What this means for the purposes of this post is that I lived through the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King Jr. I watched the reactions of the nation on the news, listened to the discussions that went on constantly for weeks and months (and in many ways are still going on), and I saw my neighborhood change in anticipation of a kind of Armageddon. I remember the summer of 1968 seeing many of my neighbors sitting on front porches and steps holding shotguns and rifles, some with pistols strapped onto their waists, waiting for the wave of rioters to come charging down the street. St. Louis, it seemed, was ready. Why? Because we could see it on the national news, every night it seemed, that somewhere whole sections of some cities—Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, others—were burning. Troops patrolled the streets protecting first responders (we didn’t call them that then) from the occasional sniper who must have thought it “cool” to take potshots in the midst of the chaos. We could see what was happening and a lot of people had decided it would not happen here.
Very few people were talking about the why of it all. It was tragic enough that the assassinations had occurred, but I remember many people being baffled at the reaction.
Roll back the years to the civil rights coverage in the South and many middle class whites in other parts of the country were completely stunned by what the police were doing to poor blacks. We could see it, right there on television, and it was a shock.
But we were Doing Things to redress those inequities, weren’t we? Wasn’t that what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was all about? It was going to get better, so why all this violence? Couldn’t they see?
We didn’t ask, many of us, what it was we couldn’t see. All many people knew was that laws were being passed, things were being made to improve, we were addressing the problems. We saw that.
And then we saw the riots.
The gap between them was poorly filled if at all and most people, fearful, made so by the drumbeat of media coverage that concentrated on spectacular images and the sounds of outrage, reacted, often predictably, and many of them shut down their sympathy, barred the doors, and prepared to defend themselves and their property.
What was in that gap?
Everything of any consequence to the issues at hand.
Whole multiple histories of dysfunctional relations between segments of society that knew very little about each other beyond what was shown them by the media. The meaning of King, which was not the same for everyone. Simply the fact that his assassination and the subsequent explosions of civic unrest were not isolated incidents with no backstory, no connection, no justifications, no context.
Officer Darren Wilson, who was brought before a Grand Jury on the charge of killing an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was acquitted by that grand jury. Here is a link to the transcripts. I suspect many people will not read them. They will get their information from the media, from friends, from hearsay, from the gestalt through which they move, osmotically and coincidentally usefully, and mostly what was said at the grand jury will be regarded as unimportant. Why? Because minds were made up within hours or days of the shooting and likely will not be swayed by post hoc explanations. Because there are two extremes, one of which says a cop can do no wrong in the line of duty and the other that says a cop is never to be trusted, and people fall along the spectrum between these two without bothering, often, to consider there might be a third set of determinants. But because, really, it doesn’t matter so much why one white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager compared to the larger question of why the situation leading to that existed, occurred, and is now being vigorously shoved to one side by the institutions upon which we rely to explain the world to us.
And it just got muddier in the wake of riots.
Riots. Why riots?
Didn’t we expect them? Haven’t we been telling ourselves that this would occur for weeks now? Haven’t we been gearing up for some kind of O.K. Corral showdown pretty much since the announcement that there would be a grand jury? The new reports on people worrying over their businesses and homes, the governor calling out the National Guard, seeing businesses boarding up their storefronts in anticipation of the coming battle, acquaintances finding a way to leave town, the constant tension-building delays. Sure looked like we expected what we got.
And the rest of the story?
We had no social media back in the Sixties, just rumor and gossip, phone calls, kitchen table discussions. But it amounted to much the same thing—as soon as it became newsworthy that violence might occur, we primed ourselves for a fight.
Personally, I’m surprised it wasn’t worse, given the tempers and the artillery present in the streets and the weeks of stoking we’ve had.
And who actually rioted?
In my opinion, anything that constituted a “riot” occurred when the police began moving to shut down demonstrations which were till then peaceful when a few assholes decided it would be “fun” to brick some windows. It doesn’t take much to push a seething situation over the line.
The mistake always made by the police is to treat everyone then as one of those destroying property. A conceptual homogenization occurs, devolving to Us and Them, and everyone falls into one of two categories, and both sides feel justified in their actions. The “issue at hand” instantly transforms from where it started into something more primal, stops being about what everyone was there for to begin with. The protestors find themselves moved from “we’re here to protest a civil injustice” to “we have a right to be here and do this” and the police move from “we’re here to keep order” to “we have to shut this all down now.” The original message gets lost in the ensuing struggle over the new mandates.
And we have more footage for the evening circus of unruly people defying authority, etc etc.
We need to stop telling ourselves to get ready for fights that may not happen. We need to stop pumping ourselves up in anticipation of the worst possible outcome. We have to stop scaring ourselves. We have to stop giving airtime to alarmists who call out the national guard at the drop of a hint. We have to stop acting like the only solution to any problem is to shoot.
The lack of comparable media on the community and its problems is telling. Certainly there have been some stories about the history of Ferguson and the nature of the disconnect, but they are far outweighed by the rhetoric of pain and the ominous forecasting of worse to come. I’m encouraged in this instance by all the people and groups who are striving to put constructive information before the community, to promote dialogue, and address that all-important context, but people react most strongly when threatened, and there has been more than a little threat inherent in our media coverage.
St. Louis didn’t burn that summer of 1968. There was trouble, certainly, but not that. I don’t know why. I do know that after that things began to change, across the country. They changed sufficiently that I, as a not-particularly-observant white guy, thought we were getting past our national curse of racism. I can’t deny that things today are much better than they were then, but the things that linger, that cling like a rotting caul to our collective psyché, I admit have surprised me in the last ten years. Maybe it requires an oversized symbol to force these things into the open. I’m ashamed of my own past fears and prejudices. The nature of racist expression has changed somewhat and now seems to express itself more as economic distinctions than hatred of skin color, but the fear mongering we experience daily over questions of immigration and economic inequity and education and glass ceilings eventually eats away the camouflage hiding the real character of the problem. We put a thick coat of paint on a house that still needs major structural attention.
But it would really help if we stopped telling ourselves to shoot at each other.