2020 has been just about the worst year imaginable so far, but over the last few days it has acquired a definite ’60s vibe, too. With riots happening in the streets of American cities in reaction to the shocking and outrageous death of George Floyd, it’s like 1966 and 1967 and 1968 all over again. Even middle-of-the-road Columbus has seen its share of disturbances.
Civil unrest seemed pretty commonplace when I was a kid. Whether it was “race riots,” Vietnam War protests that got out of hand, reactions to the assassinations of leading figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, or random civil disobedience, smoke in the air and tear gas canisters on the ground were a familiar sight. Authorities would warn about what might happen during the “long hot summer,” and rioting and looting seemed to occur as a matter of course. Footage of people throwing Molotov cocktails, smashing windows, and running with armfuls of loot from burning buildings were staples of the nightly TV news broadcasts and morning news shows. And authorities learned the hard way that when a population gathers in sufficiently large numbers and decides to go on a building-burning rampage, there’s not much you can do about it — without applying overwhelming force and ramping up the tension even further.
Although rioting seemed like an annual occurrence during the ’60s, eventually the riots stopped. Unfortunately, they left behind areas of gutted buildings and ruined, derelict neighborhoods that in some cases still haven’t recovered, more than 50 years later. And the small businesses that are typically the focus of the burning and smashing and looting often don’t come back, either. Drive around modern Detroit if you don’t believe me.
Disturbances happen when people feel that they are being treated unfairly and that they have nowhere to turn for justice. They protest because they feel its the only way to make their voices heard. Mix in some people who are looking to gain some cheap thrills and personal advantage from the unrest, and you’ll have looting and arson, too.
The best way to begin to deal with the issue in this case is to let the system work and do justice in the terrible case of George Floyd. Giving people the feeling that things are getting back to normal, by lifting some of the coronavirus restrictions, might help, too.