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Saturday, May 30, 2020

The 1960s Return

I feel this weekend that I am reliving painful parts of my youth.  Urban riots, to use the contemporary term, were the first anomalous event to shatter the optimism of the early 1960s, still the most hopeful period that I can remember in American life.  The civil rights movement had unleashed plenty of violence in the South, but that seemed to be the last gasp of a dying old order, and civil rights in the summer of 1964 won the huge victory of the great civil rights act.  Lyndon Johnson was about to consign (or so it seemed) Barry Goldwater's anti-New Deal conservatism to the scrap heap of history.  The escalation of the Vietnam War had not yet begun.  The first great urban riot of the 1960s began on July 16, 1964, in Harlem, and lasted for six days.

It is rather chilling to return to accounts of these events because they sound so familiar. An off-duty NYPD police lieutenant came across an altercation between some black male teen-agers and an apartment house superintendent who was using a hose to try to drive them off a building's steps.  He challenged 15-year old James Lynch, a Bronx youth whom he claimed tried to attack him with a knife, and shot and killed him.  Black groups held demonstrations over the weekend that followed.  They escalated into riots that lasted several days. An estimated 500 persons were injured, 465 were arrested, but only one more died.  Property damage from looting was estimated at between half a million and a million dollars.  A smaller riot occurred in Phladelphia later that summer.

The triumphal mood of the mid-1960s reached its peak in the middle of 1965, as Lyndon Johnson pushed through Medicare and much of the rest of the Great Society program, and the Voting Rights Act followed the Civil Rights Act of the year before.  On August 11, 1965, in the black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, a motorcycle cop pulled a black driver over for reckless driving.  The driver's brother, a passenger, summoned their mother from their house nearby, a crowd gathered, more police arrived, and altercations broke out.  The police arrested the whole family, rumors spread, crowds gathered, and police fought with the crowds all night.  Rioting, arson, and looting lasted for six days and nights.  Governor Pat Brown called out several thousand National Guardsmen, who imposed a curfew along with police, and decided on mass arrests.  Arrests eventually totaled 35,000, and 34 people died, 16 shot by policemen and 7 by national guardsmen.    This time nearly a thousand commercial buildings were burned, looted, or seriously damanged, and property damage was estimated at $40 million.  Together with the disturbances at UC Berkeley that had started in the fall of 1964 and continued for years to come, the riots helped sweep Ronald Reagan to a landslide victory in the gubernatorial race in 1966, which got him on the path to the White House.

Despite some violence in various major cities, nothing comparable to Harlem or Watts occurred during 1966.  1967, when the Vietnam War was in full swing, was another matter. On the evening of July 12, two Newark, New Jersey police stopped a black cab driver, and wound up beating him.  A crowd gathered outside the police station and began throwing rocks and bottles at police, and looting began.
Within days, a protest march turned into an orgy of arson and looting, and national guardsmen and state troopers came in to quell it. The death toll reached 27, the injured topped 700, and arrests neared 1500.  Property damage was estimated at $10 million.  In succeeding years the white and black middle class rapidly fled the city, which has never recovered. 

The same script played out on an even larger scale in Detroit from early Sunday morning, July 23, to July 27.  This time the triggering event was a raid on an illegal after-hours bar in a black neighborhood, that brought an angry crowd into the street. Within two days, looting and arson were taking place over a wide area.  Eventually the 82nd Airborne Division joined the state police and National Guard troops, who had proven very trigger happy.  In both Detroit and Newark, detailed studies of the killings during the riots found most of them to be totally innocent bystanders hit by stray bullets.  In one notorious incident, however, three Detroit police officers gunned down three black youths in cold blood in a the Algiers Motel, an incident later chronicled in detail by the novelist John Hershey.  This time the death toll reached 43, with almost 1200 injured and more than seven thousand arrested.  412 buildings were burned or damaged, 2509 buildings reported damage or looting, and 388 families lost their homes to fires.  The riots triggered massive white flight from Detroit, which has never been the same since.   President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to study the causes of these disorders, and it reported in early 1968 that racial discrimination was turning the United States into two nations, separate and unequal.

The last chapter in this story began when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.  One major riot generally seemed to be enough to release the anger and tension in any urban ghetto during the 1960s, and neither New York, nor Los Angeles, or Newark or Detroit had a big disturbance that week.  Now it became the turn of Washington, D. C.--where I was spending my spring vacation at the time.  Arson and looting  destroyed 1200 buildings and wiped out huge business districts for decades to come, but police and national guardsmen were under strict orders not to intervene, and there were almost no deaths or injuries.  A multi-day riot in Chicago resulted in 11 deaths, 500 injuries and 2150 arrests, and $10 million in property damage.  Riots also hit Baltimore, where federal troops were dispatched, 6 people died, 700 were injured, and 5800 arrested, and $12 million in property went up in flames.   Freshman Governor Spiro Agnew made a name for himself and got the attention of GOP front runner Richard Nixon by blasting a meeting of civil rights leaders for failing to stop the outbreak. A few months later Nixon selected Agnew as his running mate. Similar disturbances, albeit on a lesser scale, took place in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Trenton, Wilmington, Delaware, and Louisville. Several of them also had very serious long-term impacts on the neighborhoods in which they occurred.  No major riot, interestingly enough, ever struck a Deep South city in the mid to late 1960s.  Reeling under the twin impacts of the endless Vietnam War and racial turmoil in the cities, the Democratic Party saw its popular vote shrink from 60% in 1964 to about 43% in 1968.  It has never fully recovered.

