TIME Civil Rights

What the International Response to the Civil Rights Movement Tells Us About Ferguson

Education Segregation, USA. pic: circa 1957. Little Rock, Arkansas. National Guardsmen, having admitted white children to a school, barr the way to a black student.
Little Rock, Ark., 1957: National Guardsmen, having admitted white children to a school, bar the way to a black student Paul Popper—Popperfoto / Getty Images

International criticism during the Civil Rights Movement helped bring about new legislation

Images of armed soldiers blocking nine African-American high school students from integrating a public high school in Little Rock, Ark. shocked the world nearly 60 years ago. Organs of Soviet propaganda, determined to disrupt perceptions of a tranquil American democracy, wrote of American police “who abuse human dignity and stoop to the level of animals” in the newspaper Izvestia. In the midst of stiff Cold War competition for hearts and minds around the world, the prospect of controlling international perceptions motivated officials at the highest levels of U.S. government to support new civil rights measures.

The U.S. representative to the United Nations warned President Dwight Eisenhower that the incident had damaged American influence, and the President listened.

“Before Eisenhower sent in the troops, there were mobs around the school for weeks, keeping these high school students from going to school,” says Mary Dudziak, a professor at Emory whose book Cold War Civil Rights argues that international pressures encouraged the federal government to work to improve civil rights, and which tells the above story about Little Rock. “The issue caused people from other countries to wonder whether the U.S. had a commitment to human rights.”

Today, the highly-publicized killings of unarmed black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner have attracted similar international condemnation, and some historians wonder whether concerns about U.S. appearances around the world could once again influence the federal government.

Read More: One Man. One March. One Speech. One Dream.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the sworn enemy of the U.S., had a lot to gain by showing that American democracy wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The opposition of today’s day and age are less influential, but they appear equally eager to highlight American dysfunction. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei used the attention surrounding Michael Brown to remind his Twitter followers of America’s history on race issues. A tweet from the leader features images of police dogs in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement alongside an image of Michael Brown:

North Korea may have one of the world’s worst human rights records, but that didn’t stop the country from criticizing the U.S. for “wantonly violating the human rights where people are subject to discrimination and humiliation due to their races.”

It’s not surprising that North Korea and Iran would criticize the U.S., but the reprimanding hasn’t been limited to opponents. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said he is unsure whether the decision not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown “conforms with international human rights law.”

“It is clear that, at least among some sectors of the population, there is a deep and festering lack of confidence in the fairness of the justice and law enforcement systems,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement.

Criticism from the U.N. is significant, but the international body’s desires, much less those of North Korea or Iran, have never driven U.S. policy — and the fact is, while there are many links between the Cold War era and today, times have changed. Thus far, the President has walked a fine line in his response. He proposed some measures, including encouraging police to wear body cameras, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be proposing any game-changing legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s not surprising that Obama has hesitated to involve the federal government in what is typically a local or state issue. The international mandate simply isn’t as strong as it was during the Cold War. There’s no equivalent to the Soviet Union offering a credible alternative to America’s system of governance.

But that may not be the case forever: historians and political scientists say that a growing movement against police brutality has the potential to increase international pressure and, perhaps, force change.

“I’m sure the Obama administration and the State Department are concerned about [international perceptions],” says Rick Valelly, a political science professor at Swarthmore. “Right now it’s embarrassing, but I don’t think it’s internationally consequential.”

Movements to end police brutality don’t yet have the “same kind of legs” that the Civil Rights Movement had, Valelly says. This year’s demonstrations have been attention-grabbing — and the “Justice for All” March planned for Washington, D.C, this Saturday is certain to make headlines — but it may take many more years of sustained protest before the movement would be noticed internationally on a much larger scale, as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was. For now, experts in the field still remain optimistic about the benefits of international attention, relatively minor though it may be.

“Public diplomacy begins with listening,” says Nick Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California, “and this would be a really good time to listen.”

