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Rev. Al Sharpton is a civil rights activist and talk show host.

Harvard Political Review: Rev. Sharpton, what is the significance of the Ferguson episode’s location – that is, in the middle of the country and in a suburb?

Al Sharpton: I think the significance is that we’re dealing with the heartland of America.  We’re not dealing with a major urban center.  We’re not dealing with the stereotypical “this is the problem of the inner city,” and yet you have the same kind of bad police community relations, the same kind of charges of racial disparity when you look at the black community is 67 percent of the population but 82 percent of the cars stopped according to the state attorney general of Missouri.  We are seeing that the racial disparities in the criminal justice system are not an inner city problem alone.

HPR: Considering those racial disparities in the criminal justice system, do you agree with President Obama’s words on the Ferguson episode: “there is never an excuse for violence against police”?

AS: Absolutely.

HPR: There has been a dramatic change, it seems, in Ferguson in the last 24 hours.  What do you believe precipitated that?

AS: I think the change is that because of the pressure that all of us put about the militarization of policing there and then they arrested two reporters by accident—I think that it forced the governor and the state to come in, and once the governor and the state came in and they shifted to a kinder, gentler kind of policing that changed how they dealt with the protesters and all.

When I came in the day after the looting and the fire to denounce the violence and to answer the call of the families to stand for justice but to establish non-violence, they had begun this buildup of a military-like reaction and I think they just went overboard, and you can’t put a whole community under police state.  I think that the looting was wrong, but I think the police reaction was wrong.  But what I don’t want to see lost in this is that we congratulate ourselves in stopping the militarization of police and act like the job is done; the job is not done until we deal with the case of Michael Brown.  And at one level I’m glad to see the protest about the military presence that police had decided to assume, but at another level I’m disturbed that some elements, not all, some elements responded more to two reporters being arrested than an unarmed man being killed.

HPR: I’ve noticed online a lot of responses from people of the millennial generation, particularly Howard University students who held up their hands with their palms facing the camera as a sign of solidarity with Michael Brown.  What can you say about the use of social media as a protest tool?  Is it replacing conventional protest, and if so, to what effect?

AS: Social media is effective in spreading and helping to spread the word.  I think it enhances conventional techniques, because if you have social media without the marching and the rallies, then it’s not as effective.   I think that if you have the rallies and the marches and social media, then it is effective.  For example, social media put out Trayvon Martin.  Nobody responded until we were down there and started marching.  So you need both, because without the dramatic presence of bodies, people on social media are non-apparent to the political powers that be.  When they see bodies they know that people will vote and get them out of office.  When they see things in social media it makes people aware, but it doesn’t speak truth to power in a way that threatens their continued political existence.

HPR:  Do you see it as part of your role to elevate some of the things that you may see on a grassroots social media level to the national dialogue?

AS: Absolutely.  That is part of my role as a civil rights leader of National Action Network and we’ve been doing that for decades, and it’s part of my role now that I also do talk radio and talk television.  Clearly I’m not on as a newsman, I’m on with an opinion advocating certain things, debating people that may agree or may disagree, and that’s the role of a civil rights activist.  It’s to put a spotlight on things that would have been ignored.  Dr. King was the greatest activist, no one even approaches him, but ultimately he was not a legislature.  He did not pass the Civil Rights Act; he raised the awareness and dramatized the need for a civil rights bill.  The Voting Rights Act he didn’t legislate.  Adam Clayton Powell legislated it.  Thurgood Marshall argued it in court.  King used a grassroots movement to bring awareness, and I think all of us in our own ways, minor ways, are trying to do the same things.

HPR: Let’s step back and talk again about Ferguson.  The Washington Post ran a comparison to Watts in 1965.  How is this different from other cases of alleged police brutality in the past and other cases of social unrest?

AS: The similarity with Watts and Rodney King in South Central L.A. is that most violent reactions have not been around poverty; they’ve been around police. As one who condemns violence, I think it shows that [they react most strongly] when people feel that those who are paid and sworn to protect them let them down.  What is not similar is it’s not Newark, or like L.A. with South Central, or with Watts, or Miami.  Here, it’s in the heartland of America, in the suburbs, and you have this kind of reaction, I think that’s the difference.

HPR: Would you consider the damage done to Ferguson by this situation similar to the damage done to Watts or to Detroit or Newark but on a smaller scale relative to population and population density?

AS: The damage done is different.  There was more property damage in Watts and South Central.  I think it was only one or two stores done in Ferguson.  But I think that the image damage is far more devastating because ultimately Los Angeles will be remembered for a lot more than a riot.  Ferguson will always be remembered for this.  In terms of the immediate monetary, they may not have had all of downtown burned like South Central was, but in terms of their image as a community, they have probably more damage than all of them put together because Ferguson is on the map now as the place where an unarmed kid got killed and there was violence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image credit: Flickr / Elvert Barnes

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