Last week’s events in Ferguson have a depressing historical familiarity. Police violence in a context of racial inequality, followed by the emergence of civil unrest, does not look unusual to those studying race relations in post-1945 America. Such riots often appear a release: a trigger to express African-Americans’ long-held discontent about continued inequality and economic deprivation. Meanwhile critics from the left and the right rush to analyse, and pass judgement on how these events demonstrate the wider failings of American society. Yet despite these very clear continuities, the development of technology and mass media constantly reinvents how we conceive such actions and our own relationship to riots.
Take, for instance, the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War had been profoundly affected by the innovation of television, as Americans saw for the first time the visual realities of racial inequality and American foreign policy. Watts became the first televised major riot, and seeing the visceral anger of black rioters suggested to viewers that their rosy picture of Civil Rights’ success was flawed, and that inequality and racism were as painfully ubiquitous for those outside of the South.
Television also changed the dynamics of the riot itself, with participants being aware of the exact locations of the police, looted shops, and destinations to target, whilst middle-class Americans across the country watched in horror as the news presented a sensationalised view of an orgy of violence and madness, in one case helpfully set to ‘chase’ music. 1
By the time of the worst riot in recent American history, the 1992 Rodney King uprising (also in L.A), television had evolved in substantial ways. Schedules were disrupted for rolling news coverage, which allowed viewers to see hours of distressing footage of a city in flames. Hours of interviews showed the diversity of ‘characters’ from devastated Korean shopkeepers to surprisingly eloquent and conscientious gangsters, allowing us a far more detailed picture of the human aspects of urban rioting.
We do not usually consider the television news helicopter, or the ‘eye in the sky’ reporter, as an obvious technological advancement, yet in 1992 its employment was critical in showing the scope and the extent of the unrest. In one particularly memorable event, live television broadcast helicopter footage as Reginald Denny, a white truck-driver, was dragged from his vehicle and nearly beaten to death by a group of rioters. It is an uncomfortable, disturbing video, but an incredible visual that immersed television viewers within the heart of the riot.
In Ferguson last week, the advent of Twitter once again altered the nature of a familiar scene. This time, television news used split screens, with one half showing the riot unfolding, whilst the other displayed comments and opinions on social media. Today, anyone can become an armchair analyst on U.S race-relations and civil unrest, whilst also able to spark debate and discourse with a fellow contributor anywhere in the world.
Some observers were quick to notice the comparison between the Ferguson ‘tank man’ and the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration. Moreover, Twitter offered a place to advertise and share the wave of protests that were occurring simultaneously, from Oakland in California to Times Square in New York, providing these protests with a transcendent quality of national unity and outrage.
Despite our own preconceived ideas, it is unlikely that we will ever truly find out what happened to Michael Brown. Likewise, we will never truly comprehend the experience of rioting in Ferguson, the deep and complex motivations of rioters, or the manner in which the consequences will play out in this relatively small city.
Yet access to mass media and increased technology provides a fallacy that we are moving closer, and through this, observers seems increasingly confident that they can make strong assertions and sweeping generalisations. Just as television viewers in 1965 were able to sympathise or condemn those in Watts, Twitter users today feel emboldened to wildly launch racial slurs and accusations of police racism.
Technology will continually provide the synthetic sense that we are moving closer to the ‘truth’ of America’s racial and social problems, when perhaps it merely exaggerates our own biases in debating a seemingly ceaseless issue.
George Francis is studying for an MA in American History at the University of Sheffield.
Image: Wikicommons, Burning buildings during the Watts riots, August 1965.
- Gerald Horne, ‘The Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s’, (Virginia, 1995), pp.322-325. ↩