Rice on Ferguson: People — particularly lawmakers — need to ‘wake up’

Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark), center, with Gov. Jon Corzine and Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark) this week.

The senior-most member of the New Jersey legislature’s black caucus — and the fourth-most senior member of the body as a whole — sees some good in the protests that have followed in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision to not indict a Ferguson, MO police officer in the fatal shooting of an unarmed teen this summer, even if many people don’t.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-28), a Newark, NJ native who’s served in the state legislature since 1986, said the demonstrations surrounding the verdict — some of which have been violent, resulting in at least one death, while others non-violent — are needed to bring attention to the issues underlying violent crime in urban areas. He said the situation in Ferguson is similar to so many places across the country just “waiting to explode” — including New Jersey’s own large urban centers, such as Newark, Camden, and Paterson.

“I think the protests are good and necessary, as long as they’re non-violent,” Rice told PolitickerNJ in a phone interview about the recent demonstrations. “And the reason being is people need to wake up, particularly in government. In New Jersey we’re trying to do a few things, and I’ve had this conversation with [Senate President Steve Sweeney] over a year ago and most recently prior to Ferguson. I really felt that Newark and cities such as Camden and Paterson and others, like Jersey City — we’re back where we were in 1967, where I can feel that it’s going to explode.”

The situation in Ferguson has continued to hold the attention of media and the nation’s top officials since Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, who is black, earlier this year. The shooting was quickly followed by social and political upheaval in the St. Louis suburb, including sometimes violent protests that have rocked the town over the course the the last few months. But tensions came to a head last month when a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson — rekindling frustrations over the incident and triggering more protests not just in Ferguson, but in cities across the country.

Both President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke on the issue at separate press conferences yesterday, with Obama calling for a “sustained conversation” about the relationship between police and the communities they serve after a series of meetings with Cabinet members, law enforcement officials, and young activists. Holder said a federal investigation of the incident is still ongoing.

But experts and observers say the situation exposes the larger socioeconomic and racial issues affecting many cities across America — and that Brown’s shooting simply served as the spark in Ferguson. Rice, for his part, said mounting tension in these places is a “feeling that people in my generation understand.”

“But if you really look at the age population of the people here in the legislature, those who weren’t born in the 60’s don’t understand or remember the 1967 urban disturbances throughout America, or the National Advisory Committee on Urban Violence,” Rice said, referring to the Kerner Commission, an 11-member commission established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of the 1967 race riots in places like L.A. and Newark, and to provide recommendations going forward.

Rice said he’s been working to bring awareness to the problems plaguing inner cities, specifically here at home. He said he shared the Kerner Commission’s findings, which pointed to frustrations over a lack of economic opportunity as the root cause of the protests, with members of his own caucus recently, urging lawmakers “to look at the times we’re in. The violence that we’re looking at is no different from the violence that surrounded earlier race protests.”

“Back in 1967 everybody thought that with the civil rights act and everything, the disturbance or explosion if you will was caused by radical groups and racial groups, white and black. But the commission found out that wasn’t so. What it was, it was the times we were in,” Rice, who served as a Newark police officer in the 70’s, said. “Schools were still segregated in ‘67 even after Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. People did not have jobs, the education system was not being productive, and there was not a lot of diversity in opportunities. Well, today we’re in the same period of time. It’s just 2014.”

Rice pointed to the city of his own birth as evidence, where ongoing educational problems (he noted problems with the city’s latest efforts at reform under state-appointed schools superintendent Cami Anderson and the One Newark plan), a lack of jobs, and increased homicides continue affect the quality of life of Newark residents.

“If you look at some of the stuff taking place in Camden, the problems that people are having and the politics and frustration, if you look at Paterson and Passaic, then you can see that people are being pushed to the limit, and the middle class is being stretched like a rubber band. It’s ready to pop,” Rice said. “So our concern, as representatives of the black caucus, is to keep our eye on Ferguson, because we know if Ferguson gets too out of hand, we were concerned it would have a trickle effect across the country, like in 1967.

“You can see that the demonstrations are necessary to get the attention of America, the attention of New Jerseyans, but also the attention of government, to say hold it, we have to take advantage of the situation, and slow down, and stop ignoring things that are impacting the quality of life of New Jersey residents and businesses, and pay attention to causation and determine where we have to go from there,” he added.

Earlier this year, Rice helped pass a resolution to create the Joint Committee on Economic Justice and Equal Employment Opportunity, which is tasked with studying equality in relation to New Jersey’s economy and employment opportunity through meetings and hearings held around the state. More recently, he’s sponsored legislation to create a second committee, a task force on urban violence, which he says would bring together community groups, civil rights leaders and lawmakers to study and report on violent crime taking place in New Jersey’s urban cities. He said these committees and commissions are needed to get to the root cause of racial and economic violence in places like Ferguson.

“Because if we don’t have those, this stuff is going to continue to get out of hand, and we’re going to have more Fergusons,” Rice said, adding that the issue was not solely about race, but what causes it.

“The issues is not whether the police officer was a racist, or whether the police officer panicked, or if Michael Brown stole something, or if he was fighting the police — the issue is if Michael Brown stole something, and was fighting the police, then let’s identify what’s causing those situations,” he said. “If the police officer was a racist, or if he was fearing of that type of community, and panicked, let’s talk about what’s causing those kinds of conditions.”

Rice on Ferguson: People — particularly lawmakers — need to ‘wake up’