How Are We Doing?

I’ve felt overwhelmed by the events of the week. No justice, no peace, indeed.

James Fallows compares 2020 to 1968 and asks which year was worse. I don’t entirely agree with all of his points, but perhaps it’s a useful comparison. I remember that in 1968 the riots — so many riots — were met by the very white establishment with universal condemnation. I was in high school then and remember all the digust expressed in the newspapers and by the adults around me when angry crowds poured into streets.

If you look at public unrest that broke out after Martin Luther King was murdered, it’s clear that the worst of the violence happened where the establishment response was pure law-and-order force. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley gave police the authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists and “shoot to maim” looters. More than 10,000 Chicago police, 6,700 Illinois National Guard were deployed to stop the violence, and 5,000 regular Army soldiers from the 1st Armored and 5th Infantry Divisions were ordered into the city by President Johnson. Here’s a Chicago Tribune retrospective article about that time. 

Something similar happened in Baltimore. Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew called out thousands of National Guard and state police to restore order, and President Johnson sent federal troops. Six people died, 700 were injured.

On the other hand — New York Mayor John Lindsay was in a theater audience when he was handed a note about the MLK assasination. He left, went to his residence, and began calling neighborhood leaders. And then he went to Harlem in an unmarked black Plymouth. He went to the center of Harlem, to 8th Avenue and 125th Street, where hundreds of angry, anxious people had gathered, and the mayor got out of the car and addressed the people.

“That’s the mayor,” said one kid. What’s the latest on King? they asked. How could this happen? Others complained about the heavy police presence, despite the absence of any real violence. Why was there a barricade on 125th? someone asked. Lindsay turned to a nearby officer. “Better keep them moving, don’t you think, officer?” And so the barriers came down. Lindsay told the crowd how much he regretted King’s death. He told them how important it was for the city to now make real progress in alleviating poverty and discrimination. “He had no written speech. No prepared remarks. He just held up his hand and said, ‘this is a terrible thing.’ He just calmed people,” recalled Garth. “And then this gigantic wave started marching down 125th Street, and somehow Lindsay was leading it.”

There was some injury and property damage, but nothing like what happened in Baltimore and Chicago.

Note that Mayor Lindsey was a Republican, while Mayor Daley was a Democrat. Times have changed. But maybe not enough. I found this letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times archives.

One would think that after so much goodwill was apparent between white leaders and the black movement for human and civil rights in Atlanta at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there would at least be some attempt to understand and eventually to correct the problems of which riots are only symptomatic.

Mayor Richard J. Daley’s order to shoot and kill arsonists and looters, and the support which the white community has expressed, only reconfirm the black man’s distrust in America’s white racist power structure.

Instead of moving to correct what even the President’s commission pointed out, white America seems more willing to institute fascistic and represssive measures which may ultimately be recorded as black progroms. When white Americans who reacted with guilt and shame over the murder of Dr. King express a desire to help, they can only be effective by re-evaluating their own deep-set attitudes and beliefs and by acting against such measures as Mayor Daley’s.

Thomasina Reed
New York, April 16, 1968

It’s been 52 bleeping years. How have we done with re-evaluating our own deep-set values and beliefs? How are we acting now against such measures as Mayor Daley’s?

I am watching from a distance, but it seems to me that our current unrest has been met with grotesque police over-reaction, which in turn escalated the violence. See Images of police using violence against peaceful protesters are going viral by Catherine Kim at Vox.

Video footage is going viral of police officers responding to protests Saturday night with excessive force, including battering and pepper-spraying peaceful demonstrators.

Most of the nationwide anti-police brutality protests started peacefully Saturday afternoon, but many took a more volatile turn on Saturday night. Some images show protesters vandalizing property, including setting fire to police cars and businesses.

But other videos show officers aggravating lawful participants with batons and, in one case, driving a police SUV into a crowd.

See also Nancy LeTourneau, In Minneapolis, a Police Union Gone Rogue. Just read the whole thing. I just want to point to this part.

So the mayor banned the use of this “warrior-style” training, with concurrence from the city’s police chief. But the union defied the ban and subsidized the training for officers anyway. It is also the police union that has defended Officer Derek Chauvin, the one who kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, when he was the target of 18 prior complaints.

I am sympathetic to those who claim that officers like Chauvin are the “bad apples” in departments where honorable men and women serve. I’ve personally known police officers who earned the title of being peace officers. But as they say, “the fish rots from the head,” and it is clear that the police union in Minneapolis went rogue a long time ago.

It is also worth noting that there is a political angle to all of this. Not only did Trump tweet that Mayor Frey is “very weak,” he went on to blast out the threat of “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” I suspect that the president remembers what happened when he came to Minneapolis last fall.

Last fall, when Trump demanded the use of a Minneapolis venue for a rally without bothering to pay for the city’s expenses, Mayor Frey told Trump to stay home. But the police union showed up in force wearing “cops for Trump” T-shirts.

And let us be clear — the issue at hand is police violence. See Police Erupt in Violence Nationwide by Matthew Dessem at Slate.  But it’s also true that In Some Cities, Police Officers Joined Protesters Marching Against Brutality, writes Lisette Voytko at Forbes. That didn’t happen in 1968.

There also have been many reports of right-wing agitators infiltrating the protests and causing chaos. It may take a while before we sort out who was really present and doing what. The Trump administration blames far-left agitators. The mainstream media is dutifully reporting that the agitators are from both political extremes. We’ll see.

Trump’s latest tweetstorm has been all about sending in National Guard and putting down “ANTIFA led anarchists,” even though I’ve seen nothing about the presence of antifa at any of these protests. Anarchists, probably; “black bloc” types, definitely.  But those are not the same groups.

Trump is the new, and worse, Mayor Daley. The old Mayor Daley is gone; the current mayor of Chicago is a black woman, Lori Lightfoot, who today called on Illinois Govenor Pritzger to send National Guard to Chicago. One wonders if the situation would have escalated this far if we had anything approximating competent national leadership. Instead we’ve got Trump pouring gasoline on the fire and his poodle, Bill Barr, insisting that all the violence is being led by antifa.

And on top of everything else, there are huge concerns the protests will turn into coronavirus hotspots. It’s heartbreaking.

Martin Luther King insisted on nonviolent resistence; he was assassinated anyway. Today, the pundits are debating whether street violence will help Trump politically. I would like to think it wouldn’t, but there’s a chance it will. It depends on how far we’ve come in these past 52 years.