BY ADAM PARKER
History repeats itself. We often wish it wouldn’t; we wish we could learn from our mistakes. We like to think that with each generation we become more enlightened, better able to contend with life’s challenges.
Then Ferguson happens.
A shooting. Protests. Violent police response. Days of confrontation. The governor gets involved. The National Guard is called in. A state of emergency is declared. Anger and resentment simmer.
And nothing really gets resolved.
“Shooting Surfaces Deep Racial Tensions,” a New York Times headline declares, as if we’re meant to assume the rebellion in Ferguson, Mo., was spontaneous, unjustified.
All of it — the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth in a poor area north of St. Louis, the eruption of anger in the community, the belligerent and militaristic police response, the cursing, the marching, the escalation of fear and anger, the blame flung about by observers, the desperate attempts to “keep the peace” and “stabilize” the community — all of it is like a recurring nightmare, déjà vu.
It is reminiscent of many racial confrontations between black youths and law enforcement in American cities over the years, but one in particular comes immediately to mind: the Orangeburg Massacre.
It was Feb. 1968 and students at Claflin College and South Carolina State College, both historically black schools, were unhappy about a recalcitrant small-town merchant who stubbornly refused to desegregate his bowling alley, claiming his business was not subject to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. He was a lone hold-out, and the students were not going to stand by quietly.
“Deep racial tensions” could be traced back to slavery days in Orangeburg and throughout the South. By 1968, the Black Power movement was in full swing, emboldening young African Americans to speak louder, protest more vigorously, demand not just their rights but political and economic influence.
It began with a protest at the bowling alley on February 6. Students tempted fate by entering the bowling alley (not for the first time; several similar challenges to owner Harry Floyd’s segregation policy had been attempted), only to be ejected. Some were arrested, prompting hundreds of students to leave campus and march to the small strip mall a short distance away. They gathered in the parking lot, met by state police. A fire truck was called to the scene, infuriating students. SLED Chief Pete Strom called for reinforcements.
The evening ended with the swinging of fists and batons. One officer was injured. Many students were attacked and beaten, some hurt badly enough to require emergency treatment at the college infirmary.
The episode was the result of rankling racial discord, of institutional injustice and pent-up frustration. It was followed by a day of simmering reflection and heated discussion. What should be done now?
The next day, Feb. 7, was relatively calm. Students and faculty held meetings on campus and drew up a list of demands to be presented to city and state officials. From his office in Columbia, Gov. Robert McNair tried to calm the situation. Publicly, he blamed “outside agitators” for the discord.
That evening included minor public outbursts. A small fire slightly damaged a home; a white man fired birdshot at a group of Claflin students who had ventured near his house; bottles were thrown as passing cars; two white teenage brothers drove onto campus and one fired a gun from the car, prompting students to attack the vehicle when it got caught in a dead end and ending with a police chase along Highway 601.
The daylight hours of Feb. 8 were the calm before the storm. Local police, SLED patrolmen, FBI agents and National Guardsmen were on high alert. Around 9:30 p.m., antsy students lit a bonfire on campus by the street. They grew rowdy. Some threw bottles. Fire trucks were called to the scene and the bonfire was doused. Law enforcement officers began to take up positions opposite the student protestors. Nearby, a banister was tossed through the air and struck Patrolman David Shealy, who fell to the ground.
Confusion ensued. Some thought Shealy had been shot. McNair apprised of the unfolding situation and fearful that students would burn down Orangeburg, ordered the perimeter to be tightened — 66 state patrolmen were armed with shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot; 45 National Guardsmen aimed M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets at the students.
Ellis MacDougall, director of the Department of Corrections, was struck in the leg by a rock. Someone discharged his weapon into the air, an act perhaps intended as a warning. Instead it prompted others to open fire. It was not clear who was giving orders. The 200 unarmed students gathered on the bluff dropped to ground. Some fell, writhing in pain. Others attempted to scramble up the embankment and out of danger.
Three young men were killed: freshman Samuel Hammond, sophomore Henry Smith and Orangeburg High School student Delano Middleton. Twenty-eight more were wounded, including Cleveland Sellers, a SNCC activist and South Carolina native who was on campus to promote black studies and other methods of black empowerment.
