History plays in an endless loop. At the office window, down at the airport, on Thursday, April 30, 1992, we all stopped working and looked out over Imperial Highway and the main runway and watched Los Angeles burning. The scattered columns of smoke rose in the distance, all over the city, out to the mountains.
That was the second day of the massive Los Angeles riots – the largest riots since the sixties after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the death toll this time was fifty-three, the worst death toll since the New York City draft riots way back in 1863, not that anyone remembers those. These lasted six days, with about a billion dollars of damage done to everything. Koreatown went up in flames. Even shops here on Hollywood Boulevard were looted and burned – many of them still have metal roll-up security doors than rattle down each night, in case something like that ever happens again.
We watched from the office window. A young African-American computer programmer said she was ashamed for her people. A white guy said he was ashamed for the human race. Management sent us home early, if you could get home. That night, Bill Cosby spoke on the NBC affiliate out here, KNBC, and asked people to stop what the hell they thought they were doing and watch the final episode of The Cosby Show instead. He’s a strange dude, and seems even stranger now as it seems he was a serial rapist all along, but back then he was trying to be helpful – or he was worried about his ratings.
That didn’t help:
The third day was punctuated by live footage of Rodney King at an impromptu news conference in front of his lawyer’s Los Angeles offices on Wilshire & Doheny, tearfully saying, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” That morning, at 1:00 am, California Governor Pete Wilson had requested federal assistance, but it was not ready until Saturday, by which time the rioting and looting was under control. The 40th Infantry Division (doubled to 4,000 troops) continued to move into the city in Humvees, eventually seeing 10,000 Army National Guard troops activated. Additionally, a varied contingent of 1,700 federal law-enforcement officers from different agencies from across the state began to arrive, to protect federal facilities and assist local police. As darkness fell, the main riot area was further hit by a power cut.
Friday evening, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed the country, denouncing “random terror and lawlessness”, summarizing his discussions with Mayor Bradley and Governor Wilson, and outlining the federal assistance he was making available to local authorities. Citing the “urgent need to restore order” he warned that the “brutality of a mob” would not be tolerated and he would “use whatever force is necessary.”
And then it was over. Not much force was really necessary. The riots had run their course. There wasn’t much more to burn, and there was no point in burning anything anyway. Nothing was going to change. The previous year, four or five white Los Angeles Police Department officers had beaten the crap out of Rodney King, who was black, after a car chase. King had given up and was on the ground, but they kept beating him with their nightsticks, and then they kicked him around, and then beat him a bit more. It happens, but someone had caught it all on videotape and had shopped that amateur videotape to the media. Everyone out here saw those white cops beating that helpless black guy on the ground, who was just lying there half-conscious, and beating him again and again. It seemed to go on for eight or ten minutes. It didn’t, but the LAPD was still in a fix. The officers were finally brought to trial.
Then there was that change-of-venue motion. They couldn’t have the trial downtown in the city – the people were too outraged. They couldn’t be fair. The trial was moved out to Simi Valley, at the far end of the San Fernando Valley, where, curiously, almost all the folks were white and where a whole lot of LAPD cops had retired. Ronald Reagan is buried at his ranch in the nearby hills. On April 29, 1992, the seventh day of jury deliberations, the jury out there acquitted all four officers of assault, and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. Maybe one of them had gone a bit overboard, but they were deadlocked on that last charge. All four officers walked. The riots followed.
They were inevitable. African-Americans had had just about enough of this crap. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Martin Luther King had forced the country to change the law – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been signed, sealed and delivered – but even now white cops, in a pack, could beat a single black man, who had already surrendered to them, nearly to death – and walk. Do you think that’s okay, whitey? You’ll be sorry.
In the end everyone was sorry. Much was lost in those riots and little was gained, except for a few police reforms, not quite implemented yet. Whites did, however, become more fearful, and angry that they had been forced to become more fearful. Blacks saw nothing much would change. They saw that their anger, while satisfying for a week or so, made them look like thugs – or like fools who burned down their own neighborhoods. They also saw that their anger alone changed nothing.
