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Can Ferguson change the 'ritual' of black deaths?

Wednesday - 8/27/2014, 5:44am  ET

FILE - In this Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, file photo, a casket containing the body of Michael Brown is wheeled out of Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to Brown, who was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, Pool, File)

JESSE WASHINGTON
AP National Writer

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.

"This has become an all-too-familiar scenario in America," Tabron says in a statement.

Michael Brown's death goes viral. Ferguson trends on Twitter. A horde of media descends. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson arrive.

"Events surrounding the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown look all too familiar. As Yogi Berra would put it, it's 'deja vu, all over again,'" reads a column by Bill Press in the Daily Journal of Marietta, Georgia.

A backlash builds against the protesters. There are complaints that the liberal media skew the facts to create a false narrative about racist white police. As with Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, a narrative forms against the deceased: Based on a video released by police, Brown is characterized as a weed-smoking thug who robbed a store minutes before his death.

Social media spreads facts, rumors and lies at Internet speed. There is a chain email with a fabricated arrest record saying, falsely, that Brown was charged with several felonies. A photo circulates of someone who is not Brown pointing a gun -- like the menacing photo of a gangsta rapper that some said was Martin.

"Every time a black person does something, they automatically become a thug worthy of their own death," the actor Jesse Williams says in a TV appearance.

The media reports new versions of the old stories: White flight has created poor black neighborhoods policed by white cops. Black people don't trust the police. Black males are stereotyped as violent.

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