Will Things Be Different This Time?

On June 5, 2020, someone from my university asked me if I would be able to comment on recent events in historical context. I offered my outline of how I would approach the opportunity, and on June 8 turned in my draft. The revisions and updating (due to changing events) took another day.

Then I waited. And waited. Ten days later, this appeared.

You may be curious as to what I submitted. I’ll leave out the introductory matter, since I didn’t write it … but I’ll let you see below what I actually wrote.

Question: Does the recent wave of protests, riots, and looting sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody remind us of what happened in Watts, Detroit and Harlem in the 1960s?

Answer: At first glance, yes, because those events in the 1960s, along with explosions in the Bronx in 1977, Los Angeles in 1992, and Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, to highlight a few select instances, seemed to follow a predictable narrative in a popular memory that tends to overlook or forget critical differences and details. People, especially those who experience these events through television, anticipated a predictable pattern of peaceful protest due to an act of violence, the appearance of state agents prepared to use force to maintain order, non-violence giving away to violence, and then rioting and looting, each of which presents vivid images that captures an audience’s imagination. In these constructed narratives, protests (and opposition to them) lead to looting: since most people generally disapprove of looting, the protests come under critical scrutiny by vaguely associating them with looting, which is used to discredit the protests. Initially media outlets framed and fed that narrative, so the comparisons are understandable. Whether they were meaningful in helping people understand what was actually happening is another question altogether.

In this case, what ignited the recent wave of protests and the ensuing tsunami of calls for reform were several instances of the excessive use of force by law enforcement authorities against black victims, the most famous of which is George Floyd. Floyd’s death proved to be the tipping point because it was videotaped, and because it presented rather clearly the excessive use of force by a white police officer against a black man. A dispassionate viewer could not be but shocked at what they saw.

It’s noteworthy that most observers looked first to the explosions of the late 1960s instead of remembering the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 or Bull Connor and his dogs in Birmingham. The similarities seem simple to comprehend, even if they were superficial at best. Yet the images of fire hoses and vicious dogs, of burning churches and Confederate flags, did much to mobilize public support for civil rights.

One remarkable contrast, however, is in how the president of the United States reacted to this explosion. We have seen nothing in recent weeks which resembles the public statements of John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, who in making sense of the protests and the anger behind them understood the historical moment before them. Virtually no one will view the photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church, preceded as it was by the violent expulsion of largely peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park, as a great moment in presidential leadership. Instead of addressing the problems of institutional and structural racism, Donald Trump chose to highlight them as he struggled to reframe the narrative to serve his bid for reelection, only to escalate the crisis and promote divisiveness.

Q: What else is different?

A: The protesters persisted. They regained control of their narrative. They distinguished themselves from the looters. Some even challenged the looters. The looting subsided while the protests continued, increasing in passion and commitment while attracting broader support. Their audience, already grappling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, including quarantines, unemployment, illness, and death, were already approaching a breaking point, in part because of the controversies surrounding how the president of the United States had addressed those challenges. Many Americans, used to seeing news reports about the pandemic, now watched as the protests unfolded, violence erupted, and looting exploded … and then subsided, leaving the protesters not only as resilient as ever, but also attracting broader support. Most of the media finally got the story right. More white people understand white privilege and are moved by fundamental injustice to march and raise their voices for change. This time, thoughts and prayers won’t be enough.

Protesters understand that protests must lead to fundamental transformations to make sure the victims of such violence by law enforcement agencies have not died in vain. They have been assisted in this endeavor by the response of the Trump administration. The fences being erected around the White House—the people’s house, as it has been called—leave an impression of a cowering and cowardly chief executive, afraid to meet the challenge in front of him, choosing to isolate himself from the very people he is supposed to represent and serve. Protesters have even managed to transform his fences into a wall commemorating their movement.

Donald Trump has become a primary target of this protest due to his fumbling response, which has energized protesters. So have those law enforcement authorities who, aware of the ever-present cameras that can record and then broadcast their every action, nevertheless act in ways that illustrate the need to address policies and practices.

This time, people get it. A decade ago, for example, one would have been hard pressed to imagine the removal of Confederate monuments from southern cities, for example. Now, in the cumulative wake of Charleston, Charlottesville, and George Floyd’s murder, that process accelerates, with the monuments along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue disappearing from the former capital of the Confederacy just as they went into storage in Baltimore and New Orleans. And people get it in part because they now have seen what they had once only heard about, making oppression and violence real and inescapable.

Q: How vital is capturing these incidents on film/tape/digital media in moving the needle on any movement?

