MEMORIES OF RIOTS PAST AND
It’s like “déjà vu all over again.”
Yogi Berra’s famously mangled line is often quoted to describe the feeling that not only has something happened before, but that it’s happened repeatedly.
The chaos in Baltimore evokes Los Angeles’ Watts Riot of 1965, the Detroit Riot of 1967, the second L.A. outbreak in 1992, and of course, last year’s mayhem in Ferguson, Missouri. And others. So many others.
I remember most vividly the multi-city violence that broke out after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. A student at Temple University (which, to this day, remains an integrated island located in the middle of a predominantly black urban ghetto), I was doubly saddened at King’s assassination — first, for the blind, persistent hatred that should strike down a man of principle and courage, and second, at the rapidity with which righteous anger was translated into the very kind of wanton lawlessness King preached against so fervently.
Had the nation learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement? Had whites and blacks made no progress at all?
Like so many other well intentioned, middle-class white people (and I do flatter myself that I’m well intentioned, if not always insightful or effective), I have tried to grasp the outlook of those born into limited prospects, raised with expectations of continuing disadvantage, and convinced that society is colluding against any possible improvement in their lives.
Looked at from this point of view, it’s not hard to understand the initial outbursts of rage when someone who shares your characteristics (and in whom you can easily see yourself) is abused by a heartless “system” or “establishment” or “power structure” — or as it used to be said, by “the Man.”
That perspective is sufficient to justify protest, political activism, the application of organized pressure, even physical confrontation with authorities. But what can explain the random, unfocused violence that seems always to follow those first authentic expressions of resentment? By what logic can the self-defeating destruction of, for instance, businesses that serve the rioters’ own communities, and even the homes of local residents, be understood?
Before its ’67 riot, Detroit was a white-dominated, segregated city that had both a large business base and a substantial poor black population — but in which there was a rising black middle class with plausible hopes and much to be proud of (this was the heyday of Motown, remember). Today, Detroit is a devastated hulk from which businesses and the middle class (both blacks and whites) have fled, and in which the poor population has sunk from need into abject despair.
Can anyone, at this point, believe that the riot was worth it?
It’s true that the aftermath of ’67 saw a shift in political power that put the city under black leadership until the recent state-imposed reorganization and the election of Mike Duggan as mayor. But of what value has that been, after a half-century of struggle, corruption and failure? Can anyone see it as laudable progress?
And so now we have Baltimore, a city in which a black man died under very murky circumstances while in police custody.
A city in which the mayor, the city council president and most council members, the state’s attorney, the police chief, and half the police force are black.
Once more people have rioted. It’s like “déjà vu all over again.”
In the Ferguson, Missouri situation I think it would be a stretch to argue that race was completely irrelevant, even though the district attorney, state law enforcement officials, and a very race-conscious Eric Holder Justice Department found that the evidence wouldn’t sustain a prosecution of the white police officer who shot Michael Brown.
So how to explain the mysterious death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore? Is it reasonable to assume that racism among Baltimore cops is so pervasive, so deeply ingrained as to defy the oversight of black superiors and an almost entirely black city administration?
Something doesn’t add up here.
As with so many other instances of rioting triggered by perceptions of injustice, this situation has moved well beyond the incident that sparked it. The Nation of Islam, the irrepressible Al Sharpton, and other opportunistic players are attempting to draft local grievance into the service of larger goals.
We’ve seen that before, too.
And here’s something else we’ve see…
After the spate of riots in the 1960s — along with a string of violent incidents related to anti-Vietnam War agitation — public sentiment swung dramatically in favor of political candidates who made “law and order” the focus of their campaigns. That theme was instrumental in the election of Richard Nixon.
It may be a straw in the wind that Daniel Donovan, District Attorney for the New York Borough of Staten Island — the very same DA who empanelled a grand jury that declined to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner in the infamous “I Can’t Breath!” case — is now considered the far-front runner in a special election to fill a vacant congressional seat.
Donovan is a Republican running in a district where Democrats enjoy a 45-to-29 percent dominance in voter registration. On top of that, the seat he’s seeking is open only because of a tax-fraud scandal surrounding its former Republican occupant.
He’s expected to win handily.
“Law and order” would appear to be back in fashion.
It’s like “déjà vu all over again.”
Texas author Jen Hatmaker, who describes herself as an upper middle class, suburban, white mother of two black children (and a pastor’s wife), attempts to address the “Why?” behind Baltimore’s turmoil in a think piece for the Washington Post. Her essay is a bit burdened by lefty, churchy jargon, but with her life circumstances, she offers a distinctive Christian perspective worth reflecting on…
“There is so much work to do: relational healing, power upheaval, systemic reform from the top down and bottom up, the laborious process of education, the laborious process of intellectual honesty, the laborious process of peacemaking. But I hope we can face this work together, and on the days you are weary beyond words, remember that we exist — a whole alliance of white folks who have heard your stories and heeded your leadership, who’ve been inspired by your resilience and broken over your pain. We stand by you as co-laborers, neighbors, and mostly your friends. Together we can lessen the burden on our children’s generation until one day, through toil and courage and perseverance and unity, this good work is complete.”
I think the Millennium Generation-focused news site, .Mic, shares my suspicions about the revival of “law and order” concern. It recently examined the emphasis on violence in news coverage of the Baltimore situation, noting…
“One could practically sense right-wing media hooting with glee at Baltimore’s pain.”
Rather, .Mic insisted…
“The vast majority of people who turned out to protest Freddie Gray’s death on Saturday didn’t engage in violence, smash windows or hurl beer bottles at people.”
National Journal profiles Daniel Donovan’s run for Congress on Staten Island, pointing out all the obstacles that don’t seem to be standing in his way, and speculating about the broader political impact of concerns about “law and order”…
My Ave Maria Radio colleague, Kathy Schiffer, takes a bold swipe at the national black leadership on the Patheos blog portal. A longtime Michigander, she reflects on the 1967 Detroit riot, shaking her head at the lessons not learned. Her harshest criticism is reserved for the President…
“I am not — I repeat, NOT — advocating that we turn a blind eye to police injustice, if and where it exists. If mistakes were made, then extensive reeducation and training must ensure that mistakes are not repeated. If crimes were committed, the criminals (even if they are police officers) must be brought to justice. But it is more than time for the American President to quit bitching about racism and to be the leader this nation needs.”
Associated Press recently offered a thumbnail of conditions in Baltimore. It’s a dreary profile of a once-great but now depressed urban center. Included was a comment from Rashawn Ray, sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park…
“[Rioters] are reacting to something very specific — a feeling of hopelessness,” Ray said. “People who aren’t from these neighborhoods see one incident: Freddie Gray. But here, Freddie Gray triggers collective memory and experiences that they’ve had over time, like their lives don’t matter. People without jobs, trying to feed their families in neighborhoods without grocery stores. Sitting around not talking about, what did you do at school today, but did you get stopped by the police on your way home? It’s been brewing for decades.”
Read it here…
In his slightly pompous, but often incisive, way Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly calls it like he sees it in Baltimore, pointing out that in a city that’s 63 percent black, 85 percent of crimes are committed by blacks. In the “Talking Points” segment of his “O’Reilly Factor” he said…
“It is long past time for police agencies in America to have a no-tolerance policy towards brutality on the part of officers. Every American, even criminals, should be safe in police custody. But it is also long past time for African-American communities across America to begin to police themselves.”
You can view the clip here…