Unrest: Buffalo and Ferguson

By Allison Utting, Hope College

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans struggled under the weight of white supremacy, crippled by police brutality and economic inequality fostered by historically racist policies. The black population suffered in an environment of desperation and frustration that eventually matured into an anger known only by the oppressed. This anger inevitably spawned dozens of riots, particularly in the 1960’s, and ushered in the emergence of Black Nationalism and the Black Liberation movement. One such riot occurred in Buffalo, New York in 1967 and historical parallels can be made to the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. However, African American’s way of resisting societal subjugation has evolved into something of a cultural revolution and one that has aided the rise of Black Lives Matter in the United States.

Economic Inequality and Cultural Demographics

To fully comprehend the riots in Buffalo during the summer of 1967, it is critical to understand the region’s demographics. Buffalo was a divided city after a decade of white flight to suburbia and segregation minded housing policies concentrated a majority of the African American population into a few square blocks.[1] In this ghetto, unemployment ranged from seven to twenty percent and median family income hovered around $3,300 to $5,200 a year.[2] Deindustrialization throughout the Rust Belt, due to foreign manufacturing and competition, resulted in a high rate of unemployment in the city. African Americans were often disproportionately affected by the hardships of deindustrialization and were the first to be laid off as factories closed their doors.[3] Additionally, they had largely been excluded from the prosperity promoted by white political and business leaders after World War II.[4] These circumstances created a racially charged environment that spawned the riots of the 1960s.

Like Buffalo in 1967, Ferguson is a city dominated by African Americans yet the white minority yields power. From African Americans comprising only one percent of the city’s population in 1970, African Americans now make up two-thirds of Ferguson’s residents.[5] This dramatic change in demographics, however, has not translated into institutions of power and authority. Only three of the fifty-three commissioned officers in the Ferguson Police Department are African American.[6] Beyond the police force, systemic discrimination has bled into other areas of life in Ferguson. The median household income in Ferguson averages around $37,000, nearly $10,000 less than Missouri as a whole, and one-fifth of Ferguson residents fall below the national poverty line.[7] Low yearly income, high housing prices, and high unemployment has trapped many within the devastating cycle of poverty and added to the helpless feeling that permeates black neighborhoods.

Police Brutality: The Spark That Ignited the Riots

The riots in Buffalo occurred in the neighborhood labeled "W", east of downtown Buffalo. Photo Courtesy of University of Buffalo Libraries.
The riots in Buffalo occurred in the neighborhood labeled “W”, east of downtown. (Courtesy of University of Buffalo Libraries)

White leaders abuse of power compounded with economic inequalities to ignite the growing rage amidst African Americans in Buffalo and Ferguson. Particularly, white power elite’s acceptance of police brutality and disproportionate sentencing allowed them to uphold the system of racial inequality that maintained their power. A certain instance of police brutality in Buffalo turned out to be the spark that ignited a riot on Monday, June 26, 1967. A crowd of nearly 200 people responded to seemingly unnecessary force used by a police officer attempting to subdue an altercation between two African American teenagers. An eighteen-year-old African American rioter described the incident saying, “he swung his stick first and hit one boy in the head and another in the chest causing a very large bruise on his chest.”[8] Others reported that the police’s use of foul language and derogatory terms towards the growing crowd angered the African Americans into rioting.[9] The combination of physical and emotional aggression triggered a, “five-night riot that resulted in about sixty injuries, over 180 arrests, and approximately $250,000 worth of property damage.”[10] Rioters threw stones and bricks at police officers, broke store windows and looted businesses as police officers attempted to subvert them with tear gas.

A police cruiser burns during the Ferguson riots in November, 2014. (Courtesy of Tannen Maury/EPA, NY Daily News)

In 2014, history seemed to repeat itself and this time, all eyes were focused on Ferguson, Missouri after an incident of police brutality left one African American man dead in the street. The cause of the Ferguson riot was much like Buffalo, police brutality and a larger sense of disenfranchisement. However, a second wave of riots broke out in Ferguson after the courts failed to indict the white police officer responsible for the killing. Even more violent than the first, this second wave was like a staged performance of frustration and anger, rioting as a planned event. City officials had braced themselves for the impending riots as the court’s decision drew closer. Rioters set fire to a police car, threw rocks and bricks at police officers, broke windows, looted stores, and destroyed at least a dozen businesses by setting them ablaze.[11]

A Criminal Act or a Political One?

