Photo by Ashley Benkarski

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Anger erupted into violence Saturday night as thousands took over lower Broadway, Public Square Park, and the State Capitol grounds. The spark was a police killing 900 miles away in Minneapolis where a white cop knelt on George Floyd’s black neck for 8 minutes until he died. 

Floyd was allegedly trying to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill. Probably to feed his family but we don’t know that part of the story yet. When we do, it will be news reporters who tell us.

All over the country people took to the streets in protest, the likes of which have not been seen in decades, according to the French News Agency, AFP. The first protest in Minneapolis on Tuesday was peaceful but following nights turned into full-scale riots.

Demonstrations have continued every day in cities around the country and across the globe. On Monday, police dispersed crowds in front of the White House with tear gas and flash grenades so the President could walk to a nearby church holding a bible. Speaking in the Rose Garden he called demonstrators “terrorists” and threatened to call out the military to quell the protests if Governors could not. 

In Nashville, organizers disavowed the violence that broke out two hours after the planned protest ended at 5 PM Saturday. About 30 stores and buildings were damaged and some were looted. Mayor John Cooper declared a civil emergency and imposed a 10 PM curfew. On Sunday he changed it to 8 PM. Governor Bill Lee called out the National Guard. When peaceful protest turns ugly authorities react to impose law and order. All this was predicable.

Did protestors care? Nope. They are tired of living with targets on their backs because of the color of their skin. And a lot of them are pissed off about it. But so are a lot of young whites. 

It could have been much worse. There was no widespread looting and nobody got killed in Nashville. A few police cars got trashed; graffiti was sprayed on buildings and windows. A fire was set inside the old Courthouse and the statue of an avowed racist, Edward Carmack, was toppled from its perch in front of the State Capitol building. There were 32 arrests. It was a minor league rebellion compared to the Long Hot Summer of 1967.

There were 159 race riots that infamous summer and the first one began in Newark on July 12, 1967. The beating of a black cab driver by two white policemen precipitated four days of rioting during which 26 people died. 

The worst riot happened on July 23 in Detroit following an early morning raid on an unlicensed speakeasy. A private party of about 80 people was celebrating with two soldiers who had just returned from Vietnam. Detroit police decided to arrest all of them.

Mostly black residents battled Detroit police, Michigan State Police, the Michigan National Guard, and 4,700 paratroopers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions for five days. TV News footage showed many parts of the city on fire, with machine guns, tanks, and combat troops engaged in firefights in the streets.

The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. Historians claim the scale of the unrest in Detroit was the worst in the U.S. since the draft riots during the U.S. Civil War in New York City.

Such mayhem would not reoccur until 1992 after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King that was recorded and seen by millions on television.

A month after the Detroit riot, Martin Luther King spoke to the American Psychological Association, He described the race riots as a “durable social phenomena” with a kind of cause and effect relationship–not unlike Newton’s third law of motion–for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. King called the riots “acts of lawlessness that mirror the excesses of those charged with upholding the law”.

The Kerner Commission investigated the causes of the 1967 riots and concluded: “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal”.

The summer of 2020 is just beginning. We are in a very different time than the 1960s but we are still in the same place. There could be more rioting because people are just as sick and tired of the institutionalized racism and inequality as they were 50 years ago.

The same challenges exist for fair housing, better wages, healthcare, education, and fair elections. And let’s not forget the “lock’em up” mentality when it comes to dissidents, the poor, and the unemployed. It’s not space but criminal justice reform that is the next frontier. That and maybe electoral reform.

The millennials were smarter than their boomer parents. And Gen-Z is smarter than they are. The social movements of the 1960s were conflicted over armed struggle and peaceful engagement. Today’s youth don’t get worked up about that stuff anymore. 

They are busy forging alliances and creating more livable communities because, as Reverend William Barber keeps reminding us, if some of us don’t prosper ultimately none of us will. It’s kind of like how together we have to beat the coronavirus. As MLK advocated, civil disobedience and political activism are the surest means to achieve political goals. 

People hit the streets after the killing of George Floyd to vent their deep frustration over inequalities that should not exist in a civilized country. They did not riot, loot, and kill in a blind rage that burned down the places where they live. No, they are calling for changes that are long overdue.  

Back in 1967 as well as now, commentators and politicians are blaming it all on outside agitators as if Antifa members possess some demonic power to turn decent citizens into angry mobs who wantonly loot and pillage. That’s laughable and absurd. The same charge was made in the 1960s. It wasn’t true then either. 

Officials of the established order simply can’t fathom that their neighbors and fellow citizens rioted for their own good reasons. They didn’t need Anitfa or Black Lives Matter to turn them into an angry mob. They were plenty mad on their own account.

“I’m not here to fight someone,” said Eldon Gillet, 40, who talked to the New York Times in Brooklyn on Saturday.  “I’m here to fight a system,” he said. 

Change will come when enough people register and vote out the scoundrels who let the police keep putting their knees on our necks.