Violence and Authority

From The Civil Rights Era, by Hugh Davis Graham:

Less apparent at the time was the calculated nature of the black challenge in Birmingham. On the heels of the previous fall’s failed protest campaign in Albany, Georgia, where the polite discipline of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett had defeated demonstrators led by Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had repaired to Savannah for a three day review of strategy. A postmortem on strategic collapse,it quietly called into question the core of King’s Christian optimism. What emerged was Project C–for Confrontation. To implement Project C, King accepted an invitation to come to Birmingham and lead the protest against [Bull] Connor’s undisciplined defenders of white supremacy. By provoking a crisis that promised a flow of blood on the national television networks, King’s “nonviolent” protest would force President Kennedy’s hand.
The crackle of black protest and violence that spread regionally and then northward in the wake of Birmingham convinced the Kennedy White House that its cautious legislative proposals of February 28 were inadequate. The Birmingham violence threatened nationwide turmoil.

The decision was controversial within the civil rights movement, but the SCLC recklessly dared Connor to turn his dogs on children and he did:

On May 2, they set forth on the first demonstration in what becomes known as the “Children’s March.” Police arrest over 600 young people, but 1,500 more are ready to take their place the next day. Bull Connor orders in police dogs and fire hoses. Images of people pummeled and drenched by high-pressure hoses, and snarling German shepherds tearing clothes off demonstrators highlight the evening news. With Birmingham’s jails overflowing, thousands more students join the demonstrations, sparking similar protests across the country. Before long, the story is making headlines around the world.(...)On Saturday night, May 11, bombs explode at Martin Luther King Jr.’s headquarters at the Gaston Motel, and at the home of his brother, the Reverend A.D. King. Riots erupt and continue into the next morning.

Project C delivered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and provided the movement with some of history’s most enduring and effective iconography:

The civil rights movement was at its moral apex half a century ago. But times change, they do:

Since the LAPD surrendered parts of the city to the Rodney King rioters in 1992 the local response to black rioting has been to allow a period of lawlessness within a given area before reasserting control. Back then at the national political level a commitment to law and order was still tenable, and President George HW Bush could at least sound tough:

To restore order right now, there are 3,000 National Guardsmen on duty in the city of Los Angeles… I’ve ordered the Justice Department to dispatch 1,000 Federal riot-trained law enforcement officials to help restore order…FBI SWAT teams, special riot control units of the U.S. Marshals Service, the Border Patrol…1,000 Federal law enforcement officials are on standby alert…3,000 members of the 7th Infantry and 1,500 marines to stand by at El Toro…at the request of the Governor and the Mayor, I have committed these troops to help restore order…
What we saw last night and the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple. And let me assure you: I will use whatever force is necessary to restore order. What is going on in L.A. must and will stop. As your President I guarantee you this violence will end.

And that’s the last time a US president was able to condemn black violence unequivocally. The rest of Bush’s speech could have been written yesterday; violence accompanied by civil rights rhetoric trumps due process and the federal government stands ready to practice double jeopardy and subject police departments to federal takeover if people just break enough stuff:

I spoke this morning to many leaders of the civil rights community. And they saw the video, as we all did. For 14 months they waited patiently, hopefully. They waited for the system to work. And when the verdict came in, they felt betrayed. Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I, and so was Barbara, and so were my kids. 
 But the verdict Wednesday was not the end of the process. The Department of Justice had started its own investigation immediately after the Rodney King incident and was monitoring the State investigation and trial. And so let me tell you what actions we are taking on the Federal level to ensure that justice is served. 
 Within one hour of the verdict, I directed the Justice Department to move into high gear on its own independent criminal investigation into the case. And next, on Thursday, five Federal prosecutors were on their way to Los Angeles. Our Justice Department has consistently demonstrated its ability to investigate fully a matter like this. Since 1988, the Justice Department has successfully prosecuted over 100 law enforcement officials for excessive violence. I am confident that in this case, the Department of Justice will act as it should. Federal grand jury action is underway today in Los Angeles. Subpoenas are being issued. Evidence is being reviewed. The Federal effort in this case will be expeditious, and it will be fair. It will not be driven by mob violence but by respect for due process and the rule of law.

Needless to say, the gestalt has completed its 180-degree shift from the Bad Old Days before the civil rights movement legitimized political violence. Now the standard lament is that violence is ineffective and, yeah, unfortunate. A blatant lie–it’s effectiveness is counted on–as well as a moral obscenity. The thought of violent authority still repulses the average citizen, but no one is turning fire hoses on peaceful protesters anymore. That’s why the civil rights movement has turned to crime, so to speak, adapting such as Freddy Grey to the role of martyred freedom rider.

Once the movement had to provoke violence from authorities. The violent response of authorities, it seemed at the time, exposed them for what the movement said they were. But now the violence of black rioters exposes them, for what the old segregationists said they were. What goes around actually does sometimes come around. If only we were allowed to pay attention, maybe we could do something about it.

Another relic of the Sixties works against us: the assumption black rioting and anger, no matter how far out of hand it might get, originates in legitimate grievance. But what if there is no legitimate grievance, just the anger and frustration of ill-informed, intolerant people worked into a lather by demagogues?

The subject of civil rights is infantilized, and so is our thinking about it. We’ve romanticized the righteousness of black anger for so long we’ve come to take their anger as proof of their righteousness. The angrier the more righteous. Black people sense this and provide the tears and hollering. Black and white America are locked in an anger-condescension death spiral. I almost wish I was Chinese right now.

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