FERGUSON, Mo.– When protesters burned down a convenience store near where a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, many condemned it. But experts say the ensuing images on national television could become as much of a catalyst for social change as peaceful protests.
Ferguson is the latest flashpoint of civil unrest in U.S. history that’s caught the national spotlight, along with the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, Calif., the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1992 acquittal of police officers on trial for beating Rodney King.
“It may be a challenge to see these primarily young males and females rioting and looting as part of protest, but it is,” said Priscilla Dowden-White, a history professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
“You are talking about people who are living at or below the poverty line. You are talking about people who are the products of failing schools, and so I look at the looting as part of survival.”
Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, was fatally shot Aug. 9 after a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson, stopped him for walking in the middle of a local street. In the days that followed, police using military-grade weapons, assault vehicles and tear gas repeatedly clashed with crowds of angry citizens in this St. Louis suburb.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Hillary Clinton both commented that the town looked like a “war zone” during the civil unrest.
But Ferguson’s looting created conversations that likely would not have happened if only prayer vigils and other “normal” responses had happened, Dowden-White said.
Civil disobedience through vandalism, theft and property destruction created change after other periods of unrest despite the fact that nonviolent protests of the 1960s have been largely credited with successes, according to experts.
“The looters, the robbers, the chanters, the nonviolent protests, the sign-making . . . all of it has value because it wouldn’t be international if it wasn’t for the looters,” said Amari Sneferu, 54, of St. Louis. “There was a guy who came out of a store with one hubcap rim. One. He can’t drive or put that on his car. But he just wanted to take something. He just wanted to do something. That was his expression of outrage because a murderer is getting away with it.”
“They (protesters) could see it was a war against them and they were rebelling against that war,” said Sneferu, who is the manager general of the Universal African Peoples Organization and participated in the protests.
He added that he was proud of young people for taking matters into their own hands and not conforming to past nonviolent tactics.
Another protester, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, 43, agreed.
“America created this,” said Sekou, who went to high school in St. Louis and now lives in California as a scholar in residence at Stanford University. “So folks took some tennis shoes, some big TVs that ended up on the black market–whatever.”
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, said it’s also important to remember that the nonviolent movement of the 1960s civil rights movement was a historically specific strategy employed in response to the violence people were facing.
“The old guard civil rights leadership has virtually no weight anymore with younger generations of activists, particularly those folks who have been using social media,” he said. “Rev. (Al) Sharpton was of value because he brings MSNBC with him. But they (protesters) didn’t need those figures.”
Sharpton called for an end to looting several times in the last two weeks, including at Brown’s funeral, as he delivered a eulogy. He also reminded people that Brown’s parents, just days after their son was killed, pleaded with the public to act peacefully.
“They had to break their mourning to ask folks to stop looting and rioting,” Sharpton said. “You imagine they are heartbroken–their son taken, discarded and marginalized. And they have to stop mourning to get you to control your anger, like you are more angry than they are.”
Protesters also distanced themselves from looters and at times created human barriers to stop people from going into stores. Christopher Scott, 24, of Northwoods, Mo., and Mauricelm-Lei Millere, 41, of Washington, D.C. both stood outside businesses to keep others from getting inside and stealing items.
The men said they didn’t agree with stealing and thought people should not use Brown’s death for their own profits.
“It’s selfish,” Millere, an advisor with the New Black Panther Party, said. “I protected it because I’m not a thief.”
Scott’s reasoning was personal. “It’s not right for us to tear down our own community,” he said. “When it comes down to it, we sleep here. We live here. We eat it here. We have to suffer.”
For others, the issue is more complex.
Genetra Spears, 33, lives in Canfield Green Apartments just feet away from where Brown was killed. She left her apartment the day the teen was killed sensing that there might be unrest. She didn’t return for two weeks because of the demonstrations.
She’s disappointed that she can no longer grab ice, snacks, and soda from QuikTrip, which was burned down by protesters. But, she also understands people’s anger, though she scoffed at the idea of such behavior.
“They did what they had to do,” Spears said. “But I ain’t looting because I ain’t no thief.”
Meanwhile, the actions of looters and rioters in Ferguson had similar goals to nonviolent actions, said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin who studies race, adolescence and academic and social development. Both–either through looting or bus boycotts–disrupted businesses, changed the status quo in communities, and called into question people’s assumptions of safety.
“When people romanticize the 1960’s, they look at it as a time when people dressed up in suits and shiny shoes and walked down the street arm-in-arm,” Bentley-Edwards said. “But people forget Martin Luther King was arrested several times.”
That idea isn’t lost on Diamond Latchison, 21. She said her generation is keeping in mind the past while understanding that rioting, followed by peaceful protests, gave the story legs.
“It got the media’s attention,” Latchison, of Florissant, said. “This is our generation’s way of saying, ‘You cannot quiet us down. You cannot tell us to shut up. This is our movement. You guys had your movement in the 60’s and on. Now, this is our time. You guys say we don’t do anything, so this is us doing something.'”