TIME Crime

Ferguson Protesters Try to Block Use of Tear Gas

Police Shooting Missouri
An explosive device deployed by police flies in the air as police and protesters clash after tear gas was thrown on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Jeff Roberson—AP

A federal judge told cops not to use of gas to disperse crowds without proper warning

A federal judge in St. Louis ordered local police to limit their use of tear gas after Ferguson protesters filed a complaint alleging their right to peaceful assembly had been violated.

Carol Jackson, a judge in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri, issued a temporary restraining order Thursday after a hearing in which protesters argued they had been gassed without warning amid peaceful protests that erupted anew last month when a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.

The ruling requires police to respect demonstrators’ rights to lawfully assemble and provide clear warning before resorting to the use of chemical agents. It represents a modest victory for the protest movement, which previously won a courtroom victory when a different judge ruled that a policy that required protesters to walk continuously was unconstitutional.

At the same time, the impact of the temporary order is limited. It applies only to Missouri, and leaves the definition of fair warning at the discretion of police. Another hearing was scheduled for next month, according to reports.

The suit argued that local law-enforcement leaders violated the constitutional rights of demonstrators who had peacefully gathered to protest the grand jury’s decision. It focused on an incident that occurred late on the night of Nov. 24, as the region erupted in the aftermath of the announcement.

According to court documents, protesters had gathered outside a St. Louis coffeehouse when officers ordered the crowd to vacate the street. “Without notice or warning,” the complaint alleges, police then began firing tear gas canisters at the crowd, some of whom ran into the coffee shop, which filled with gas. Several protesters were sickened by the fumes.

The suit was filed by six plaintiffs: four protesters, the store owner and a legal observer who witnessed the episode. Chemical agents like tear gas and smoke have been used frequently to disperse crowds during the demonstrations that have rocked the region since Brown’s death in August.

Police defended the practice and said there was no attempt to injure protesters.”We don’t go to tear gas right away. We said over a loudspeaker, ‘This is an unlawful assembly, please leave the area,'” Sam Dotson, the St. Louis police chief who was named as a defendant in the suit, told the Riverfront Times. “This is where people lose focus a little bit. When the order to disperse is given, it applies to everyone. People always say, ‘It’s not me, so I don’t have to leave.’ The challenge for law enforcement is that we don’t know who the good guys are or who the bad guys are, because the bad guys intermingle with the good guys.”

TIME Congress

See Congressional Staffers Stage a Powerful Walkout Over Grand Jury Decisions

African-American Congressional staff and others hold their hands up during a walk-out outside the House on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2014 in Washington D.C.
African-American Congressional staff and others hold their hands up during a walk-out outside the House on Capitol Hill on Dec. 11, 2014 in Washington D.C. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Staffers protest the recent grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases

Dozens of congressional staffers walked out of their offices in Washington, D.C., on Thursday afternoon to gather on the steps of the Capitol in a show of protest against two recent grand jury decisions in the police-invovled deaths of unarmed black men.

The staffers posed in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” position that has been used in demonstrations across the country in response to the death of Michael Brown, the Ferguson, Mo., teenager shot and killed in August by a white police officer, who was not indicted by a grand jury.

Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black also led the demonstrators in a prayer. “Forgive us when we have failed to lit our voices for those who could not speak or breathe themselves,” he said, invoking the last words “I can’t breathe” by Eric Garner before his chokehold-related death on Staten Island in July. A grand jury in New York recently declined to indict the police officer in the incident.

 

TIME justice

Prominent Ferguson Protester Charged With Assault

Obama Holds Meeting On Building Trust In Communities After Ferguson Unrest
Rasheen Aldridge, second left, listens to President Barack Obama at the conclusion of a meeting with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey and other elected officials, community and faith leaders and law enforcement officials on Dec. 1, 2014 in Washington D.C. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

The youngest member of the Ferguson Commission has been charged with assault for allegedly pushing a city marshal during a demonstration

A young Ferguson protester who has been tapped to help study the issues afflicting the city was charged with assault on Thursday over an incident outside St. Louis’s city hall last week.

