Their View: History lessons remain unlearned on riots

The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

There’s no need to study the Baltimore rioting this week to figure out the cause. The spark was the death of a black man in police custody. But the fuse lit by that spark was the same fuse cited in the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which examined riots in America nearly 50 years ago.

“The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of ‘moving the system,’ “ the commission, created by President Lyndon Johnson, reported after there were 167 riots in 1967 alone.

Poverty, joblessness, bad schools, poor health — the same percolating problems that brewed the 1960s riots are just as pervasive in too many minority neighborhoods across the United States today. And where you find those issues, you will also find the high crime rates that necessarily draw a heightened police presence.

The relationship between the police who patrol poor neighborhoods and the people who live in them too easily becomes adversarial. Officers must be specifically trained to develop connections that elicit trust in these communities. Without training, some officers treat the assignment as a war zone where the enemy must be dehumanized.

When that happens, we can expect incidents in which the police are accused of abusing their power. It’s happened in Ferguson, Mo.; Staten Island, N.Y.; North Charleston, S.C.; and now Baltimore, where Freddie Gray, 25, died after apparently suffering a spinal cord injury while in custody.

Violence broke out after Gray’s funeral Monday. Fires were set, several shootings occurred, and just as in the 1960s riots, looting became rampant in shopping areas largely frequented by blacks. There were reports that social media was used to encourage a “purge,” a reference to the movie The Purge, in which any crime is legal for one night.

There have already been too many such nights when violence and destruction take the place of reasonable discourse to resolve the enmity between police and minority residents. That’s why President Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, which has recommended steps police departments can take to be more accountable to the communities they serve.

Of course, improving police tactics only touches the surface of the underlying problems that produce riots, which, as the Kerner Commission found, are born of frustration when communities feel ignored.

The commission concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” One need only walk through America’s richest and poorest neighborhoods to see that even with a black president and black mayors in cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, that prediction, for some people, has come true.