Sellers became the scapegoat, indicted ultimately on riot charges. In the immediate aftermath of the Orangeburg tragedy, news reports got it wrong. They stated that students and law enforcement exchanged fire and that Shealy was hit in the head by a bullet. Public attitudes toward the students therefore tended to be unsympathetic, even hostile: those thugs got what they deserved.
The FBI conducted a bumbling investigation but lost interest in the case after several months. The state did not insist on its own investigation. Students and campus officials complained, even protested, over the lack of resolution and vindication. Little public attention was paid to the case, even when a grand jury report indicated that nine patrolmen had broken the law.
In the end, blame landed on the shoulders of the “professional agitator,” Cleveland Sellers. The nine patrolmen were exonerated.
The Orangeburg Massacre remains a sore point in South Carolina’s remembered history. McNair went to his grave convinced that justice was done. He never apologized. The wounds inflicted on the psyches of South Carolina’s concerned citizens continue to fester.
And Ferguson’s wounds, too, will continue to fester, long after the current troubles subside.
For there, in the “hood” of St. Louis, misunderstanding and resentment rule the day. That’s what happens when police resort to violence rather than pursue community engagement. In both cases protesters had grounds to rebel. In Orangeburg, segregation and discrimination and disempowerment were the burning coals that required only a thrust of the fan to ignite.
In Ferguson, 46 years later, roots of discontent are much the same. Ferguson is about 70 percent black; its police force is 95 percent white. In 2013, blacks were far more likely to be pulled over by police and searched for contraband, even if whites were 14 percent more likely to have illicit drugs, according to racial profiling data reported by the Ferguson police. Blacks also were arrested at twice the rate of whites.
As with the Orangeburg Massacre, law enforcement officers in Ferguson were placed in a no-win situation. Police, patrolmen and National Guardsmen were expected to “restore order,” but that order was precisely the problem. If the purpose of rebellion is to challenge the status quo, then those working to uphold it are in the way.
When police forces dress up in camouflage, arm themselves with military-grade weapons and roll through the streets in modified MRAPs, and adopt military tactics in an effort to control the crowds, they are undermining their own cause, according to Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida and a professor of criminal law at the University of South Carolina.
“The military mission is straightforward: eliminate the enemy,” Stoughton said. “But a police officer is supposed to be working for everyone involved. He’s a servant of the public. And all of those individuals are the public. So when you start talking in terms of wars — on crime and drugs particularly — you put a set of blinders on police, who now say, ‘OK, now I work for the good guys.’ I think it’s changed the way we talk about it and the way we think about it, in a bad way.”
Now, he said, the enemy often is perceived to be within. Crime is not just crime, but motivated by something sinister, like terrorism. “It’s changed the way police see their mission,” Stoughton said.
For some, though, nothing much has changed. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon has been paying close attention to the Ferguson situation. He said he was sure the protests were instigated by “anarchists” and “outside agitators.” His use of those terms served to erase in an instant the 46 years that have elapsed since Orangeburg. It was 1968 all over again.
Such attitudes distract us from the real problems: economic and educational disparities, unemployment, racism and discrimination. Instead of the cop on the beat who gets to know the community he is meant to serve, we have helmeted police-soldiers and SWAT teams, armed with automatic rifles, grenade launchers and megaphones, ready for any confrontation. This sort of policing is surely part of the problem, and the people of Ferguson are right to rebel against it.
If we are to prevent the next Ferguson, it is essential to address social unrest in a way that’s inclusive and fair. Escalating a military response, especially in the absence of dialogue and negotiation, only exacerbates the resentment, often resulting in disaster.
Orangeburg (and many other examples of civil disobedience) showed us what can go wrong, and how quickly it can go wrong, when legitimate grievance is met with suppression — an effort “to restore calm” or “quell unrest” as the headlines say. Suppression alone sends a clear message: We are not interested in improving your lot, we only want you to obey the law. No wonder the message is repeatedly rejected.
Without genuine, organized efforts to address the underlying issues that cause discontent and disenfranchisement, the cycle of violence will surely continue. When the existing social order is the problem, it’s time to change the social order.
Adam Parker is a journalist in Charleston, South Carolina.