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The Path Forward for Policing Reform May Be the Kerner Commission’s Almost 50-Year-Old Report

By Noliwe M. Rooks


BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.

In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.

In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.

I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.

Consider that President Lyndon Johnson formed the eleven-member Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 in response to a report he received from the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, that the wave of urban riots and uprisings taking place in urban America was a coordinated attack by “outside agitators,” and Black militants to overthrow the US government. Hoover told Johnson that forces within Black communities were in cahoots with communists hostile to America and that, in order to repel the communist threat, Johnson should authorize arming urban police departments with tanks, machine guns, and automatic rifles.

In response, Johnson formed the Kerner Commission and charged them with finding and reporting on the reasons for the urban riots that had plagued cities each summer since 1964.

The resulting Kerner Commission Report, clocking in at over 400 pages was published in March of 1968 and became an instant hit, selling almost two million copies. It also fully and totally repudiated Hoover’s assertions about communist agitators as responsible for the riots. Instead, they found that the causes were usually aggressive and abusive police practices often involving brutal beatings, or the shooting of unarmed Black men. They noted that these police behaviors triggered protest from the community and, in response, the police became even more aggressive and further inflamed the situation. This then led to even more deaths of unarmed citizens. In short, the committee found no communist agitators, only hostile police officers and they didn’t believe that giving them more firepower was a good idea. They wrote, “The Commission condemns moves to equip police departments with mass destruction weapons, such as automatic rifles, machine guns, and tanks. Weapons which are designed to destroy, not control, have no place in densely populated urban communities.”

As if that wasn’t controversial enough, the report went on to memorably conclude that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” It indicted “white society” for isolating and neglecting African Americans, but also for profiting from the system of racial and economic segregation, saying, “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

As a result, instead of over-arming the police, the commission members recommended that the President focus on job creation, job training programs, affordable housing, the equalization of the public education system, the overhaul and equalization of the administration of the criminal justice system, expanded opportunities for Black people to participate in the formation of public policy, efforts aimed at enlarging the Black middle class, and increased efforts to integrate American society. They also called for greater accountability on the part of mainstream media who, they said, misrepresented the reality of Black life and humanity, leading many outside of Black communities—including the police—to have and maintain incomplete and harmful views of Black people.

It was an expansive and expensive list of recommendations, and far beyond the scope of what Johnson had expected.

Accordingly, despite the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. pronounced the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life,”and the fact that it is comprehensive, gracefully written, and a compellingly convincing read, President Johnson rejected all of the recommendations except for one calling for an expansion of undercover police and government surveillance of Black communities in order to gather information on potential, as well as actual, civil disorders. The federal government also gave urban police departments the tanks and guns Hoover had requested.

Today, though the list of recommendations is still expansive and still expensive, we should at least consider using some of the 230 million dollars that President Obama is planning to spend on “police reform” in response to this recent spate of killings, and instead invest in at least one of the Kerner Commission recommendations instead. I would vote for creative mechanisms to promote greater levels of direct community involvement in the making of public policy, but would be happy with serious attention aimed at almost any one of the commission’s main recommendations.

We should try this because it is hard to imagine that President Obama’s new commission, nor any subsequent effort, will be more prescient than the Kerner Commission, which ends its report by acknowledging, “We have provided an honest beginning. We have learned much. But we have uncovered no startling truths, no unique insights, no simple solutions. The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country. It is time now to end the destruction and the violence, not only in the streets of the ghetto but in the lives of people.”

At least once, we should finish what we have started instead of circling back to the beginning again.


Rooks, NoliweNoliwe M. Rooks is the author of three books, including White Money/Black Power. She is an associate professor and interim director of graduate studies in Cornell University’s Africana Studies department.