In fact, Los Angeles hasn’t changed much, except that the cops are a bit more careful now, or circumspect, and America hasn’t changed much. Two years ago it was Missouri:
A St. Louis County grand jury has brought no criminal charges against Darren Wilson, a white police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, more than three months ago in nearby Ferguson.
There were riots, there was looting, but that too burned itself out and nothing much changed. More unarmed African-American teenagers or young men would be shot to death by some white police officer “who legitimately feared for his life” – except the guy on Staten Island was choked to death. This seemed to happen every eight to ten days. We got a Black Lives Matter movement. Democrats lined up behind that. We got a Blue Lives Matter movement too – the cops do fear for their lives, for good reason, and the Black Lives Matter folks want to kill cops, really, or so the Blue Lives Matter folks say. Republicans lined up behind that. Fox News hammered that home. Each side settled in, sure they were right. America got used to that.
This was, however, an inherently unstable situation. Dallas had to happen:
Following the death of the five police officers who were killed in a shooting Thursday, President Obama plans to cut his trip to Europe short by one day, returning from Spain on Sunday night so he can travel to Dallas early next week.
“Later in the week, at the White House, the President will continue the work to bring people together to support our police officers and communities, and find common ground by discussing policy ideas for addressing the persistent racial disparities in our criminal justice system,” the White House said in a statement.
This was Obama being Obama – both sides have a point – let’s work this out – but that won’t be easy:
Along with the five officers who died, seven others were wounded Thursday night when sniper fire from what turned out to be a lone gunman turned a peaceful protest over recent police shootings into a scene of chaos and terror.
The gunfire was followed by a standoff that lasted for hours when the attacker told authorities “he was upset about the recent police shootings” and “said he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,” according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown. The gunman was killed when police detonated a bomb-equipped robot.
Fine, perhaps – sending in a bomb, by robot, seems a bit odd – but that wasn’t the end of it:
The violence did not end in Dallas. Officers were also shot Friday in Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri. In Georgia, police said a man called 9-1-1 and then shot at the responding officer, wounding him, the Associated Press reported. And a police officer was in critical condition in St. Louis after being shot during a traffic stop Friday morning, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Police said Friday that Micah Xavier Johnson, a black 25-year-old believed to be from the Dallas area, was the attacker. Dallas Mayor S. Mike Rawlings told the Associated Press Johnson used an AR-15 assault weapon in the ambush.
Johnson, who had no criminal history, deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army from November 2013 through July 2014 and was in the Army Reserve from 2009 until last year. Army records show that Johnson, whose home was listed as Mesquite, Tex., had served with an engineering brigade before he was sent to Afghanistan. He did not have a combat job and was listed as a carpentry and masonry specialist.
The Dallas Police Department said Friday that during a search of Johnson’s home, they found “bomb making materials, ballistic vests, rifles, ammunition, and a personal journal of combat tactics.” Authorities said they were still investigating the journal’s contents.
Yep, he was an Army guy, not from ISIS or anything, and what he did set off others, and what set him off was clear:
For hours after the assault, police were locked in a standoff with Johnson after he was cornered on the second floor of a building downtown. Police exchanged gunfire with him and negotiated with him, but those discussions broke down, Brown said.
In those conversations, Brown said Johnson told police that “he was upset about Black Lives Matter” and angered by the police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota that dominated national news this week after officers in both places fatally shot black men. Johnson also said he was not involved with any groups and acted alone, Brown said.
During the standoff, Johnson also told authorities that “the end is coming” and spoke about bombs being placed downtown, though no explosives had been found by Friday.
That’s good, but the damage was done:
Police chiefs in Washington, Los Angeles County, Boston, Nassau County and St. Louis instructed their patrol officers to pair up, as did officials in Las Vegas, where two officers were gunned down in an ambush while eating lunch in 2014, and New York, where two officers were killed in another ambush that same year.
