praised law enforcement and accused critics of besmirching the police’s handling of the Wilson case and the rebellion. Sean Hannity and other Fox News journalists were more likely to argue that the media distorted “the facts.” However, they repeated the disproved information that Darren Wilson had suffered a broken eye socket in an attempt to demonstrate Michael Brown’s physical aggressiveness and to justify Wilson’s actions. Vox refuted the false story about Darren Wilson’s allegedly broken eye socket that conservative pundits like Sean Hannity reported.
The juxtaposition of the coverage in 1968 and 2014 should also continue to raise questions about how Americans consume the news, especially in the context of the calcification of news echo chambers and the advent of “fake news.” The creation and perpetuation of parallel narratives, especially those grounded in mistruth or conspiracy theory could only have deleterious effects on the media coverage of civil disturbances.
Ultimately, many conservative observers and media personalities like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, emphasized the criminality of the unrest. For them, the presence of looting and property destruction, and the unrest, generally, indicated an attempt to undermine order. For O’Reilly, Hannity, and others, the collective violence in Ferguson was not about politics, but “for fun and profit,” a phrase from political scientist Edward C. Banfield’s The Unheavenly City where he argues that riots are largely rampages by young people, especially young men, whose “righteous indignation” is mostly a pretext for release of destructive “animal spirits.” (In fairness to Banfield, he also argues that white middle-class young men have riots too, the often violent celebration of a sports franchise winning a championship being a case in point.) Like some of the TV and newspaper coverage of the 1968 Holy Week uprisings suggested, Fox News commentators argued that participation in civil disturbances did not reflect any political consciousness, but “an excuse to rob and loot.” Other conservative commentators cynically derided violent protesters. Heather MacDonald argued that “rioting is black entitlement” and Ben Shapiro called collective violence “Black America’s favorite past time.”
Even though the transformation of the media landscape reshaped the way Americans consumed news coverage of the Holy Week and Ferguson uprisings in 1968 and 2014, the reporting on urban rebellions, generally, raises concerns about oppression, human life, law and order, property, collective violence, and protest. The images and commentary that try to depict or the “facts” of rioting—the casualties, amount of property lost through arson and looting, the amount of law enforcement and how it responds—and/or explain such an event’s meaning often raise questions about race and the nation—how it should be governed, how marginalized people should, or should not, respond to injustice, and what role does race play in the causes of collective violence. But the juxtaposition of the coverage in 1968 and 2014 should also continue to raise questions about how Americans consume the news, especially in the context of the calcification of news echo chambers and the advent of “fake news.” The creation and perpetuation of parallel narratives, especially those grounded in mistruth or conspiracy theory could only have deleterious effects on the media coverage of civil disturbances.