THE protests against police brutality in New York and the strategy behind them defy conventional wisdom about modern civil rights demonstrations.
The general belief was that such massive demonstrations were a thing of the past. Sure, there have been some scattered '60s-style protests such as those in the 1980s and early 1990s outside the South African embassy in Washington, protesting apartheid.
But, in recent years, even some people in the civil rights establishment questioned the effectiveness of such protests. Now the nearly 3-week-old New York protests -- striking in their growing size and racial and ethnic diversity, including everyone from blue-collar workers to movie stars -- have given many in the rights movement pause.
They shouldn't be surprised because many of the same elements that sparked such protests in the 1960s are present today: the violation of civil rights and civil liberties.
The protests, which began on March 9, involve demonstrators blocking the doors to New York City's police headquarters and then being arrested. This civil disobedience is the result of anger and frustration over the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was the target of 41 bullets fired by four white officers.
New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and the police department had been largely unresponsive to the community outcry at such abuse.
As investigations into the matter have dragged on, the old civil rights coalition that led the 1960s movement is reforming a bond that some people felt was lost forever. For example, on Wednesday most of the 212 people arrested were Jewish and elderly.
Some whites have said they were surprised to find themselves drawn to demonstrations organized by the controversial Rev. Al Sharpton. But some said they were moved by the continuing charges of police abuse and the callous response of government.
No one could have predicted such a reaction to police brutality here on the eve of 2000. After all, some rights leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, have repeatedly tried to spark such a movement, but in vain. Their failed efforts indicate that it is difficult, if not impossible, to plan such a protest.
But the new round of civil unrest shows that good people can still be moved to protest outrageous conduct by the government against its people.
Among those arrested have been: Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Rep. Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat, and former New York Mayor David N. Dinkins. But cynics and city officials do not take those arrests seriously, regarding such men as professional agitators and trouble-makers -- the same names demonstrators were called during the 1960s.
But the demonstrations are now having a political impact. One of Mr. Giuliani's strongest black supporters, the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic New York congressman, blasted the mayor and then joined the protesters and was arrested Thursday.
Looking ahead, the movement that presently is decidedly adult could eventually attract students, a group that has been searching for something to do.
If that happens, the protests, indeed, would become bigger and, possibly, nastier. Many New York college students now returning from spring break may notice that there is a movement going on and finally find their cause, completing the link to the 1960s.
Paul Delaney is co-director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.
Pub Date: 3/28/99