Monday, June 09, 2008

"The sixties": urban riots 1964-68


The scope of urban violence in the United States in the form of riots during the 1960s is pretty amazing. Here's a partial chronology (sources at the end of this post):

  • 1964: July, Harlem riot; followed by similar disorderly protests that same summer in Brooklyn, Rochester NY, Paterson NJ, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
  • 1966: Rioting in 20 cities, including San Francisco, Oakland, Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha
  • 1967: Newark and Detroit riots; riots of less intensity in over 20 cities including Toledo OH, Grand Rapids MI, Plainfield NJ, Milwaukee WI; riots spread to Southern cities of Jackson, Nashville and Houston
  • Feb, 1968: Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, in which police and National Guard open fire on black students, killing three and wounding 27.
  • April, 1968: James Earl Ray assassinates Martin Luther King, Jr.; hell breaks loose, with riots in over 100 cities constituting the largest urban uprising in American history
Part of what gets lost in a superficial look at these events is that they are many-dimensional.


I'm not making some stock "this side says, the other side says" filler comment here. Three distinct kinds of views formed about the riots: a mainstream liberal view, more-or-less represented by the Kerner Commission's recommendations that (in stereotypical "liberal" fashion) emphasized the diverse aspects of the phenomena; law-and-order conservatives viewed it as irresponsibile crime and violence and overwhelmingly emphasized a law-enforcement, punitive response, or "repression" to phrase it differently; and, both integrationist civil rights groups and Black Power/black-nationalist groups focused heavily on the community grievances involved. More on this below. But it's important to keep in mind that in 1968, "liberal" and "conservative" weren't so closely aligned with the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, as they are today.

Joseph Boskin quotes the Kerner Commission Report of 1968 as listing the following as the leading grievances among African-Americans. It was in African-American communities that most of these disorders occurred. (If anyone knows somewhere online where the entire text of the Kerner Commission Report is available, please let me know.) They were:

First Level of Intensity:
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing

Second Level of Intensity:
1. Inadequate education
2. Poor recreational facilities and programs
3. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms

Third Level of Intensity:
1. Disrespectful white attitudes
2. Discriminatory administration of justice
3. Inadequacy of federal programs
4. Inadequacy of municipal services
5. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
6. Inadequate welfare programs
It's notable that "police practices" heads the list of grievances. In many cases, such as the Newark riot of 1967, it was some instance of police brutality that set off the riot. In almost all cases, that was a factor. (The disorders after the King assassination were a special case triggered by his murder, though long-standing grievances clearly played a role there, too.)

We can back into the issue of police brutality from today's perspective. For more affluent whites, their most common antagonistic encounter with the police would be getting pulled over for a traffic violation. For non-whites, even that kind of encounter triggers more apprehension, because minorities more often have the experience of encountering police misconduct of some kind.

But this doesn't imply some general hostility to police. In Oakland this year, for instance, Mayor Ron Dellums recently announced a program to increase the police force in response to a rise in deadly violence, most of it drug- and gang-related. Low-income communities are where such violence often occurs, and the residents demand beter police protection. They want good police service where it's needed, not to be rid of the police. And people who live in or near neighborhoods where drive-by shootings and fights between gangs with firearms are a daily risk have a much more realistic, practical and urgent sense of what the need for law and order is. "Law-and-order" becomes more of a symbolic slogan for people less confronted with the daily reality of violent crime.

But even in Oakland, the police don't always handle things appropriately, e.g., Police Violence Shocks Activists, Others at Port of Oakland Protest by Dana Hull San Jose Mercury News 04/07/03 (link is to the copy at CommonDreams.org). Philadelphia police were just a few weeks ago caught on camera beating the crap out of a restrained suspect (Video shows police beating restrained suspects CNN.com 05/07/08). For anybody with half-sense, police who feel free to ignore the law and beat somebody up is always a real problem.

In Newark in 1967, the riot of several days there was touched off when an African-American cab driver named John Smith was arrested for allegedly tailgating and driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Here was how Smith described it in court at his bail hearing:

There was no resistance on my part. That was a cover story by the police. They caved in my ribs, busted a hernia, and put a hole in my head. ... After I got into the precinct six or seven other officers along with the two who arrested me kicked and stomped me in the ribs and back. They then took me to a cell and put my head over the toilet bowl. While my head was over the toilet bowl, I was struck on the back of the head with a revolver. I was also being cursed while they were beating me. An arresting officer in the cell block said, "This baby is mine."
Unlike many other cases of this kind, local civil rights leaders saw him very soon after he was arrested and could confirm that he had been seriously beaten.