In the five subsequent decades, urban outbreaks of arson and looting had occurred on numerous occasions, most notably in Los Angeles in 1992, when the riots following the acquittal of the police who arrested and beat Rodney King were larger by some measures than the  Watts riot.  We are now suffering the most widespread series of such outbreaks that we have seen, I believe, since 1968, although we have not as yet seen arson, or deaths, or even looting on a comparable scale.  Now as then, commentators see both a response to a specific event--in this case, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis--and a reaction to decades of discrimination and inequality.  In one critical difference, these disturbances coincide with the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, whereas the late 1960s saw the end of a very long economic boom, albeit one that did not completely reach the inner cities.   On the other hand, the riots in the late 1960s took place as a very large and very long crime wave began, whereas serious crimes have been declining now for well over a decade. 

 Floyd's death, like King's, has triggered protests and violence all over the country.  Once again, mayors and governors, most of them Democrats, are torn between the desire to identify with the rioters' grievances and the need to keep public order.  This time, in an interesting development, the protests are so integrated that the movement, if such it is, seems more generational than racial.  White youth also rioted in 1968 and in the next two years in dozens of universities and on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention, but rioting, for the most part, was segregated in those days.  At Kent State in 1970, black student leaders kept black students in their dorms when the National Guard arrived on campus, not wishing to see a repeat of Newark and Detroit.

History, at any rate, does not suggest that the current protests will do much good.  They are yet another illustration of the people's loss of confidence in our institutions, which in different ways affects nearly the whole population.  Many of us are wondering whether Donald Trump, like Reagan in 1966 and Richard Nixon in 1968, will ride resentment of the rioters into an election victory marked, among other things, by Minnesota's passage into the Republican column.  Already, for good or ill, the disturbances are pushing Joe Biden to select a black running mate.  Today's young people, as the rapper Killer Mike stressed yesterday, need to show that they can use their outrage to strategize and mobilize in order to avoid another national catastrophe.



Bozon said...

Great retrospective account. Thanks for doing it.

I think that of all the ethnic groups the negroes have been most hurt by developments since 1960.

Although they got certain legislation favorable to them, the big long picture was relentless economic obsolescence and endemic white racial preferences favoring other groups, including even other groups of color, especially Mexican and latino migrants in recent decades.

They were also the special victims of organized crime in cities, and special victims of white racial selection by law enforcement. This kind of long tradition, frankly, was only to be expected in the prelude to, and in the aftermath of, the Civil War.

I think, paralleling your comparison to the atmosphere of your youth, and the movements back then, that the coming together of whites and blacks now, though more integrated, will prove as evanescent as the ties that were made between white and black youth back then.

All the best

Bozon said...

I thought to share this link, to an account of all the different extreme agents taking advantage of the situation.
I thought it was a handy summary.


I know you have criticized Antifa in the past, but this is various other alleged insurgents, on both the real and the so called right, including of course Russians and others.

I wondered what you might make of the situation from your sources.

All the best,

Energyflow said...

I can only repeat what on the surface seems simplistic but is absolutely basic,i.e. once blacks and whites become physically integrated to the point that every individual is approximately 10% black and 90% white there will remain discrimination as nobody can hate himself. There is more progress in the west here where cities are more integrated than elsewhere. Successful young blacks desire a white partner, black musical culture permeates youth culture creating a common emotional language as a basis for relationships. Progress may be helped due to latinos and asians being added to the mix, making black/white dichotomy passé. I recall a recent article mentioning youth attitudes in New Jersey as being very accsepting across races due to cultural equivalence. From a practical standpoint this sort of thing will repeat periodocally until nobody understands the difference. Then however riots will be a tradition as in France, based on social grievances fixed in class structures. Indian caste systems are ancient, where is the concern or with female infanticide? I was incensed for a long time over western support of nazi regime and o!igarchy with accompanying mass murder in the Ukraine. The blatant and apparently openly fashionable hatred of Russia similar to 19th century antisemitism disgusts me to the core of my being. I have zero sympathy here. Apartheid, Northern Ireland, Palestine, Chinese mass murder of Uighurs come and go. Kurdistan will never be a state. Why is America so special? Obviously as it is the basis of Western power and culture, technology in a long line starting in ancient Greece. English is the global lingua franca and the dollar the global currency.The military protects trade routes. ,'The Decline of the West' is a long slow process but what comes next? America has helped integrate global civilizations, similar to Rome and Greece. Christianity and medieval Durope came of that. A global culture based on a mixed religion and a common global culture using English and afro, asian, european elements could emerge. To conclude, naturally I sympathize with victims of brutality but am beyond jaded by the news cycle, plutocrats enriching themselves by each new crisis at our expense. Racial matters gets more attention but really the class struggle must be renewed. Automation will take a large part of jobs away in the next generation. True revolution could follow as UBI and internet is no life. sci fi dystopias beckon. Covid lockdown got everybody hot and bothered plus years of excessive rhetoric on both sides of political and media leadership(p!utocratic divide and conquer strategy bearing fruit). Reading a 6 volume Roman history and history of Greece and Russia is a great antidote to excess concern and living abroad in a foreign culture with an even more foreign spouse too helps. My parents broke the ethnic/religious barrier as did my wife's. Change takes time. When we rap and do voodoo magic in our churches and yoga classes and wear dreadlocks in suits at bank jobs then... I think you see where I am headed. Integration means cultural acceptance and deep understanding and then families get formed together.

Bozon said...

Race riots are a tar baby. Trump cannot and will not stay out of the line of fire.
Biden at least can.
All the best,

Bozon said...

Maybe we are seeing a nice Bastille Day situation, now fitfully emerging, day by day.
Maybe I am quite wrong.
Some left revolution theorists talk about tipping points, Theda and all of that.
Politico Sociology.
All the best

Bozon said...

here's a reference to a post from my site, re this post of yours, and the one on The 1619 Project. They are related it seems.


All the best