Back To The ’60s

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.

636178516108265271-dfpd24221Civil 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.

The Long, Hot Summer

There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night.  Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars.  Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today.  The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities.  One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect.  Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.

Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson.  Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later.  The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now.  Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.

At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point.  Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.

British Breakdown

It has been an evil week in England.  Across that country, there has been an outbreak of lawlessness that has overwhelmed police and firefighting forces and left law-abiding Britons frustrated and furious.

The problems began on Saturday, when what started as a peaceful protest of a police shooting in a London neighborhood suddenly turned violent.  The violence quickly spread to other London neighborhoods, and for three nights England’s capital city was the scene of arson, vandalism, and rampant crime as gangs roamed the city, burning cars and storefronts, looting businesses, and terrorizing citizens.  Police struggled to decide how much force to use to deal with the problem, while politicians at all levels were harshly criticized for failing to take action.  Last night, there was a massive show of police force in London that quelled the violence in that city, but the rioting and disorder spread to other British cities and towns, where hundreds of arrests were made.  (And don’t look now, but some American cities, like Philadelphia, are experiencing similar problems, on a much smaller scale, with teenager “flash mob” violence.)

Sociologists and criminologists will debate what has caused the rampages — is it boredom due to lack of jobs, or a reflection of general dissociation from mainstream society, or something so simple as a desire to get new athletic shoes and flat-screen TVs for free? — but the real tipping point would come if average citizens conclude that their government can’t protect them, their businesses, and their possessions, and therefore they need to protect themselves.  If that happens, a short-term outbreak of lawlessness becomes a long-term societal change with profound, and entirely negative, economic and political implications.