Rasheen Aldridge is accused of pushing a city marshal during a demonstration in which protesters squared off against law enforcement as they tried to enter the building, the St. Louis Dispatch reports. Aldridge has said that he didn’t see the marshal get pushed by any of the protesters.

Aldridge, 20, faces a misdemeanor charge for the incident, which was caught on video. He’s the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission, a group of community members assembled by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to study the social issues in the city that have contributed to the protests. The members of the commission, including Aldridge, visited Washington Monday to meet President Obama.

[St. Louis Dispatch]

TIME Race

How ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ Could Start a Real Revolution

Protests Continue In DC One Day After Ferguson Grand Jury Decision
More than one thousand demonstrators chant "Hands up, don't shoot!" on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery in protest a day after the Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case November 25, 2014 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Landon Jones is a former managing editor of People and Money magazines.

The unpunished deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have sparked protests reminiscent of the start of the Free Speech Movement

On Dec. 2, 1964—50 years ago this week—a graduate student named Mario Savio climbed the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley and gave an astonishing speech. He denounced the university as a soulless assembly line and urged students to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus…you’ve got to make it stop!” Savio’s harangue ignited the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement, and eventually everything we think of as the Sixties.

Today, after decisions by grand juries not to indict the police officers who killed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, the question becomes: Are we now poised at a similar historical moment? The protests that followed the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. last August have not died out but rather intensified as they spread across the country. And more protests followed this week after the policeman who held Eric Garner in a chokehold was not charged. As with the Sixties, the new movement has generated its own rhetoric, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”

And the same questions that were asked about the Free Speech Movement are being raised again. Where is the movement going? What are the objectives? Who are the leaders? Is it helping or hurting black people?

This is what the first months of a new movement feel like. It first looks for leaders. Will it be Al Sharpton, in the role of Mario Savio? Cornell West, instead of Noam Chomsky? Then it looks for focus—harder to find now amid the centrifugal forces of social media.

These thoughts were all on my mind Thanksgiving morning. I was walking on the half-block of city street that curves in front of the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson. Here is where Michael Brown fell, and here is where his people’s memorial now rises. It is a terminal moraine of grief: two jumbled piles of teddy bears, handwritten prayers, St. Louis Cardinals baseball caps, colored handkerchiefs, letters, and makeshift crosses, all thrown together and encrusted with the previous night’s snowfall.

I grew up not far from here, and the school bus that took me to school every day skirted this place. Michael Brown’s memorial is fully accessible to the public, though the busy nearby street of West Florissant was barricaded until this week and treated as a crime scene because of vandalism. Police are everywhere on the streets, and National Guard trucks are parked in front of shops with windows boarded and sprayed “BLACK OWNED.”

For anyone from St. Louis who loves this good-hearted city, famous in equal measure for its fried ravioli and generous spirited sports fans, this is a place of infinite sadness. Here is the sidewalk where Officer Darren Wilson wanted Michael Brown to walk instead of in the street. Here is the light pole where he fell. Here is the crime scene.

The jaunty lyrics of Meet Me in St. Louis offer a promise to the city’s émigrés. T.S. Eliot grew up here, too, and hardly ever came back. I heard him speak during one of his visits when he gave a nostalgic talk about playing in the back yard of the school where his father had taught. Eliot had no special brief for St. Louis, but I like to think he had our mutual hometown in mind when he wrote in Four Quartets that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Landon Jones, a former managing editor of People and Money magazines, grew up in St. Louis.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Newsmaker Interview

Attorney General Eric Holder Plans ‘Institute of Justice’ to Address Protest Concerns

He says Ferguson could be a seminal moment for the national conversation around race

Attorney General Eric Holder has begun drafting plans to continue his work rebuilding the relationship between local law enforcement and the black community after he leaves public office next year.