Terry Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., said Friday that officers nationwide “really are going to have to have vigilance. Any traffic stop, at any time, can be deadly. I don’t know what this means. I don’t know if this means more violence perpetrated toward law enforcement as a result of this.”
Officials in Tennessee said Friday that they believed a man who opened fire on a parkway there before exchanging gunshots with police may have been prompted by concerns over encounters involving police and black Americans.
That means that Obama will have a lot to balance:
The mass shooting in Dallas comes amid intense scrutiny of police officers and how they use deadly force, an issue that returned to prominence in the news this week after videos circulated of a fatal shooting in Baton Rouge and the aftermath of another in Minnesota. On Tuesday morning, Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge; less than 48 hours later, Philando Castile was fatally shot by an officer in Minnesota.
Obama, who after arriving in Warsaw discussed how troubling the events in Minnesota and Louisiana were, spoke about the Dallas attack and said there was “no possible justification” for the shooting in the city.
“I believe that I speak for every single American when I say that we are horrified over these events,” Obama said.
He called on Americans to “profess our profound gratitude to the men and women in blue” and to remember the victims in particular.
Some didn’t hear what he said:
The head of a law enforcement advocacy group lashed out at President Barack Obama in the wake of the Dallas shootings that left five police officers dead, accused the president of carrying out a “war on cops.”
“I think [the Obama administration] continued appeasements at the federal level with the Department of Justice, their appeasement of violent criminals, their refusal to condemn movements like Black Lives Matter, actively calling for the death of police officers, that type of thing, all the while blaming police for the problems in this country has led directly to the climate that has made Dallas possible,” William Johnson, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said in an interview with Fox News on Friday morning.
And there was this from the Chicago Tribune:
Former Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, now a radio talk show host, declared “This is now war” and called for President Barack Obama to “watch out” in a Twitter post reacting to the Dallas shooting that killed five police officers and injured seven.
“This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you,” he wrote in the tweet posted Thursday night, which has since been deleted.
In subsequent tweets that remained posted as of early Friday, he called the shooters “uneducated black thugs” and blamed Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement for the officers’ deaths.
What did he just say to Obama? Real America is coming after you? Well, not exactly:
An unrepentant Walsh stood by his tweets Friday morning, saying in a Tribune interview: “Of course I didn’t mean, ‘Let’s go kill Obama and Black Lives Matter.’ I was not trying to incite violence against Obama and Black Lives Matter. That’s crazy and stupid and wrong.”
He added: “It would end my career and it’s wrong. I would never say anything as reprehensible as that.”
Walsh, who lives in suburban Chicago, said he had a sleepless night because of death threats against him on social media. He said he had asked for local police protection.
“You know how social media is,” he said. “I put out some stuff that I believe. And I’ve had people on the left hating on me and threatening to kill me on Twitter and Facebook all night.”
So he’s the real victim here? What did he mean in the first place? It’s easy enough to sense a race war coming, and Josh Marshall senses something like that:
This feels like a bomb being set off at one of the key stress points, one of the architectural holds that fasten our whole society together.
Sometime yesterday I saw a friend say on Facebook that it felt like the country was starting to come apart, in a way that felt reminiscent of 1968. This is someone my age, with no living memory of that time. As Adam Smith famously said, there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. I shy away from these kinds of remarks and that kind of thinking. But this year is shaping up to be at least something like that, the erratic and unbounded presidential campaign, the normalization of words and actions that all normally agree are beyond the limits of acceptance. Mass murder in Orlando, our own cultural creation, the rage-fueled mass shooting melding with the jihadist mass killing of Eurasia, watching innocent black men die on handheld videos (products of our limitless tech culture) after being shot by police, now this mass murder – which as I’ve been writing has now been ascribed to a man who said he wanted to “kill white people, especially white police officers.”