A: In 1971, Gil Scott Heron released “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Nearly fifty years later, it is being televised. The ubiquitous presence of digital recording devices ensured that if someone could record it, someone would. The killing of George Floyd invited viewers to see for themselves what for decades black people had told the rest of America was happening. There was no escaping those brutal facts, especially when the murder was replayed time and time again. More than that, the video cultivated the emergence of empathy … the same sort of empathy against black oppression that Harriet Beecher Stowe elicited in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” back in 1851 or network coverage that the civil rights movement in the American South fostered in the 1960s. Coverage over the next several weeks revealed more instances of police forces out of control, with memories of Chicago in 1968 replacing those of the burning cities of the sixties and seventies.

Viewers saw protesters persisting in peaceful remonstrances, with prominent people joining them, and with some law enforcement displaying their support of protests against unwarranted police behavior. With many people just emerging from their homes in the age of pandemics and quarantines, there was an audience, already unnerved by recent events, ready to view and be shocked by such behavior, in large part because most white people knew that George Floyd suffered and died as he did because of the color of his skin. You didn’t have to take to the streets, because the all-encompassing world of visual media brought the streets to your television screen.

Once more, the point of comparison is the early 1960s, when television coverage of the civil rights movement and the violent response to it shocked Americans watching on television, the majority of whom were white. Today, members of a more diverse audience are angered and moved by what they see on social media and 24-hour cable news channels, and political leaders have to respond quickly in order to address the growing unrest. Thus the failure of President Trump to react to the wave of unrest, coming on top of what had become a bizarre and at times sadly comic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, simply reminded viewers that this time someone else would not be restoring peace and progress but law and order in a fashion that seemed both lawless and disorderly.

Q: How much impact does it have when civic leaders, celebrities, retired military and various law enforcement agencies speak up?

A: The willingness of various leaders and celebrities in speaking up, often through social media, cannot be underestimated. Americans often seek to emulate the celebrities they admire, while the support of various elected officials breaks down the “us versus them” framing of protest by showing that many political and civic leaders think it’s time for a change. Such people often showed up in various protests in the 1960s, with some leaders, such as Bobby Kennedy, becoming energized by the movements they sought to comprehend.

Many law enforcement agencies also understand that if they do not make visible their opposition to the misuse of authority by law enforcement officials, they risk losing credibility and might even foment the very sort of confrontational engagements they seek to avoid. It’s much better to march arm-in-arm than to go toe-to-toe or eyeball to eyeball to gain trust and legitimacy. Law enforcement authorities grasp that poor police practices complicate their mission and escalate conflict while shattering a sense of trust and community. They are wise to distance themselves from such practices and advocate more constructive solutions. This time, however, they have become more visible in their opposition. They know that the cameras are on, too.

What’s different this time is the decision of several retired military leaders, including those who have served in the Trump administration, to speak out against the policies and actions of the current president. Although military leaders have not always kept their opinions to themselves, they understand that open opposition to the commander-in-chief is seriously frowned upon by their peers in today’s military. They struggle to reconcile obedience to the president with their oath to defend the Constitution, observing the subordination of the military to civil authority. Thus, even now, those individuals who have spoken out, however well-respected they might be, have retired from military service. Not since Ulysses S. Grant as general-in-chief opposed the obstructionist policies of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction that sought to render black freedom and opportunity vulnerable to white supremacist repression and terrorism have we seen this sort of crisis in civil-military relations concerning domestic policy.

Q: Any predictions what will happen with future reform based on what happened in the 1960s?

A: Both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were landmark measures seeking to realize in the United States what had first been glimpsed during Reconstruction: liberty and equality before the law for a free people. They were products of the Civil Rights movement, reminding us of the unfinished work before us to make America as good as its word and to realize its promise.

No doubt the present protests will force changes in law enforcement practices and cause people to reassess the relationship between law enforcement and the citizenry it is supposed to protect. To be sure, protesters venture onto thin ice when they call for the defunding or disbanding of police departments, because no one’s quite sure what they mean by such terms, and the Trump administration has already seized upon such demands to mount its counterattack. Yet the renewed declaration that Black Lives Matter means more than revisiting police policies, procedures, and practices. The events of 2020 have given Americans good reason to examine what this year’s events have revealed: the underlying structural issues that mitigate against the creation of a just and fair society. Ironically, the president’s emphasis on economic recovery and prosperity, coming in the wake of a pandemic crisis that did much to expose the systemic inequalities in American life, may unwittingly unleash exactly the sort of discussion he so desperately wants to avoid: the connection between legal institutions, citizenship, and real opportunity and and equality in an evolving economic and social order.

It’s a useful exercise in editing … and other things. I did not see the version that appeared in the online venue until it was published (and it’s not exactly easy to find otherwise).