Different Lyrics, Same Song: Watts, Ferguson, and the Stagnating Effect of the Politics of Law and Order

53 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2017

See all articles by Lonnie T. Brown

Lonnie T. Brown

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2017


This Article analyzes and exposes the discouraging parallels between the racial unrest endemic throughout America during the late 1960s and recent cultural turmoil, best exemplified by the prelude to and aftermath of Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri. The Article argues that these cross-generational commonalities are largely a product of the intense stultifying effect of the politics of law and order.

The Watts riots of 1965 represented the most notable instance of urban racial rioting in the 1960s, and thanks to a little-known Presidential Task Force Report, principally authored by then-Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark, deeply ingrained societal causes of the “destructive rebellion” were uncovered. The overly hostile encounter between police officers and black citizens that many pointed to as the cause was merely the catalyst for a long-simmering explosion. Clark’s Report captured the voice of South Los Angeles’s unheard black population and called for massive and sustained effort to eliminate the crippling problems of unemployment, inferior education, and antagonistic police-community relations. That Report, however, never saw the light of day and subsequent iterations of similar prescriptions were halted by the popular appeal of the politics of law and order. Specifically, rather than tackle the potential underlying concerns head on, the preferred political approach to addressing so-called racial lawlessness was to demand more “law and order,” a formula capitalized upon at the national level by the likes of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace during the 60s, and thereafter by even ostensibly liberal candidates, such as Bill Clinton.

As the Article reveals, the 2014 Ferguson episode was eerily reminiscent of Watts, especially in terms of the combative relationship between the city’s police and the African-American community, and vividly demonstrated how little progress American society has made over the past fifty years in terms of race relations. The civil unrest spawned by it and the growing list of similar contemporary incidents once again evoked the familiar law-and-order response on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

This depressing, counterproductive cycle could be altered, the Article contends, by a re-examination of and commitment to the message and recommendations of Ramsey Clark’s forgotten Watts Task Force Report. As it stated, “Ultimately, the problems [that] exploded into violence in Los Angeles are problems of how human beings treat one another, not only through the institutions of their society, but individually. Hope for the future rests on the good will and hard work of all our people.” If this simple truth is not recognized and embraced, especially by America’s leaders, the lyrics may change, but the song will remain the same. Politicians must resist the expedient allure of the law-and-order melody so they can listen to the voices of the unheard. Only then will they be able to compose a more hopeful and constructive anthem.

Keywords: Ferguson, Watts riots, Ramsey Clark, President’s Task Force on the Los Angeles Riots, race relations, police-community relations, Kerner Commission, law and order, civil rights, law enforcement, African-Americans, discrimination, segregation

JEL Classification: K19

Suggested Citation

Brown, Lonnie T., Different Lyrics, Same Song: Watts, Ferguson, and the Stagnating Effect of the Politics of Law and Order (August 1, 2017). Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL), Vol. 52, 2017, University of Georgia School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-20, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3011980

Lonnie T. Brown (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States

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