Tale of Two Cities

Reflections on Rochester, NY and Ferguson, MO  


The tendrils of the Michael Brown/Ferguson issue have reached my humble city.  I live in Rochester, a cold western New York city that has known better days.  Mayor Lovely Warren, not without some backlash, voiced her discontent with the grand jury’s decision.  One girl’s photos of a rally appeared on my Facebook feed.  My APUSH class discussed the issue before Thanksgiving break.  Recently, Rochester Police Chief and the NAACP in conjunction have released an official statement about Ferguson and the waves it has made in Rochester.

“This is Rochester, NY. This is not Ferguson,” the chief says.

True.  However, there may be more similarities between these cities than one might think.

Rochester is the hiding place of a rich and underrated civil rights movement.  The names of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, and Harriet Tubman were etched into Rochester history in the 1800s.  A progressively advanced city, Rochester cruised into the 20th century with booming industries, in for a long golden streak.

A hot July day in 1964 is when the story starts to sound a bit similar.

At a busy block party, in a low-income part of town, cops came to arrest a young black male for public intoxication.  Rumors flew through the city–a child attacked by a police dog?  A woman slapped by an officer?  Like hot fluid in a bowl, violence spilled over.  This–of course–wasn’t a mere overreaction to an arrest that should have occurred unremarkably: it was the culmination of “quiet rage” over poverty and discrimination that the rapidly growing African American population faced.  They too harbored resentment towards rampant police brutality and police dogs.  Just as the murder of Michael Brown created instant unrest that billowed into something much more fundamental. rrr

Bricks were thrown.  The police broke out the riot weapons.  A crowd of hundreds grew to a crowd of thousands.  Barely six hours after the arrest, a state of emergency was declared, and the National Guard–called to a Northern city for the first time–soon followed.  The riots were three days long, and it cost the lives of four people (timeline).  And then the dominoes began their fall: “In the seven years following, more than 750 race riots erupted in numerous American cities.”  The Rochester race riots of 1964 was one of the first of many across the nation.

Now is a good spot to explain the degree in which I’m comparing Ferguson to Rochester.  Of course, I am not in any way comparing the tragic loss of Michael Brown to a mere arrest.  I also think that the riots themselves differ in many ways.  Based on the information available, I would in no way call the Rochester race riots remotely peaceful–not the way that the Ferguson protests, true protests, were in the first few days under the shadow of Mr. Brown’s death.  (I remember clearly sitting on my bed, watching a livestream at 1 AM, pale-faced in horror at the tear gas descending upon peaceful and pleading protests early in August).  I view the Rochester riots, loosely, as an extremely condensed version of Ferguson’s current plight.

Of course, much has changed in the five decades since Rochester erupted.  Segregation and discrimination has lessened, at least superficially.  In some ways, police have been notched back.  But they’ve also gotten more dangerous.  Tear gas, rubber bullets, and weapons previously only dreamed of in war are now, apparently, used against civilians.  A significant improvement has occurred, though.  Technology and social media has allowed every individual to spread their personal report of happenings.  If this free and easy method of expression remains available, well.  Future historians can only shiver at the heaps of first-hand accounts available to them via the digital world.

Such a difference makes me wonder.  What would a tweet from a rioter in the 1964 look like?  Would they still seem like a crazed brick-thrower, or would their voice instill a new understanding?  If we had a raw, first-hand account of their cause, would the so-called “rumors” that incited the riot still be considered such?

And what of Ferguson’s legacy?  Will a chain-reaction, a similar domino effect, spread across the nation?  In many ways, it already has.  But this could gather into a larger movement.

Or it could become just another forgotten demonstration, a trivia fact from a fading city, as the riots of Rochester have succumbed to.  Will we call it “Ferguson Protests of 2014” or “Ferguson Race Riots of 2014”?  Will race even be attached to its name?

If I had my way, these events would be attached to a catchier, simpler name: “Brown vs. Ferguson Police”

-M.L.

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