This time, the protests might have consequences.
Decades of demonstrations since the 1960s have usually started with passion but led to little. Now, however, protests over police-caused deaths of unarmed black men are having an impact.
They’ve spawned fresh, high-level looks at racial profiling. State and federal officials are seeking more money for police equipment and training. President Barack Obama has spoken out. At the Capitol, lawmakers are voicing concern.
Thousands are expected to gather Saturday in Washington for a mass march. The rally follows weeks of protests across the country after grand juries declined to indict police involved in the deaths of men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.
This wave of action and reaction hasn’t been seen for some time. “This feels big to me. I don’t know that I’ve seen this kind of passion recently,” said Peter Levine, director of the Medford, Mass.-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
The protests first erupted this summer in Ferguson, reflecting the black community’s anger over the Aug. 9 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. When a Missouri grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson on any charge, demonstrators around the country mobilized.
Protesters took to the streets again Dec. 3 after a New York grand jury would not indict police officers involved in the chokehold-related death of Eric Garner.
While the Ferguson case triggered fierce debate over whether the grand jury had acted properly, the Garner case produced a less-polarized reaction, thanks to a video that clearly showed Garner being manhandled by police.
Conservatives, liberals and those in between expressed outrage, and protests since have reflected deep, long-festering frustration with the nation’s legal and political system.
“These issues are American issues, not simply race issues,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
At first, Congress barely responded. Congressional Black Caucus members spent an hour one evening making speeches, and a few lawmakers expressed outrage on the floors of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Protests did once move the country. In the 1960s, civil rights marches produced landmark legislation and leaders who wound up running cities and states and serving in Congress. The anti-war movement of the late 1960s helped motivate a generation of baby-boomers to enter public service.
Since then, however, protests have rarely led directly to much political action.
The grassroots tea party movement was influential in helping elect Republicans to Congress in 2010, but the momentum fizzled, and its impact on recent elections has faded. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011, protesting the government’s coziness with Wall Street, had little impact on electoral or legislative politics – and this week, the House of Representatives approved weakening a finance institution regulatory law enacted after the 2008 financial collapse.
The political inertia helped alienated the young people who tend to most populate demonstrations. A 30-year-old today grew up watching President Bill Clinton get impeached, President George W. Bush get the nation involved in an unpopular war, and President Barack Obama see his popularity tumble.
The 2008 Obama candidacy helped spike youth turnout to 51 percent, but participation last month returned to dismal levels. About one in five 18- to 29-year-olds voted this fall.
Not even issues thought to spark interest, such as same-sex marriage or legalized marijuana, helped jolt turnout. Levine’s group found that in 20 instances from 2006 to 2012 where those issues were on state ballots, six to eight had turnout rates that might have been affected by the referenda.
But little by little, the outrage over Brown’s and Garner’s deaths are having an effect.
Obama is seeking $75 million to buy 50,000 more body-worn cameras for local law enforcement. Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will take new steps aimed at ending racial profiling.
States are also acting. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a look at police training and “diversity, and cameras, and transparency and accountability.” In Ohio, Republican Gov. John Kasich formed a task force to examine police-community relations.
The challenge now is maintaining the momentum. “That’s a little bit harder nowadays,” said Lottie Shackelford, a former mayor of Little Rock, Ark., and a veteran civil rights activist.
Congress could hold hearings or push legislation when it returns next year on police equipment and policies, though prospects are iffy.
Sen. Clare McCaskill, D-Mo., plans an effort she said would “reform and revise the programs that fund and give equipment to local police departments.”
It’s uncertain if Republicans will go along. “I don’t know if we need a hearing. I just think people ought to recognize there are legitimate concerns in the African-American community,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a senior Judiciary Committee member.
Protesters may find they’ll have to channel their energy into community organizing or other non-traditional means rather than rely on the political process.
“People today see politicians as spinally challenged,” said South Carolina state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee’s Southern Caucus. “They know we ought not to see getting elected to office as the only way to change the system.”
That’s a big change from days past, making the legacy of today’s protests uncertain.
This much, though, is clear, said Shackelford: “These protests are making people think about change again.”