“This whole notion of reconciliation between law enforcement and communities of color is something that I really want to focus on and to do so in a very organized way,” he said Tuesday in an interview with TIME. “Not just as Eric Holder, out there giving speeches—though certainly that could be a part of it—but to have maybe a place where this kind of effort is housed and to be associated with that kind of an entity.”

His preparation comes at a time when the nation’s top law enforcement officer has launched a national tour to meet with black leaders and law enforcement around the country, amid daily protests over grand jury decisions in New York City and Ferguson, Mo., to not bring charges against police officers who killed unarmed black men. On Monday, Holder spoke at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a civil rights landmark, and on Thursday he will travel to Cleveland, where a police officer recently shot a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with an air gun.

Holder’s current plans include creating an “institute of justice” that would help continue the dialogue he hopes to undertake over the coming weeks. Holder has been the administration’s point-person on Ferguson response since he visited the troubled city in August following the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.

Holder, who will leave office as soon as his replacement is confirmed, said he believes Ferguson could be a seminal moment for the national conversation about race.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of his Tuesday interview with TIME.

TIME: You said you were encouraged by the peaceful demonstrations after the Ferguson grand jury announcement and you praised the young people who interrupted you on Monday. What do you see in them?

Eric Holder: I think that these protests, if done correctly, can lead to positive change. And I draw distinction between those who protest peacefully in the great tradition of Rosa Parks, for instance.

It’s interesting that I spoke yesterday at the church where Martin Luther King gave some of his famous speeches on the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to get up and surrender her seat. And I think if you think about them, that is Rosa Parks, and if you think about Dr. King, and the lasting permanent changes that the movements that they helped to inspire, that he helped to lead, that I think is a guide to the protestors now. I think that protesters, people who feel strongly about the nature of the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, that if that intensity of feeling is channeled appropriately, then positive change can come.

But it means people have to stay involved. They have to be committed to the cause, they have to organize, they have to do all the things that Rev. [C.T.] Vivian talked about last night in his remarks, that history has shown us produce things that are more than protests: things that morph from protest into a movement.

Do you think this could be a pivotal moment for race relations in this country?

It could be. I think the seeds are there for a movement that could have a very positive impact on that relationship, again, between law enforcement and communities of color. That you could have the basis here for a reexamination of that relationship, for a reforming of that relationship, and an injection of a great deal of trust that does not necessarily exist there now. I think that out of the tragedy that was Michael Brown’s death, some very positive things could happen. That’s could happen, and the question is what is going to happen with all of these people who are at least at this point very committed, very moved by what they have seen, what they are demonstrating. Will these protests coalesce into a movement?

But in direct response to your question, I think yeah, the possibility exists that what we have seen in Ferguson, or that what happened in Ferguson, could be one of those seminal moments that transforms the nation.

You came into office saying this was a “nation of cowards” when it comes to dealing with race, that America has “still not come to grips with its racial past.” What has changed? What hasn’t? Is that still true?

One thing I would urge you to do is read the whole speech. Because I think that quote—it is what it is—but the speech itself I think really, I think accurately reflects what we as a nation have done and tend to do, which is have these incidents and then kind of deal with them in the moment, and then kind of push them aside and real progress is not made.

In the past six years have you laid the groundwork for breaking that cycle?

What I’ve tried to do, among other things at Attorney General, it’s not been the only thing obviously that I’ve done, but I’ve tried to be a force for the kind of positive interaction that I talked about in that speech. With an understanding that raising those concerns is difficult, it’s painful, but I think it’s necessary. Meaningful progress is not made without going through this kind of painful process that I think is necessary and that we, understandably, try to avoid.

You have called U.S. sentencing patterns “shameful” with regards to race. With regards to local law enforcement are there similar patterns of racial discrimination? Has law enforcement got off easy?

I don’t think so. If you look at what we have done with our pattern of practice investigations, I don’t think law enforcement has gotten a pass at all. The number of cases that we have brought shows that our civil rights division has been focused on law enforcement and brought to bear all the tools that we have when we’ve identified problems.