While similar in their causality and destructive tactics, rioters of the two disturbances viewed their actions differently. Immediately following the Buffalo riots, Frank P. Besag, Project Director of the Store Front Educator Information Centers, interviewed those involved and documented the riot’s causation.[12] The interviews revealed that the rioters framed their participation not as a criminal act, but rather, a political one. This inspired a sense of organization during the riots. For the riot to be a political act with real diplomatic messages, specific businesses and institutions that represented white power were targeted. One interviewee described this logic. “Q. Could you tell me why some stores were hit and others were avoided? A. Well, those were, why-those were whitie’s. Q. In other words, colored businesses weren’t bothered? A. Well, colored businesses? Our soul brothers – no!”[13] Rioters saw police officers as symbols of political subjugation and businessman as symbols of economic oppression.[14] To combat this economic oppression, one teenager decided to loot a local business. “I want some of those clothes in that white man’s store – he cheats my mom out of every time she makes. It’s about time I collected some of that money back.”[15] Police brutality started the riot, however, the long-standing frustrations associated with economic inequality kept the unrest going.

A BLM protestor in California following the decision in the Michael Brown Case. Photo courtesy of Stephen Lam/Reuters.
A BLM protestor in California following the decision in the Michael Brown case. (Courtesy of Stephen Lam/Reuters)

The riots in Buffalo provided the historical example to follow and laid the groundwork for more aggressive African American movements in the fight for liberation. However, the unrest in Ferguson diverged from 1967 in important ways. The rioters in Buffalo had a clear target; white-owned businesses that refused to hire African Americans, and this generated unrest with a clear goal. In Buffalo, it was crime without order or organization. Rioters looted and damaged random stores like Walgreens and chaos ruled the night. Unlike the strong political messages of the Buffalo riots, the Ferguson unrest seemed to send an angry social message to American society and culture. Instead of trying to affect specific institutions and policies like many of the riots throughout the 1960’s, this new generation of African American activists sought to impact the hearts and minds of every American. “Ferguson represented something new: a sweeping call to action that blossomed into a genuine cultural movement.”[16] Slogans like “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “#BlackLivesMatter,” were important rallying cries for African Americans across the United States. African American rioters made it clear that they would no longer be silenced, and they would no longer be persecuted. They mattered.

The Rise of the Black Liberation Movement and Black Lives Matter

Both the riots in Ferguson and Buffalo were part of larger trends that sought to increase the strength of African American demands for full participation in American society. Rioters in Buffalo displayed the growing frustration many younger African Americans had with the slow pace of the Civil Rights Movement and the growing appeal of more aggressive black movements like the Black Panthers. One teenager proclaimed, “We could sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ until doomsday and nobody would listen to us. Throw a brick and break a window and the whole world wants to know what’s wrong – as if they didn’t already know.”[17] African American activists became drawn to the increased awareness and urgency felt by white leaders when law and order was threatened. “We are tired of sitting around waiting until the man makes up his mind – he’s not going to make up his mind so we are going to make it up for him.”[18]

Also frustrated with the general apathy of the American public, the rioters in Ferguson sought attention, and believed that race relations in the United States should again be the main topic in the media and in presidential debates. The riots of the 1960’s had largely succeeded in removing any overtly discriminatory laws or policies. By 2014, the target had become American society itself and the goal was national awareness. Rioter’s declared that aspects of American culture should be revisited, revised, and rebuilt. This is what groups like Black Lives Matter seek to do and the unrest in Ferguson gave them the platform and the national attention from which to grow.

For four hundred years, African Americans in this country have been treated as subhuman, unworthy of the full benefits provided by humanity. It is engrained in our culture and an issue that should not be relegated to history books. Each generation of African Americans continues the fight for liberation because it has not yet been attained. The Black Lives Matter movement is a new response to an ancient problem. Building off of the strategies and success of the old, the new seeks to continue the forward trend. As long as there are sparks of injustice, there will be fuel to ignite future fires for liberation.

 

 

[1] Frank P. Besag, Anatomy of a Riot: Buffalo ‘67 (Buffalo, NY: State University of N.Y. Press 1967), 12.

[2] Besag, Anatomy, 11.

[3] Alfonso I. Rowena, “‘They Aren’t Going to Listen to Anything But Violence’: African Americans and the 1967 Buffalo Riot,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 38, no. 1 (January, 2014): 83.

[4] Rowena, ‘They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 83.

[5] Richard Rothstein, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles,” Economic Policy Institute, October 15, 2014, accessed March 15, 2016.

[6] Ray Sanchez, “Michael Brown Shooting, Protests Highlight Racial Divide,” CNN, August 15, 2014, accessed March 15, 2016.

[7] Sanchez, “Michael Brown Shooting,” CNN.

[8] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 86.

[9] Besag, Anatomy, 18.

[10] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 81.

[11] Manny Fernandez, “Despite Chaos, Police in Ferguson React With Restraint Not Shown After August Killing,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2014, accessed March 15, 2016.

[12] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 112.

[13] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 90.

[14] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 93.

[15] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 95.

[16] Michael Brown and Matthew Shaer, “The Vigil,” Smithsonian, July/August 2015.

[17] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 94

[18] Rowena, “They Aren’t Going to Listen,” 95.

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