Tom Hayden wrote a detailed account of the 1967 Newark riot, published first as a special supplement to the New York Review of Books, The Occupation of Newark 08/24/1967; as of this writing, the link does not appear to be behind subscription. At his Web site, the article is linked with an introduction that says:

The article was the first exposure of how 26 killings happened during that week. Hayden was responsible for recommending a troop pullout to Governor Richard Hughes after an all night meeting. The Governor agreed to withdraw the troops, and Hayden was dragged before a grand jury demanding his notes. He refused, fearing that the Newark police would intimidate community eyewitnesses to the murders of unarmed people. The grand jury did not indict Hayden, but the Pentagon's special forces used his book in riot control training centers.
As Hayden describes the event:

What was unusual about John Smith's case was the fact that the police were forced to let respected civil-rights leaders see his condition less than two hours after the beating. The police were trapped and nervous because they had been caught by civil-rights leaders whose account could not be discredited. A neighborhood resident had called several of these leaders - including activists from CORE, the United Freedom Party, and the Newark Community Union Project - minutes after Smith was brought in.

After they had a heated argument about Smith with officers in the precinct, an inspector arrived from central police headquarters and agreed to let the group see the prisoner in his cell. "Don't listen to what he says. He's obviously upset and nervous as you might expect," the inspector told the group. The group was incensed after seeing Smith's condition. They demanded that he be sent immediately to the hospital. The police complied, while others searched for witnesses, lawyers, and members of Smith's family.

It was at this point that witnesses who were in the precinct house say the police began putting on riot helmets. None of the activists felt there was going to be an explosion, and none remembers a crowd of more than a hundred in the street at this point. (my emphasis)
A crowd gathered outside the police station that same evening, and local black leaders urged them to remain peaceful. But some people were in a different mood:

A local man took the police bullhorn [that one of the community leaders was using] and simply said, "Come down the street, we got some shit." In the darkness across from the precinct young men from the neighborhood were picking up bricks and bottles, and looking for some gasoline.

Missiles started to fly at the precinct, where 110 windows would eventually be broken. A friend pulled Curvin away from the front of the station, and the rest of the assembled crowd moved back in anticipation of the police. The police came out with helmets and clubs but were driven back inside by a torrent of bricks and bottles. People were starting to move across the street as the front of the precinct became a battle zone.

Just after midnight, two Molotov cocktails exploded high on the western wall of the precinct. A stream of fire curled fifty feet down the wall, flared for ten seconds, and died. The people, now numbering at least 500 on the street, let out a gasp of excitement. Fear, or at least caution, was apparent also: many people retreated into the darkness or behind cars in the Hayes parking lot.
I suppose it's worth saying at this point what should be obvious but often isn't, that explaining something is not the same as justifying it, understanding is not the same as approving. These are distinctions the "culture warriors" still find it convenient to forget.

Part of the problem in policing was that urban police departments at the time were often all-white, or nearly so. And some of them had distinctly hostile attitudes toward blacks. Hayden explains that in Newark at the time:

Much of the community viewed the police as the tool of more direct intimidation, harassment, and violence. Dominated by the Italians who run Newark politics, tainted by alleged underworld connections, and with a token of only 250 blacks among 1400 members, the Police Department was seen as the spearhead of organized hostility to Negro action, an armed unit protecting the privileges of the shrinking white community of the city. A year of federally sponsored workshop meetings of police and neighborhood people apparently was not enough to modify "police-community relations." On the wall of Headquarters there are two signs which hint at the police world view: "BOMB HANOI" and "GO TO COLLEGE AND LEARN TO RIOT."
Police departments were often not trained on methods of dealing with riot situations or even unruly crowds. So even when acting in good faith they sometimes needlessly inflamed situations that could have been defused. And when the National Guard was called in to help in riot situations, which happened in Newark in 1967, they were often not trained in regular policing, much less riot control.

Hayden again:

"An obvious open rebellion," asserted [Democratic] Governor [Richard] Hughes after his tour of Newark at 5 A.M. Friday. From that announcement until Monday afternoon, the black community was under military occupation. More than 3000 National Guardsmen were called up Friday morning from the surrounding white suburbs and southern Jersey towns. Five hundred white state troopers arrived at the same time. By mid-afternoon Friday they were moving in small convoys throughout the city, both clockwise and counter-clockwise, circling around seven parts of the ghetto. Guardsmen were moving in jeeps or small open trucks, usually led or followed by carloads of troopers or Newark police. Bayonets were attached to the Guard's 30-caliber M-1 rifles or 30-caliber carbines, which they carried in addition to 45-caliber pistols. Personnel carriers weighing as much as eleven tons, and trucks mounted with machine guns, appeared here and there among the jeeps and police cars. The presence of these vehicles was designed, according to Governor Hughes, to build the confidence of the Negro community.

Confidence in what? Hughes defined the issues over and over in television, radio, and press interviews, as well as in meetings with community leaders. "The line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America," he announced shortly after arriving in Newark. On Saturday he talked again of the line between society and the jungle, adding that the Negroes "had better choose sides" becauses the "side of law and order has joined this to the finish." (my emphasis)
Conservatives may claim now that it was "condescending" of liberals in the 1960s to suggest that "law and order" was sometimes used as a racial code word. Condescending to whom? To blacks in Newark who found their neighborhood under bascially all-white military occupation justified with that kind of rhetoric?