One thing I think we have to be fair about, the fact that we brought record number of cases does not mean that the vast majority of law enforcement officers haven’t conducted themselves in totally appropriate ways. You shouldn’t take from that an indictment of law enforcement writ large. There are certainly problem cities, problem forces. We try to identify them, we try to work with them and change them. The vast majority of law enforcement officers conduct themselves in really honorable appropriate ways.

In August, when the situation in Ferguson was heating up you were in Martha’s Vineyard with the President. Putting yourself back there…What were his initial reactions? Is there anything he said then or the days after to you that stood out?

Without revealing the specifics of conversations, which I just really don’t do with the President, I can certainly say that for those of us up on the Vineyard, we had the feeling there was a potential for a significant reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown. But, I’m not sure that any of us really anticipated that it would—in those initial stages—that it would grow into an issue that was of such searing national concern. It did become obvious, relatively shortly thereafter. But in those first few days, I don’t think—I certainly would not have predicted that it would become an issue of national concern.

Was there a conversation that stood out?

We were talking, while we were up there, about when and if I should go to Ferguson. We knew that that was a significant risk. We didn’t know how people would react. It meant that we were going to have to own this in a way that we didn’t if I didn’t go. So yeah, there were conversations that we had along those lines, and I think the decision made, and I think appropriately so, was that this was something that required high-level federal government involvement—that I needed to go at the behest of the President.

All of this was happening as you were deciding to leave the administration. Did this make you second-guess that?

This is a job that I have loved having. And yeah, there’s probably not a day that I don’t get up and think, “Did I make the right decision?” I’m proud of what we have done. As I said in my resignation remarks, I’m sad about the fact that I will not formally be a part of the ongoing efforts of this administration and this Justice Department.

So, do you plan to continue this in your personal capacity?

I think that I’m certainly going to take some personal time, recharge my batteries, but I do want to be involved in this ongoing work. This whole notion of reconciliation between law enforcement and communities of color is something that I really want to focus on and to do so in a very organized way. Not just as Eric Holder, out there giving speeches—though certainly that could be a part of it—but to have maybe a place where this kind of effort is housed and to be associated with that kind of an entity. That’s the kind of thing I’m beginning to think about.

You announced that the Justice Department will announce new profiling guidance in the coming days. Is that the capstone on your criminal justice reform efforts?

It’s certainly part of a larger effort that I have been involved in dealing with, this whole question of criminal justice reform, whether it is sentencing policies, charging policies, law enforcement deployments. This whole question of the use of race is a part of that overall effort, and it’s a logical, it’s a piece that clearly was missing that hopefully will be filled in by the announcement that we will make in the next couple of days.

How do you respond to criticism that you’ve been able to be more forward about issues of race and discrimination than the President.

I think it’s more of a function of the roles that we play. I’m the Attorney General, and I serve as the head of an organization where a lot of this stuff intersects, where a lot of it comes together. And as a result, it’s more logical, more expected, for me to be more vocal about these issues.

But, I have to say; these are the kinds of issues that I’ve talked about with the President since his first days here in Washington, DC. I met him before he had been sworn in as a senator. We bonded over these criminal justice reform concerns and views of racial matters. We share a worldview, and I am confident there is little that I have said that he would not have agreed with over the past six years.

But again, I am the Attorney General dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis as part of my job, and so hearing me speak about these issues, in the way you know Robert Kennedy spoke about them as opposed to John Kennedy, I think is kind of the same thing.

People have to also understand that the President has weighed in in a very significant way. You know, you hear from the Attorney General, and it’s significant, there’s no question about that. I have learned, painfully so, that people actually listen to everything that I say. But it’s a different magnitude when the President of the united states comes into the press room and gives some off the cuff remarks, or comes into the press room and reads remarks about these racial matters. So this notion that he has not been heard from in a sufficient way is belied by all the things that he has said, all the things that he has talked about.

In the past few years we’ve seen Republicans embrace elements of criminal justice reform. Do you think there’s an opportunity to make legislative process here?