No good can come of this:
There’s a lot of ruin in a nation. But the pace of transgression can grow quick enough to build on itself and overmatch the force of communal and inter-communal bonds and social integument. I don’t think we’re there. I don’t think we’ll get there. But we’re closer than we have any real business being.
And then Marshall looks at history:
The Detroit Riots occurred in July 1967. But ‘1968’ isn’t so much a calendar year as an inflection point in American history which is not entirely bounded by those 12 months, the product of numerous causes but most glaringly the collision of the fight for African-American equality and the escalating American war in Vietnam.
Many younger Americans have vivid memories of the LA Riots of 1992 in which 55 people died and some 2,000 were injured. But the late 1960s witnessed a series of comparable riots across the country – indeed, in a number of cases in cities which simply never truly recovered. Watts 1965, 34 dead, over 1000 injured. Detroit 1967, 43 dead, over 1000 injured, Newark 1967, 26 dead, almost 1000 injured.
As you’ll note, these examples were all before calendar 1968 and don’t include the numerous urban riots during 1968 itself or other ‘smaller’ ones during the preceding years. Indeed, a good deal of what made 1968 ‘1968’ was the way in which a building momentum of violence, civil unrest and a seeming breakdown of the society itself, which had been escalating in the two or three previous years, built to such a pitch of intensity that it seemed the entire society might be overturned, that there might never be a going back. I say all this as a student of the past rather than a witness. I was born in February 1969.
By so many measures – civil disorder, political breakdown, assassinations, death tolls, the US Army operating in major American cities – there is truly no comparing that era in our country’s history with today… there is an underlying societal unity, prosperity and consensus which the headlines, political and cultural polarization and atrocities obscure. And yet, I don’t think we can quite, entirely close the book on the analogy.
Perhaps history does play in an endless loop:
The improvement and all that is good is all right there to see. I see it. And yet revolutions mostly tend to occur not when things are dire but when they’re improving. Just not fast enough. The phenomenon of revolutions or protest when change is not keeping pace with rising expectations is a well-known one in sociology and political science.
You can’t look at the scene today and not see that the Chief of Police in Dallas is black, numerous officers are black. And let’s just say it – the President of the United States is black. And yet you see the video of Philando Castile dying after what appears to have been a routine traffic stop in which he apparently did nothing but try to pull his wallet out of his pocket. Or the video of Alton Sterling, different set of facts, comparable end result. The Black Lives Matter movement is only a part, perhaps the most pointed and visible part, of a rising moving of African-American political self-assertion which, as an outsider to it, seems like a final demand not for improvement and progress but the whole package, intact and total: equality, prosperity, the dignity of the body and life itself. The whole thing.
And that means it’s time for an honest assessment:
At a traffic stop, I’m white, no matter what my politics, empathy, or awareness of this reality or that. I’m white, period. My kids are white too. And the metaphoric traffic stop plays out in numerous other social situations. That’s a layer of protection I carry around me no matter what. It inevitably shapes what I see when I watch these horrific videos – the mix of outrage or anger or fear. I feel a lot of outrage and a lot of anger but I don’t feel much fear because, frankly, I’m pretty sure nothing like that is going to happen to me. All of which is a protracted way of saying I don’t think I can quite know what year it is for my black brothers and sisters watching those videos.
Then there’s the entirely other side of the coin.
Why is Donald Trump the presidential nominee of a major political party? As that famous Simpson’s line put it about Fox News, Not Racist but #1 Among Racists! The KKK and “white nationalists” say they feel like the tide is turning in their direction for the first time in decades. Perhaps in spite of himself, but even so, Trump is re-normalizing the old anti-Semitism that had seemed entirely written out of acceptable public life in America. Not ‘anti-Semitism’ as an attack phrase against people who don’t support Israel enough. But real anti-Semitism with global Jewish cabals, hook-nosed cartoons, jokes about ovens and all the rest.
None of this is normal.