Boskin makes a useful distinction between the riots immediately following King's assassination and other such occurrences earlier in the decade. Those were more in the nature of an outburst of anger. While the other riots were more in the nature of spontaneous political action. Boskin writes:

Despite the disparity of distance, there was a consensus of attitudes and a similarity of actions among those urban blacks who revolted and those who supported the violent protest. Signficantly, the riots were largely unplanned, unorganized and unscheduled. ...

Taken together, the riots were the actions of a people, poor and disposessed and crushed in huge numbers into large slum ghettos, who reose up in wrath against a society committed to democratic ideals. Their outburst was an expression of class antagonism, resentment against racial prejudice, anger at the unreachable affluence around them, and frustration at their sociopolitical powerlessness. "What are these people riotin' about in other cities?" exclaimed Efelka Brown, of the "Sons of Watts," an organization set up to train young males in trade skills. "They want recognition and the only way they goin' get it is to riot. We don't want to overthrow the country - we just want what we ain't got." ...

To strike out against the visible symbols of white society became a sign of brotherhood. ... Many residents of ghetto areas who did not participate in the actions should their approval to those on the streets.

That a general approval, a collective behavior, pervaded the ghettos can be borne out by analysis of the actions of blacks. The two groups singled out for attack were the police and Caucasian-owned businesses.
Recognizing this aspect of those events does not mean that they were a good way to proceed. And even though our "culture warriors" may associate riots with the Black Panthers, neither they nor any other significant group actually organized and promoted riots. Boskin also observes:

The nature of the rioting which marked the mid-1960's appeared to undergo serious change by the end of the decade. Two indications of this change were, firstly, the Detroit riot of 1967 in which a sizable proportion of Caucasians joined with the Negroes in burning and looting, thus indicating a meshing of an economic underclass; and, secondly, the development and intensity of the Black Power movement. The activists have been concerned with developing cultural, economic, and political programs within the community. These activist organizations have, on more than one occasion, prevented violent outbreaks by ghetto residents who were angered by representatives of the power structure, particularly the police. (my emphasis)
This doesn't mean that Black Power groups all counseled non-violence. On the contrary, the Black Panthers and others exclicitly rejected the notion of restricting their activism to nonviolence and encouraged African-Americans to arm and train themselves for violent self-defense.

And apart from that famous "white backlash", the negative impact of riots and the police reaction on the affected communities was great, no matter what constructive developments may have followed. In the riots following King's assassination, 39 people were killed, 35 of them African-American. Boskin notes of the riots prior to that time:

The toll of the rioting over the four-year period was devastating. Between 1964 and 1967, approximately 130 civilians, mainly Negroes, and 12 civil personnel, mainly Caucasian, were killed. Approximately 4,700 Negroes and civil personnel were injured. Over 20,000 persons were arrested during the melees; property damages mounted into the hundreds of millions of dollars; many cities resembled the hollowed remnants of war-torn cities.
In "culture war" mythology, these riots were the results of liberal "permissiveness". Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote about how that played in the 1968 Presidential election:

As for racial justice, the Wallace movement may have had the useful effect of making many voters think about the consequences of their prejudices. Wallace tempted them for a while; but then in the end they drew back, and Wallace's appeal contracted rather swiftly to the lower Confederacy. Probably Mr. [Samuel] Lubell is also right in suggesting that "the strength of Wallace's backing ... shocked many liberals and Negroes into realizing that excesses on the Negro side have to be curbed." In any case, I would agree with his conclusion that "the preponderant part of the electorate, in most of the South as well as in the North, is prepared to support a 'middle course' policy that would curb racial violence while still continuing Negro progress." (my emphasis)
A middle course between what? Between those politicians who were in favor of riots and those opposed to them? And the politicians in favor would be, uh, not a single one I can think of. Schlesinger wrote that he "would agree" with such a middle approach. But he doesn't cite any politicians who advocated urban riots as a "permissable" alternative. What he doesn't say is that some voters were at least willing to regard alleged Democratic "permissiveness" as responsible for the riots.

But that impression, promoted by Richard Nixon and George Wallace, was in large part a accident of Presidential politics. There was a Democratic administration in power during 1964-68 and the urban riots were one big reason many voters were discontented with the way things were. But Lyndon Johnson scarcely took a "permissive" attitude toward riots. Many of the cities where riots occurred had Democratic mayors. The New Jersey Governor who used such scare-talk in 1967 in calling out the National Guard was a Democrat. Bobby Kennedy, who had very highly credibility among black voters, was emphatic about the need for effective law-enforcement action against rioters. The "culture war" view of liberal "permissiveness" on urban riots is little more than vapid ideology.

Sources used in this post:

Joseph Boskin, "The Revolt of the Urban Ghettos, 1964-1967", The Annals 382 March 1969

Tom Hayden The Occupation of Newark New York Review of Books 08/24/1967

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Power and Vilence in America (1969)

Howard Zinn, Postwar America: 1945-1971 (1973).

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