I think there is the real possibility that this can be a significant area of bipartisan cooperation that would, frankly, be extremely good for this nation: For conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats to get together to put into legislative form the changes that I have used executive authority to do here in the federal system.

I think people come at it form a variety of perspectives. I think one of the things that I don’t think people focus on is that there are some red states that have done some really innovative things when it comes to criminal justice reform, including on rehabilitation, reentry efforts. I think one of the things that we have seen in that regard is that you save money. If you cut down on the rate of recidivism, we’re talking about people not committing crimes, and that necessarily means that people are safer, you’re not spending more money putting people back in jail. I think again that these states have shown, and we are starting to see at the federal level as well, that if you cut back just on the length of a sentence, it will save you really substantial amounts of money. If somebody’s serving two years instead of four, or five years instead of 10, you save a really significant amount of money, and if you invest some of that money into rehabilitative services, reentry services, you can save money and keep the crime rate down. That’s something that I think people intuitively think is illogical. You’re going to spend less money on criminal justice matters and so you’re going to save money and the crime rate’s going to go down. Some people don’t seem to think that makes sense. But the reality is if you spend that money wisely on evidence-based programs, you can do that. And I think that’s what draws people in.

People come to it for their own reasons: cost savings, the whole notion of just fairness, the desire for efficiencies in government, people are drawn to this issue for a variety of reasons, but I think there is a real opportunity there for something very significant to happen in 2015.

 

TIME Race

Ferguson Was the Spark — Eric Garner Is the Fire

Eric Garner Police Brutality Death
Ramsey Orta

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Are we trying to create a world devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men?

Here’s a look at the future, and probably not that far into it. People will learn two things:

1) That an officer was not indicted for murdering Eric Garner—black, 43, and detained simply for selling single cigarettes—despite the fact that the killing was recorded from start to finish for all of America to see.

2) That an officer was not indicted for killing Michael Brown after Brown had stolen from a store, refused the officer’s request to step aside and perhaps tried to grab his gun, with the officer shooting when Brown repeatedly lunged toward him for some reason, with none of this recorded and the details murkily varying from one witness to the next.

Perfectly sensible people will be wondering why so many people in late 2014 thought of the Ferguson case, in particular, as the civil rights case of the 21st century. Yes, Brown should not have died—I have heartily agreed, repeatedly. But people in the future will see the current focus on Ferguson as evidence of people losing sight of the fact that activism is supposed to be about results.

Are we trying to create a humanity devoid of any racist bias, or are we trying to stop cops from shooting black men? The two aren’t the same. A world without racism would be a world without dirt. A world where episodes like what has happened just this year to Garner, Brown, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, and Tamir Rice is much more plausible. We need special prosecutors, body cameras, and, if you ask me, an end to the war on drugs.

As such, we must be pragmatic. I know the people protesting Michael Brown’s death nationwide are sincere. But it’s easy to forget that in cases like this, sincerity is supposed to be forward-focused. It’s all too human for people to end up mistaking the heightened emotions, the threats, the media attention, the catharsis, as progress itself. But drama alone burns fast and bright. Think about how Trayvon is already—admit it—seeming more like history than the present.

Are we really committed to this thing lasting past the winter?

If so, then we have to ask ourselves—is Michael Brown more important somehow because he was killed with a gun? Is Garner somehow less worthy of iconic, implacable protest because he was older than Brown, less “glamorous” than a teenager? Is it, in other words, that Brown is more dramatic?

Because there are other kinds of drama, if we must. For example, Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s statement about Garner is outright tragedy—so disgustingly detached coming from someone’s murderer that it constitutes drama in itself.

“It is never my intention to harm anyone,” Pantaleo says—as if we were thinking now of “harm,” a formal term you can use to refer to a dent in your car. “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner”—my God, “very bad” sounds like he broke someone’s window with a baseball, and “the death of Mr. Garner” sounds like something he watched on TV rather than did with his bare hands. “Accept my personal condolences” says this man twice brought up on misconduct charges before, as if it were his aunt by marriage who passed away after a brief illness.

