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Was Ferguson the beginning of a new civil rights era?

Ferguson became a Selma-like moment for the 2010s – to the extent the stark images caused a nation to stop and reflect on the state of racial relations in America. Moreover, a new generation of activists, who were not weaned on the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Era, is coming to the fore.

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    Police advanced through a cloud of smoke Aug. 13 as they prepared to clash with protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
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Burly, with tattoos and a bandanna over his face, Anthony Pruit stepped up to the Missouri State Highway Patrol captain trying to cool the tensions that engulfed Ferguson, Mo., in protests and riots this summer.

“We hurt, we broken, and we ain’t all criminals,” Mr. Pruit said.

He then pulled down his bandanna to show his face, which was by then streaked with tears. “How can y’all fix this?”

That show of vulnerability in the face of authority from a tough-looking young man became one of many iconic moments from two weeks that defined a rough summer for America.

Evidence suggests that Ferguson both disturbed and mobilized a nation, as tensions linger amid a Justice Department investigation into the incident that started it all: The Aug. 9 shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, by a white police officer named Darren Wilson.

Many people questioned the nights of looting that followed. But the harsh police rejoinder – police dogs, rubber bullets, tear gas – revealed to a lot of Americans what appeared to be institutional disdain and disrespect for lower-income minorities. That disdain was perhaps most clearly typified by an officer who was subsequently fired for calling protesters “animals.”

Ferguson became a Selma-like moment for the 2010s – to the extent the stark images caused a nation to stop and reflect on the state of racial relations in America, exacerbated by an economy in which, sociologists say, class warfare is taking the place of overt racism. At the very least, Ferguson became a waypoint in a new civil rights chapter.

The effects are already being felt: Officers around the country and in Ferguson are donning body cameras, and communities from Saginaw, Mich., to San Jose, Calif., are giving back their military-grade hand-me-downs. Moreover, a new generation of activists, who were not weaned on the nonviolence of the Civil Rights Era, is coming to the fore and looking to a different protest model.

A month on, scenes of a Missouri suburb looking like something out of a war zone remain powerfully etched in American minds.

“That [war-zone] imagery is in people’s minds, and it’s not flattering to the powerful,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington. “Whether [protesters] are in the wrong or right, it ain’t a fair fight, and there’s something very human about reacting to that.”

To be sure, the combination of protests, riots, and looting were hardly unifying. Whites continue to be far more likely to condemn the looting than are blacks.

But there seems to be more agreement on one thing: Large shares of both blacks and whites thought police went too far in their response. This is part of a growing concern about the increase in the use of militarized SWAT teams to bust up small-time drug rings, unlicensed barbershops, and illicit poker games, mostly in black neighborhoods.

“Some things will absolutely happen, like police officers being required to wear video gear – which helps the rogue officer to think twice – and I also think police might demilitarize,” says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia. “But these are cosmetic and superficial changes. I don’t think that this is going to bring any real systemic changes in the quality of life and the socioeconomic reality in these communities.”

But those changes could potentially make a difference, others argue.

Reaction to the militarized response in law enforcement has been building. A December 2013 Reason-Rupe poll showed that 57 percent of whites and 67 percent of blacks said police militarization was “going too far.” Earlier this year, 56 percent of respondents told Pew that “police should not be able to search people just because they look suspicious” – a reference to “stop and frisk” tactics that largely target minorities.

In that light, Congress has begun to take a closer look at programs that send military equipment even to tiny police departments. And some US police chiefs, having watched what went down in Ferguson, have begun to ship military hardware back to Washington.

The disparities inherent in a disproportionate number of black arrests in Ferguson and elsewhere by majority white departments gave Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, for one, pause.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, Chief Citty said he wanted his officers to wear body cameras and acknowledged that his department needed to hire more minorities. “If you haven’t built a relationship with the community and don’t try to build trust with the community before something like [Ferguson] happens, you’re really too late,” Citty said.

The protests also gave a face to a new generation of civil rights protesters, many of whom decided to brave the tear gas and rubber bullets despite pleas for calm. Like their forebears, they were willing to be arrested to be heard – despite calls from an older generation of activists to heed the curfew.

Ferguson showed that “[t]he old guard civil rights leadership has virtually no weight anymore with younger generations of activists,” Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., told USA Today.

Media, including social media, also flexed their influence in various ways. While some critics argued that media coverage may have fueled the protests, reporters and observers also gave America a chance to understand Greater St. Louis and its history of segregation, experts say.

Between 1917 and 1968, the city and its environs were involved in nearly every landmark Supreme Court decision involving racial zoning and covenants, suggesting the region has never fully come to terms with lingering racism.

But some argue that income inequality has a role to play in the modern unrest.

“I don’t think that [the police response] is just racially motivated, although those motivations are there,” says Mr. Carnevale. “Oppression and advantage are very complicated things, and generally it’s a set of race-blind mechanisms – the economy, the schools, the criminal-justice system – that make this stuff real.”

Perhaps the most immediate possibility for change is in Ferguson itself.

The Ferguson City Council announced Sept. 9 that it would establish a citizens’ review board and promised changes in a court system that has been accused of unfairly targeting minorities. The Department of Justice, which is already probing the death of Mr. Brown, announced it also will investigate the Ferguson Police Department to determine if it has systematically violated people’s civil rights.

No matter the extent to which Ferguson changes, or changes America, the protests put on view a country still striving for progress on racial trust.

Many Americans see progress in their own daily life: An August 2013 Pew survey found that 81 percent of whites and 73 percent of blacks said that blacks and whites get along with each other very or pretty well on a day-to-day basis.

“This is not Selma; it’s not a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and Bull Connor,” says Carnevale. “It’s a conversation between a much more modern group of people on both sides. It’s now more about mechanics, how society creates advantages and disadvantages. But it’s not nasty, and it’s not personal.”

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