In the last five years nearly 100 unarmed African Americans have been killed by police.1 Too often, there was no apparent plausible justification, including in the widely publicized cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Walter Scott in North Charleston, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and Eric Garner in New York. In other cases, although the victims were lightly armed (sometimes with a pocketknife, or even a toy gun), police action was also excessive.
In the aftermath of many of these deaths, protests led by enraged residents, predominantly African American, arose and grew into a movement known as Black Lives Matter (BLM). These uprisings in Ferguson, North Charleston, Baltimore, and New York reflected not only outrage over the individual killings by police, but also decades of discriminatory treatment throughout the criminal justice system, as well as in housing, employment, and education.
Profiles of Racial Disorder Today
BLM traces its beginnings to 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed Black teenager in Sanford, Florida. Founded by activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, BLM began as a hashtag on social media but quickly evolved into a nationally recognized movement in 2014 after the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.2
Garner, an unarmed man selling untaxed single cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, New York, was killed after a police officer tackled him and pinned him down as Garner choked and gasped, “I can’t breathe.”3 Less than a month later, Brown, an 18-year-old college bound African American was fatally shot multiple times by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, after a confrontation. Robert McCulloch, St. Louis County's prosecuting attorney who declined prosecuting police officer Darren Wilson, blamed the 24-hour news cycle and its “insatiable appetite” for spreading rumors and inciting protests.4
The deaths of Brown and Garner prompted thousands of individuals to take to the streets in protests across the country. Notably, in Ferguson the police department responded to all demonstrations, including peaceful rallies, with force and the use of military grade equipment such as tear gas, armored vehicles, sound cannons, and rubber bullets.5 More than 400 people were arrested in Ferguson, and 150 people were taken into custody on “failure to disperse” charges.6
In the following months, BLM protests also responded to other apparently unjustified police killings of African American men. In North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, Walter Scott, a 50-year-old unarmed African American US Coast Guard veteran was shot eight times as he ran away from a police officer who had stopped him for a broken taillight.7 Two weeks later in Baltimore, Maryland, Freddie Gray died from injuries he sustained, including a broken spine, when he was tackled, put in a police van, and given a “rough ride.”8
Subsequently, the Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby revealed that the ostensible charge against Gray, that he had an illegal switchblade, was false and that at the time of his arrest, Gray was legally in possession of a pocketknife.9 Again, intense rallies organized by BLM erupted in reaction to Scott and Gray’s deaths. In Baltimore, the reaction was intensified by the lack of information that police and local government provided about the circumstances surrounding Gray’s death. While there were large nonviolent demonstrations in Baltimore, in some gatherings there were reports of individuals smashing and burning vehicles, looting stores, and throwing bricks and rocks at officers. Police arrested a number of protesters, including members of the press, and beat at least one protester.10 All six officers involved were either acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.11
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were at the center of the next wave of national BLM protests. In July 2016 Sterling, selling homemade CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, was shot and killed at close range by a police officer.12 Just one day later in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a suburb of St. Paul, Castile was pulled over on a traffic stop with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. Castile informed the officer he was legally in possession of a gun and told him he was not reaching for it, but the officer shot him seven times.13 Castille’s girlfriend, who filmed the incident on her cell phone, said Castille had been reaching for his identification at the time he was shot, but the officer involved said that he had reason to fear Castille was reaching for the gun in the car.14
These incidents spurred a wave of protests—some violent—in dozens of cities across the country in July 2016,15 leading to the arrest of nearly 200 demonstrators.16 The widespread sense of injustice precipitated national anthem protests led by then-NFL player Colin Kaepernick to take a knee as the anthem played to express solidarity with the BLM movement.17 Sporadic protests continued through the rest of the year.18
Recent Police Killings Are the Catalyst for, rather than the Root Cause of, Black Lives Matter Uprisings
Investigations conducted by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the Ferguson Commission (created through an executive order issued by the governor of Missouri in the aftermath of Michael Brown's killing), and others into the protests, and the police practices that precipitated them, have attributed BLM uprisings to the continued pervasive discrimination Black communities face throughout the criminal justice system, as well as in employment, education, and housing.19
In recent years, only a handful of police officers involved in seemingly unjustified police killings have been criminally charged.20 At the same time, evidence that these killings are part of broader schemes of racial targeting have been brought to light. For example, in 2015 the DOJ issued a scathing report about Ferguson, stating that the city’s law enforcement practices were “shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”21 Specifically, the DOJ found that Ferguson officials had put pressure on the police and the city manager to ramp up ticket writing and court fees to garner money for the city.22 As a result, the largely white Ferguson police force targeted African American neighborhoods, viewing these individuals as “potential offenders and sources of revenue” rather than constituents in need of protection.23
The DOJ’s 2016 investigation of Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray shed light on another city’s discriminatory practices. The report found that the Baltimore Police Department’s (BPD) legacy of zero tolerance enforcement led to an unconstitutional pattern of stops, searches, and arrests, which disproportionally impacted African American residents.24 BPD made 44 percent of its pedestrian stops in two small, predominantly African American districts that contained 11 percent of the city’s population, resulting in hundreds of individuals—nearly all of them African American—being stopped from 2010 to 2015. Seven Black men were stopped over 30 times each during this period.25 The DOJ also found that BPD routinely used excessive force, failed to adequately train police, and did not hold police accountable for serious misconduct.26 The DOJ noted that this behavior was particularly problematic in a city with a long legacy of economic and housing discrimination, causing over 100,000 African American Baltimore residents to live in poverty in the present day.
