Long Before Ferguson, Authorities Feared Riots at King’s March on Washington

As Ferguson, Mo. and the nation await a grand jury decision on whether or not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown, authorities are “preparing for the worst.”

According to a report this week by ABC News, an FBI bulletin was issued, warning law enforcement agencies that protesters will “likely” become violent if—or, seemingly, when—the grand jury announces that it won’t indict Wilson.

“The FBI assesses those infiltrating and exploiting otherwise legitimate public demonstrations with the intent to incite and engage in violence could be armed with bladed weapons or firearms, equipped with tactical gear/gas masks, or bulletproof vests to mitigate law enforcement measures,” the bulletin reportedly concluded.

Perhaps in response, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a “state of emergency” in Ferguson Monday

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote astutely on how law enforcement preparations in Ferguson represent a misunderstanding of what caused the unrest that followed Mike Brown’s killing.

“Put simply, the unrest in Ferguson was as much the fault of the police as it was the protesters.’ But by declaring a ‘state of emergency’ aimed at residents of Ferguson and the broader St. Louis County, Gov. Nixon obscures this fact and smears the community, pretending that it’s solely responsible for anything that happens in the wake of a grand jury announcement and all but giving license to law enforcement to reprise its draconian response,” wrote Bouie.

The expectation of violence in Ferguson goes beyond misunderstanding of the events following Mike Brown’s killing, however. The surge of gun sales in suburban St. Louis and current emergency preparations in Seattle (yes, that mecca for black revolutionary action) are also motivated by an irrational fear of black violence.

This phobia of black rage is nothing new. It motivated the slave codes that prohibited blacks from handling guns. It morphs wallets into weapons. Ironically, it’s why Ferguson police responded to what was a gathering of concerned residents with armored vehicles and tear gas. Almost laughably, it even led authorities to believe that the 1963 March on Washington would surely erupt into violence.

Around the 50th anniversary of the march, I interviewed a woman who attended when she was 19 years old. Ellen Pechman worked as a phone operator in the White House. Coming from a Jewish family that was concerned with civil rights, Pechman told me that she was determined to attend the event. Ironically, fear of violence at what we know now to be one the largest nonviolent demonstrations in American history almost kept her from witnessing history.

Pechman said she requested time off to attend the march but her boss at the White House refused.

“I asked for leave, and they told me that I couldn’t take off, and that I didn’t want to be a part of ‘anything like that.’ We went through a whole go ‘round that resulted in them telling me I couldn’t go,” she said. “Then Kennedy sent out a bulletin announcing the government would be closed.”

The day of the march, all D.C. liquor stores and bars were ordered closed. The Washington Senators baseball game against the Minnesota Twins was cancelled and federal employees, including Pechman, were given the day off. There was also a large military and police presence at the march. The entire D.C. police force was mobilized, along with 500 reserves and 2,500 members of the National Guard.

Authorities feared the march would lead to violence. In fact, when Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr. appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press just before the march, panelists questioned if it would be possible to “bring more than 100,000 militant Negroes into Washington without incidents and possibly riot.”

But the Negroes did descend on Washington. Everyone was peaceful. King gave a speech. History was made.

The March on Washington is regarded in history books as a shining example of large-scale nonviolent protest. It was organized, in part, by one of the most respected nonviolent activists of all time. It’s clear in retrospect that authorities were reacting, not to credible threats, but to a much deeper fear. In order to understand the current mood around Ferguson and, perhaps, to understand why an unarmed Mike Brown was shot at least six times, it’s necessary that we interrogate that fear. 

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