This, to me, is an articulate testament to how some whites can be unable to see black people as human—and, especially if cops, be more likely to kill them. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a precious teaching moment. Pantaleo’s statement is, in its way, as useful as Reverend King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail as a look into a human mind.

Yet one hears that however iffy the Ferguson details are, we should just go with it because it has struck a chord. That our message to America is to be “Even when my son steals from a store, refuses a cop’s order and tries to take his gun, he shouldn’t get shot.” And he shouldn’t, but wow, what a delicate and hopelessly controversial point that is in such a key moment as this. It’s a tricky, subtle assertion, which has not struck a chord with the disinterested middle because the facts are too murky. We want to make history, not just headlines.

How about this, as a story we can tell the next generation without taking a deep breath and thinking about how to paper over the holes?

Ferguson was the spark, but Garner was “it.”

Here is where I am quite sure Reverend King and Bayard Rustin would be planning not just statements and gestures, but boycotts. The recording of Garner’s death has the clear, potent and inarguable authority of the Birmingham newsreels. We must use that. Yes, usewe are trying to create change, not just perform.

Onward.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME People

Michael Brown’s Stepfather Says Emotions ‘Got the Best of Me’

Ferguson Grand Jury decision in Michael Brown shooting
The mother of Michael Brown, Lesley McSpadden and her husband Louis Head gesture after the announced decision by the Grand Jury in FergusonMo. on Nov. 24, 2014. Larry W. Smith—EPA

"I was so angry and full of raw emotions, as so many others were"

The stepfather of Michael Brown said Wednesday that his emotions “got the best of me” when he urged a crowd in Ferguson, Missouri, to “burn this bitch down” after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer for shooting his stepson to death.

In a statement obtained by NBC News, Louis Head, who is married to Brown’s mother, apologized to those “who read my pain and anger as a true desire for what I want for our community. It wasn’t.”

Authorities are considering whether to charge Head for inciting a riot. Angry crowds burned buildings, looted stores and…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Crime

Charles Barkley Stands By Calling Ferguson Rioters ‘Scumbags’

"The cops are awesome"

Charles Barkley isn’t retreating from recent comments in which he called people rioting in Ferguson, Mo., “scumbags,” defending the police in a new interview and dismissing as “ridiculous” the notion that they’re “just killing black people.”

“The cops are awesome,” Barkley told CNN on Tuesday. “They’re the only thing in the ghetto between this place being the wild wild West.

“We’ve always had a racial issue in this country, and the biggest problem with it is we never discuss race until something bad happens,” Barkley added. “We never have meaningful dialogue over a cold beer when things are going good.”

MORE: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Ferguson

Barkley recently called people who torched buildings in Ferguson “scumbags,” after a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager sparked renewed unrest in the St. Louis suburb.

“There are some black people out there who are crooks, and when the police come to your neighborhood, it’s a tense situation,” Barkley told CNN. “There’s a reason they racially profile us at times. Sometimes it’s wrong, sometimes it’s right. To act like we have no responsibility for some of this stuff is disingenuous.”

Read more at CNN

TIME Crime

Michael Brown’s Stepfather Under Investigation for Outburst

Parents Of Michael Brown Return To Missouri After Speaking To United Nations Committee In Switzerland
Michael Brown's mother Lesley McSpadden is greeted by her husband Louis Head after arriving at St. Louis International Airport on Nov. 14, 2014 Scott Olson—Getty Images

Investigators are considering whether to charge Michael Brown’s stepfather with attempting to incite a riot for urging a crowd in Ferguson, Missouri, to “burn this bitch down” as part of a larger inquiry into violence after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager, authorities told NBC News on Tuesday.

Louis Head, who is married to Lesley McSpadden, the young man’s mother, could be seen screaming that call and stronger ones at a gathering in Ferguson shortly after the grand jury’s “no bill” decision in the case of Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson was announced late Nov. 24 …

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