Justice  /  First Person

The Report That Could Have Stopped Ferguson

Senator Fred Harris describes his experience on the Kerner Commission, tasked with explaining the causes of urban riots in 1967.

Returning to Washington, the commissioners presented their final report, famously concluding that “our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.” Until the immense pressures facing so many black communities in cities like Newark and Detroit were lifted, the potential for violence would continue. Their final report recommended integrating housing and creating jobs to break up the racial homogeneity of urban communities, as well as a number of changes to how police forces operated. Fred Harris again:

“We said that police in a neighborhood ought to look a lot like the people in the neighborhood. They ought to be a part of the neighborhood. And we recommended what can be called community policing, that the police and other services of government ought to be out there in the community, available to people, and be a part of the community. And there ought to be grievance mechanisms before things get bad. There ought to be a way by which people could feel that if they made some complaint about the police or whatever, it would be taken seriously and acted upon.”

The Kerner Commission’s recommendations never gained much traction. President Johnson took offense, believing that the findings didn’t support him and his policies strongly enough, and refused to meet with the commissioners, or let their investigation continue. Without his backing, many of the commission's suggestions languished. While some communities did try to make the shift towards community policing, the underlying problems of segregation and racial inequality have remained in many communities to this day. In fact, Harris coauthored a report in 1998, long after the Kerner Commission had been disbanded, that found that unemployment and housing disparities between black and white Americans had grown even larger.

Harris remains hopeful, though, that by bringing these issues to the fore, we might be able to prevent future tragedies.  “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. It may be the price Americans must pay to repair the rift between the "two societies" which still exist nearly half a century after the Kerner Commission report was written.