Today’s Racial Injustice Is a Continuation of the “Profiles of Disorder” Analyzed in the 1968 Kerner Commission Report
Public unrest, sometimes violent, precipitated by police killings is not a recent phenomenon. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed a bipartisan commission and charged it with analyzing the underlying causes and conditions that led to over 150 race-related riots during that summer. Headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, with Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York as vice chairman, the Commission issued its report on February 29, 1968.
The Kerner Commission sent field teams to cities that had experienced race-related uprisings to interview residents and conduct detailed demographic and sociological analyses. In a more than 600-page report, the Commission constructed 10 “profiles of disorder” that examined each city’s media and police response to the unrest, and the historical conditions that created neighborhoods of racially concentrated poverty. The Commission’s final report was the most extensive assessment of racial inequality and the most robust policy agenda seeking to address these issues that any US government entity has released to date.27
Many of the Kerner Commission’s profiles bear striking resemblance to accounts of recent cases of police brutality. Consider, for example, the July 1967 killing of Martin Chambers, an unarmed Black teenager in Tampa.28 Police chased after Chambers, who was suspected of robbing a camera equipment store, and trapped him at a high fence. At that point, Chambers put his hands up to surrender, but was fatally shot by an officer, according to eyewitness reports. Later, the officer claimed, and the Florida state attorney agreed, that the shooting was necessary to prevent a felon from fleeing police apprehension.29 Chambers’s killing set off three days of intense protests that involved violence, looting, and setting property on fire. Approximately 1,000 law enforcement agents were called to assist the local police, including National Guardsmen and Highway Patrol troopers.30
In a manner similar to both the Ferguson and Baltimore DOJ reports, the Kerner Commission found that the “precipitating event”—Chambers’ death—was merely the latest incident in a litany of grievances in Tampa, ranging from Black unemployment to the lack of educational opportunities. In a city where African Americans comprised 20 percent of the population in 1967, no African Americans had ever served on the city council, school board, fire department, or in a high-ranking position on the police force.31 Out of every 10 Black homes, six were deemed uninhabitable.32 A majority of Black children had not attained an eighth-grade education.33 More than half the city’s Black families had incomes of less than $3,000 a year (just over $22,000 in 2017 dollars).34
Many of the important Kerner Commission recommendations to address systematic inequality identified in the 1960s were subsequently ignored due to the cost of the Vietnam War, which absorbed federal discretionary funds and sapped the Johnson administration’s political capital. A backlash to the civil rights movement also made substantial policy reforms politically unattainable. Although in some respects racial equality has improved in the intervening years, in other respects today’s Black citizens remain sharply disadvantaged in the criminal justice system, as well as in neighborhood resources, employment, and education, in ways that seem barely distinguishable from those of 1968.
Kerner at 50: The Road Not Taken
In the spring of 2018 UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, in partnership with the Economic Policy Institute and the Johns Hopkins University’s 21st Century Cities Initiative, hosted “Race and Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50,” a national conference to review and commemorate the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, whose ominous warning stunned the nation: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.”35
The conference examined the history, legacy, and contemporary significance of the Kerner Commission. More than 30 experts in the realm of housing, education, health, and criminal justice convened in Berkeley to investigate why so few of the Kerner Commission’s recommendations were implemented, and how we might envision a similar and equally bold policy agenda for this moment.
This report memorializes key findings of the conference, focusing on two issues that the Kerner Commission addressed—policing and housing—to gauge what progress we have made toward advancing the recommendations made by the Commission and to examine where we have fallen short.
- 1Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, and Steven Rich, “Fatal Force,” Washington Post, https://www. washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/ police-shootings-2019/?noredirect=on&utm_ term=.ce459e11ba33. February 19, 2019.
- 2Elizabeth Day, “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement,” The Observer, July 19, 2015, sec. US news, https://www. theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/19/blacklivesmatter-birth-civil-rights-movement.
- 3German Lopez, “Eric Garner’s Family Gets $5.9 Million Settlement from New York City,” Vox, December 3, 2014, https://www.vox. com/2014/12/3/7327745/eric-garner-grand-jury-decision
- 4CNN, (Full Video) Ferguson Grand Jury Announcement (Clayton, Missouri, 2014), https:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd5sQEI_chs.
