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This week marks the start of Black August. The annual commemoration originated in California’s prisons in the 1970s following the deaths of brothers Jonathan and George Jackson and other incarcerated Black men who protested prison conditions. Black August is a time to revisit the rich history of Black resistance.
Historically and ironically, August has long been an active month for Black rebellion.
In 1791, enslaved people in what is today Haiti launched a successful revolt against French colonial rule in a “revolutionary fight for freedom” that “helped make the United States the country that it is today,” as Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed recently put it.
In 1831, Nat Turner led an infamous insurrection of enslaved Virginians.
In 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles witnessed six days of civil unrest following a brutal encounter between a Black motorist and White police officers.
And in 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, became the center of nationwide protests after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9.
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The Kerner Commission in session, Washington DC, 1967
This history of Black rebellion might bring to mind how the uprisings of the 1960s led to more expansive conversations on the root causes of civil unrest, and what needed to change. My CNN colleague Amir Vera offers a primer here. New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb and policy analyst Matthew Guariglia go even deeper in an indispensable new book, “The Essential Kerner Commission Report.”
In the slim volume, Cobb and Guariglia revisit the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more famously known as the Kerner Commission, after Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., the chairman.
Established in 1967 by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, the 11-person Kerner Commission convened to interrogate three questions amid a yearslong, nationwide wave of Black rebellion: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?
While the commission got a lot right – the report, released in 1968, underscored the connection between race-based discrimination and civil unrest, and suggested substantial government intervention – its observations and recommendations were largely ignored.
“Kerner establishes that it is possible for us to be entirely cognizant of history and repeat it anyway,” Cobb points out, trenchantly, in the new book’s introduction.
To discuss the persistence of the US’s racial hierarchies in policing and beyond, I recently spoke with Cobb. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Often, people think of Black rebellion as a reaction to an act of police violence. But what does the Kerner report tell us about other structural inequalities at work?
We think of Kerner as pointing us to the way to look at unrest and uprisings. But the actual lesson is that we should be thinking about the cumulative effect of stories that are happening in education coverage, in housing coverage, in health-care coverage, even in coverage of the disparities in Covid fatalities – all of these things.
We think of the cumulative effect of bad education being just more bad education. But we don’t think that there’s a detonation point. And what Kerner did, definitively, was point to the way that police were only one element of the bigger picture of social inequality, and point to the fact that just because the police sparked these uprisings did not mean that they were the sum total of the causes.
Some worry that an intense focus on policing can make it difficult to confront other institutional failures. What do you make of that?
Especially in this climate of policing, it’s hard to say that we’re focusing too much on police. But when you look at it in the bigger picture, are you really asking to say, “Oh, we want to create perfect policing but still have subpar schools, subpar housing, employment gaps, subpar health care”? So, I don’t even know if it’s possible to reform simply one institution that interacts with people and solve the problem, because the fact is, people experience all of these things in the course of their day.
So, the police are a crucial element, but they aren’t the only element. And Kerner, I think, masterfully threaded that in a way that I don’t think many people saw at that particular moment. But they looked at this and said, “Here are the problems with policing as we see it.” One of the notable ones was talking about the lack of diversity on police forces, but they also talked about media coverage. They were looking at the sum total of people’s experiences. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we keep coming back to it as a touchstone in this conversation.
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With their hands raised, residents gather at a police line as the neighborhood is locked down following skirmishes on August 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.
How should the media move toward more accurately covering the various structural inequalities – substandard housing, segregated neighborhoods – at the heart of Black rebellion?
I think that we’re making progress on that, actually. In some of the media coverage I saw last summer on PBS and MSNBC – I’m a commentator on MSNBC, so full disclosure – people were looking thoroughly and deeply into the kind of hidden parts of the outrage, what was going on beneath the surface.
That wasn’t the case in Ferguson (during the uprising, in 2014). When I went to Ferguson and the governor showed up, he was thinking that he was there to talk about Michael Brown (the Black 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a White police officer), but people were talking about roads, about school quality, about all these things that I eventually realized were at the heart of the conflict and made people understand Brown not as an anomaly but as a kind of ultimate conclusion. If you think that people deserve poor schools or deserve poor roads or poor services in general, the ultimate extension of that contempt is that now we see that our city services are willing to kill you.
I think that I saw more of that kind of holistic examination last summer than I’ve probably ever seen before in my life. And so to answer your question directly, the media has an outsized role to play in framing how we understand these things. And there’s always the odd chance that you’ll have a kind of rogue set of government people like Kerner who will get together in a room and decide to actually tell the truth.