As racial violence splits America, I’m reminded of the riots of the sixties, the inflammatory language used, and a grim pattern, doomed to repeat.
As America burned, city by city, after the choking death of George Floyd at the hands (the knee) of a Minneapolis cop – I read an incendiary tweet from President Trump and it chilled me. The ‘leader of the free world’ tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Whether deliberate or not, President Trump was quoting a redneck southern sheriff who used those exact words during a riot in Florida in 1967. This was a sheriff who boasted he had hired some black policemen but stressed that only white officers were allowed to be called ‘policemen.’ Black officers were called ‘patrolmen.’
Another Twitter comment from President Trump scared the crap out of me when he urged state governors to call out the National Guard.
I tweeted: “Covering race riots in the US in the mid-60s, we feared the callout of the National Guard. Trigger-happy volunteers, we nicknamed them ‘weekend warriors.’ That’s why Trump’s ‘looting-shooting’ tweet was so reckless.”
To comprehend my fears, you have to go back to a troubled America in 1967 and 1968. There were many other national upheavals apart from the brutal assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in a history-changing eight weeks in 1968.
We witnessed riots in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark. Watts. The National Guard slaughter of students at Kent State University. Before and after the assassination of King. That was 50 years ago. The cop beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which also prompted riots, was 30 years ago.
My criticism of the National Guard goes back to Detroit in 1967. I had only been a foreign correspondent (based in New York for Fairfax) for just over a year, when I find myself crouched behind a police car in Detroit, Michigan.
The ‘National Guard’ sounded so grand to a naive New Zealander. So protective. So posh. On the ground though, I suddenly realized they were, as I tweeted this week, ‘weekend warriors.’ They were volunteers with scant training. Young, often ignorant, men with itchy trigger fingers, keen to put on a military uniform and ‘shoot first, ask questions later.’ Which Trump seemed to be encouraging this week with his ‘looting-shooting’ tweet.
Whether deliberate or not, President Trump was quoting a redneck southern sheriff who used those exact words during a riot in Florida in 1967.
In Chicago, at close quarters, I saw a National Guard goon thrust a bazooka into the open driver’s door window of a distressed pregnant woman.
But we have to go back to Detroit in 1967 to define and understand the racial culture.
The riot was triggered in a poor black neighborhood, and a police bust of an illegal booze place quaintly called a ‘blind pig.’ A party was going on for a black Vietnam vet just returned home. Shutting it down, the police weren’t subtle.
Fifty years ago, the Afro-American argument was that white cops treated black Americans with less tolerance than white Americans. ‘Racial profiling’ wasn’t a known expression back then, but it was true.
In that Detroit upheaval, more than 7,000 people were arrested during four days of rioting. Tragically, 43 people were killed. Nearly 1,400 buildings were burned, causing $50 million in property damage. And this was 1967. Detroit, as an auto town, was dying anyway.
The prevalent joke at the time was, “Would the last person out of Detroit, please turn off the lights.” Economically, the troubled city did not need this.
After the Newark and Detroit riots of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Kerner Commission. It identified more than 150 riots or major disorders between 1965 and 1968. In 1967 alone, 83 people were killed and 1,800 were injured—the majority of them African Americans—and more than $100 million of property was damaged, looted or destroyed. Sound familiar?
Presciently, the Kerner report declared that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.”
Sadly, that still applies 50 years later. I lived in New York for more than a (for me) formative decade. I fear and ache for the city, the state, and the country. I watch the TV news and think this can’t be the New York or the country I loved. Especially, after New York has just gone through the thousands of deaths from the coronavirus.
To end on a lighter note, I was 23 when urgently sent by my editor to Detroit to report on the anarchy. After three dangerous days, I called my boss and complained that ‘I don’t even have a clean shirt.’ His laconic Australian response: “Loot one. Everybody else is.”