Protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of an unarmed teenager at the hands of local police bring to mind the tumult of the 1960s civil rights movement, writes Neil Levine. Shown: Demonstrators yell at Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald Johnson on August 17, 2014 in Ferguson. (Joshua Lott / Getty Images)
Neil A. Levine teaches strategic leadership at the National Defense University on a two-year faculty appointment from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has over 25 years of federal service working in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. The views expressed are the author's and do not represent the U.S. government, USAID or the National Defense University. / Courtesy Photo
The racially explosive events in Ferguson, Missouri over the last several days take me back almost 50 years, when cities across the country were inflamed following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a seven-year-old living in the D.C. suburbs, I was perplexed and I was scared. I wondered “Why would people destroy their own neighborhoods? What was all the anger about?” And I worried, “why is my dad still going to work if it’s dangerous downtown?”
I have spent a long time learning about racial prejudice, anger and the extent to which people will go to fight for freedom. But my first lesson was from my parents who were both active in the civil rights movement. Before we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, my mom took a train from New Jersey to take part in the landmark 1963 March on Washington. Two years later, my dad took a job with the fledgling Community Relations Service, originally a part of the Department of Commerce, created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to help communities deal effectively and creatively with racial conflict. That’s why my dad went to work. It was his job to help communities experiencing racial turmoil find a peaceful way forward.
The Community Relations Service employs the healing arts of dialog, mediation and community conflict resolution to bring strife-ridden communities together. Staffed originally by civil rights advocates, community leaders and experts in human relations, their efforts at mediation began in Selma and throughout the south. During the 1960s, the agency was active across the country: intervening in the aftermath of riots in Los Angeles, the Boston school busing disturbances, and scores of other racial conflicts.
CRS was moved to the Department of Justice, and its work has expanded to deal with hate crimes and challenges faced by newly arrived immigrant populations and by the LGBT community. With a unique federal mandate, CRS staff work quietly behind the scenes to engage community, religious and business leaders along with law enforcement and political leaders to find ways through troubled times. A hallmark of their work has been the ability to bring parties together on some of the toughest issues facing the community – perhaps none tougher than the police use of deadly force.
Fifty years ago, community distrust of the police was often fueled by political and economic exclusion and the racial divide between largely white police forces and African American and Latino communities they served. While great strides have been made in terms of voting rights and greater representation of minorities, police use of deadly force across the color line remains a tinderbox. CRS staff included former police officials as mediators and consultants who developed a major practice that went beyond crisis response to systems of prevention via police training, community outreach and changes to local law.
In some places like Ferguson, the racial divide continues making recent events a pointed reminder of how much work remains. The Washington Post recently reported that while two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents are African-American, 50 of 53 of the city’s cops are white, as are the mayor and most the city council. My dad used to say that “while we certainly have seen progress, we have a thousand miles to go” in terms of realizing Dr. King’s dream. Community conflict resolution is essential, but for communities like Ferguson, more focus is required on the larger issues of race and inequality, political representation, economic opportunity and access to government services for all citizens, particularly the poor.
Today, CRS offers a unique but little known capability of the federal government to respond to incidents like the one we are now witnessing. On August 14, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that CRS staff were “already on the ground” in Ferguson, “to help convene law enforcement officials and civic and faith leaders to plot out steps to reduce tensions in the community….Over time, these conversations should consider the role that increased diversity in law enforcement can play in helping to build trust within communities.”
That hope appears to be borne out in part as the Washington Post reported on the appointment of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ronald S. Johnson to lead security efforts in the aftermath of recent events. Johnson, who is African-American, was quoted by the Post as saying, “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together.”
In an era when the federal government is often demonized as a tyrant imposing its will on the states, CRS illustrates how a tiny federal agency with minimal resources can collaborate effectively with state and local officials, providing valuable expertise in a tense and challenging environment.
Neil A. Levine teaches strategic leadership at the National Defense University on a two-year faculty appointment from the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has over 25 years of federal service working in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the U.S. government, USAID or the National Defense University.