- 5German Lopez, “The 2014 Ferguson Protests Over the Michael Brown Police Shooting, Explained,” Vox, May 31, 2015, https://www. vox.com/identities/2015/5/31/17937728/ ferguson-missouri-michael-brown-police-shooting-black-lives-matter
- 6Wesley Lowery, “Black Lives Matter: Birth of a Movement,” The Guardian, January 17, 2017, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/ us-news/2017/jan/17/black-lives-matter-birth-ofa-movement.
- 7Alan Blinder, “Michael Slager, Officer in Walter Scott Shooting, Gets 20-Year Sentence,” The New York Times, January 20, 2018, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/07/us/michael-slager-sentence-walter-sc….
- 8Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jess Bidgood, “Freddie Gray Died from ‘Rough Ride,’ Prosecutors Assert,” The New York Times, December 21, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes. com/2016/06/10/us/caesar-goodson-trial-freddie-gray-baltimore.html.
- 9Eugene Robinson, “Freddie Gray Never Had a Chance,” Washington Post, May 1, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ post-partisan/wp/2015/05/01/freddie-gray-never-had-a-chance/.
- 10Baynard Woods and Madhvi Pankhania, “Baltimore Timeline: The Year since Freddie Gray’s Arrest,” The Guardian, April 27, 2016, sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.com/ us-news/2016/apr/27/baltimore-freddie-gray-arrest-protest-timeline.
- 11Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jess Bidgood, “All Charges Dropped Against Baltimore Officers in Freddie Gray Case,” The New York Times, December 21, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www. nytimes.com/2016/07/28/us/charges-droppedagainst-3-remaining-officers-in-freddie-gray-case. html.
- 12Crimesider Staff, “Bodycam Videos Show Clearest Account of Alton Sterling’s Killing,” CBS News, June 15, 2018, https://www.cbsnews. com/news/alton-sterling-shooting-new-videoshows-clearest-account/.
- 13Mark Berman, “What the Police Officer Who Shot Philando Castile Said about the Shooting,” Washington Post, July 21, 2017, https:// www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/ wp/2017/06/21/what-the-police-officer-whoshot-philando-castile-said-about-the-shooting/.
- 14Mitch Smith, “Minnesota Officer Acquitted in Killing of Philando Castile,” The New York Times, December 22, 2017, sec. U.S., https://www. nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/police-shooting-trial-philando-castile.html.
- 15Jasmine C. Lee et al., “At Least 88 Cities Have Had Protests in the Past 13 Days over Police Killings of Blacks,” The New York Times, July 16, 2016, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/16/us/protesting-police-sho…, https://www.nytimes.com/ interactive/2016/07/16/us/protesting-police-shootings-of-blacks.html; See also: Ralph Ellis, Madison Park, and Jareen Imam, “Black Lives Matter Protesters Return to Streets,” CNN, July 9, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/07/09/ us/black-lives-matter-protests/index.html.
- 16Tom McKay, “Black Lives Matter Protests across Country Result in Hundreds of Arrests,” Mic, July 10, 2016, https://mic.com/articles/148308/ black-lives-matter-protests-across-country-resultin-hundreds-of-arrests
- 17Tom Liddy, “Colin Kaepernick Kneels During National Anthem on ‘Monday Night Football,’” ABC News, September 13, 2016, https://abcnews.go.com/US/colin-kaepernick-kneels-national-anthem-monda….
- 18Rebecca Parr, “More Than 1,000 Gather in Oakland to Protest,” The Mercury News, December 13, 2014, https://www.mercurynews. com/2014/12/13/more-than-1000-gather-inoakland-to-protest/.
- 19“Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, March 4, 2015), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/ press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf; “Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity” (STL Positive Change: The Ferguson Comission, October 14, 2015), https://3680or2khmk3bzkp33juiea1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/ uploads/2015/09/101415_FergusonCommissionReport.pdf; “Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, August 10, 2016), https://www.justice.gov/crt/ file/883296/download.
- 20Madison Park, “Police Shootings: Trials, Convictions Are Rare for Officers,” CNN, October 3, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/18/ us/police-involved-shooting-cases/index.html; Blinder, “Michael Slager, Officer in Walter Scott Shooting, Gets 20-Year Sentence.”
- 21“Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”
- 22German Lopez, “What Did the Justice Department’s Investigation into the Ferguson Police Department Find?,” Vox, May 31, 2015, https:// www.vox.com/2015/5/31/17937860/justice-department-ferguson-police-micha…
- 23“Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department”; Lopez, “What Did the Justice Department’s Investigation into the Ferguson Police Department Find?”
- 24“Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” 25.
- 25“Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” 6.
- 26“Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department,” 10.
- 27“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report)” (Washington, D.C.: National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, February 29, 1968), 43–48, https:// belonging.berkeley.edu/1968-kerner-report
- 28“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 43–48.
- 29“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 43–48.
- 30“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 45.
- 31“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 45.
- 32“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 45.
- 33“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 45
- 34“Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Report),” 45.
- 35“Race & Inequality in America: The Kerner Commission at 50 Conference” (Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, February 27, 2018), https://belonging.berkeley.edu/kerner