But it can be explained:
There are numerous roots of Trumpism, some deep-seated, others entirely contingent. They include economic grievances which are legitimate and real. Yet Trump might plausibly, if not necessarily, be described as a madman. The fact that the general election version of his campaign (which has to the surprise of many been even more outrageous and transgressive than the primary version) struggles to get below 40% in the polls is to a degree a measure of the degree of political polarization in the country – fertile and disquieting ground for another pols. But the overriding drive of Trumpism is that a substantial minority of our fellow citizens believes their country, white America, is dying or being taken away from them. This is rooted in the rising demands of African-Americans, tens of millions of new Americans and now their children from Latin America and other parts of the world, and newcomers with a religion that to many signifies alienness, violence and threat.
I’ve written about this in numerous posts over recent months, sometimes explicitly, at other times obliquely. But we can’t understand this phenomenon unless we understand that from a certain perspective what they fear or are angry about is true. The America in which whites made up the vast majority of citizens and held a monopoly on political power not simply because of racism but, in most parts of the country, by the fact of numerical majorities is unambiguously coming to an end. You see it in everything from birtherism, to opiate death rates, to a constant theme of our politics. Is this a threat or a death? I’m entirely untroubled by this fact. Indeed, I welcome it, as do millions and millions of Americans. But there are millions of Americans who do not. You can’t be an observer of contemporary American politics and not see that very clearly.
This is what I mean by how or whether one’s political identity is bound up in one’s whiteness or to be more precise whether it is bound up with the political and social dominance of white people. If you do see things through that prism the apocalyptic worldview of many Trumpites starts to make a good deal of sense. For many more, it isn’t the end of the world but it is a source of persistent and sometimes intense anxiety.
This may not be 1968 or 1992, but that might not matter:
Set aside for a moment who you think is right and wrong and see that we have two groups in our society with deep sets of grievances pointing in very different, indeed oppositional directions. Will we get through it in one piece? I’m quite confident we will, for all the reasons I noted above. But it also creates a distinct tension and instability in our society and our politics, a lot of which we’re seeing play out today.
History does play in an endless loop after all. Unless it doesn’t, as Jonathan Chait notes here:
The demonstration in Dallas was the very model of a functioning liberal society – a peaceful protest against police conducted under the protection of the police themselves. Even the most radical of the protesters deplored the shootings, and the police honored the right to protest.
Probing deeper, into more tender spots, one could even detect a formative consensus about the underlying cause of the protest: the routine violence by police against African-Americans. Videos of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have not only galvanized African-Americans who have grown accustomed to the constant threat of police brutality, but they also shocked no small number of white Americans. “In the era of Facebook Live and smart phones,” wrote the conservative columnist Matt K. Lewis in the Daily Caller, “it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than the fact that police brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem that has been going on for generations.” Leon H. Wolf, writing for RedState, conceded that police brutality against minorities had gone on because “a huge, overwhelming segment of America does not really give a damn what cops do in the course of maintaining order because they assume (probably correctly) that abuse at the hands of police will never happen to them.” They may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence – no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science – and broad moral contours.
Among Republican leaders, the impulse to restore calm prevailed over the impulse to stoke racial hysteria. Paul Ryan praised the values of peaceful protest. Newt Gingrich – Newt Gingrich! – conceded, “It’s more dangerous to be black in America. You’re substantially more likely to be in a situation where police don’t respect you.” Even Donald Trump obliquely, and with a characteristically shaky command of the facts, conceded the need for some solution to police abuse: “The senseless, tragic death of two motorists in Louisiana and Minnesota reminds us how much more needs to be done.” Whatever Trump actually believed – the identification of Trump’s real convictions always being more art than science – he at least felt compelled to make some nod toward the perception that the police had gone too far. It was not inspiring, it was not ideal, but it was also more than one would have gotten from, say, circa-1968 George Wallace.
At that office window on Thursday, April 30, 1992, and in the weeks after, and in all the years after, none of that seemed possible. Perhaps the loop is a spiral, spinning out change slowly. Now it’s Dallas. Maybe Dallas is different. There’s no smoke in the air.