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Can Ferguson change the ritual of Black deaths

News Desk | 8/26/2014, 10:05 a.m.
Those concerned that Brown's death might not be fairly investigated took note of the high-profile appearance of Eric Holder, America's ...

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) -- The choir sang, the preachers shouted and the casket stayed closed. The body was taken to the cemetery, and Michael Brown was laid to rest.

Thus went the most recent enactment of "the ritual" - the script of death, outrage, spin and mourning that America follows when an unarmed black male is killed by police.

With a few variations, the ritual has followed its familiar course in the two weeks since the 18-year-old Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in this St. Louis suburb. It continues as we await the judgment of a grand jury considering whether or not Wilson should be charged with a crime.

Will the ritual ever change, and is it even possible that Ferguson could be part of that? This time, can recognition of the well-known patterns help heal the poisonous mistrust between police and many black people? Is the ritual already helping, in small gains buried beneath the predictable explosions of anger and media attention?

"This tragedy, because the world's attention has been galvanized, this is one of those things that's ripe for change," said Martin Luther King III after the funeral Monday. "There are no guarantees, but what we can say is we have to be committed to doing the work to bring about change and justice."

The ritual began to take shape in the 1960s, when instances of police mistreatment of black people led to organized resistance in many places across America - and sometimes to violence. As the decades passed, a blueprint developed for how black advocates confronted cases of alleged police brutality: protest marches, news conferences, demands for federal intervention, public pressure by sympathetic elected officials.

Sometimes this led to charges or even convictions of police officers. Sometimes there were riots: Miami in 1980 after police were acquitted in the death of a black motorist; Los Angeles' Rodney King rebellion in 1992; Cincinnati in 2001 when a 19-year-old was fatally shot by an officer; Oakland's uprising in 2009 after Oscar Grant was shot in the back while face-down on a train platform.

The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman in Florida added the transformative element of social media. The public was now participating much more intimately in the ritual.

And still, the unarmed black males kept dying. The chants of "No Justice, No Peace" kept rising.

So what happened after Brown was shot on Aug. 9 was predictable:

First, protests and outrage. A narrative forms in favor of the deceased: According to accounts of several witnesses from Brown's neighborhood, he was shot with his hands up. He was a "gentle giant" headed to college. Pictures of Brown circulate that show him smiling, baby-faced - reminiscent of the childlike photos that first introduced us to Trayvon Martin.

The day after Brown's shooting, protesters are met with a militarized police response. Violence and looting erupt, and persist for days. Police respond with tear gas and rubber bullets, "scenes that have brought back visions of the 1960s when civil rights activists were met with force in the streets," says the president of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, La June Montgomery Tabron.