The videos from Ferguson, Missouri, of unarmed demonstrators and neighborhood people being confronted by lines of advancing police using military hardware revived memories of my own experiences in 1966 and again in 1968. I was at the time a student enrolled in a special summertime program for disadvantaged high school students in Cleveland, Ohio, living in dormitories and attending classes at Case Western Reserve University on the East Side of a very segregated city. One of my most vivid memories of that time is of returning late from an evening concert, finding all of the lights out and the doors locked in the dormitory and everyone talking in hushed whispers. There had been gunshots heard somewhere nearby. I remember taking the elevator to my floor, walking down a hallway and entering a room where several of my fellow students, mostly black, were gazing out of wide windows that faced the city’s near horizon, a horizon that appeared to be largely on fire. In the following days the campus where we lived was used as a staging area, surrounded as it was on three sides by ghetto neighborhoods and on the other by the Heights where perched the National Guard Armory. Every night we watched as military convoys went out into darkened neighborhoods to patrol the angry streets.
The earlier event in my memory, known as the Hough Riots
, was a result of long simmering tensions in segregated neighborhoods where most of the population was black and most of the police force was white. It was a precursor to many such events in ensuing years in cities across the country. Detroit
of other cities exploded in 1967 alone. In 1968 the so-called Glenville Shootout
(which was another full scale riot) took place in the summer following the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a direct product of the buildup of frustration, rage and helplessness. It was accompanied by similar explosions in Baltimore Washington D.C
., New York
The memory of those streets, the convoys, and most of all those fires remain vivid to me.
Looking at the coverage of events in Ferguson
I’m struck both by what’s similar and what’s changed. First of all, even though this had all of the elements that could turn the situation into a full scale riot, so far it has not. An immediate explosion of rage in response to the shooting of a teenager lead to some looting and destruction that was followed by an organized and peaceful demonstration broadly representing the citizenry, involving people both black and white. The response to this was a brutal and invasive military reaction by the police. They advanced into neighborhoods using sophisticated armored equipment, firing tear gas at demonstrators, residents, reporters and bystanders. National coverage resulted in a spontaneous national response in solidarity (for the most part) from people with a broad range of social and political perspectives. The national dialogue emerging from this is ongoing. There is some question whether the underlying factors contributing to what went on will be adequately addressed. Race is an obvious factor but to anyone looking beneath the surface the steady demolition of the middle class and the unavailability of economic opportunity is as much a contributor. The anger boiling under the surface of American life crosses racial lines and a much wider proportion of the population can feel some solidarity with those in Ferguson than in 1968.
More than a chaotic and destructive acting out of long stifled frustration, the events in Missouri remind me in some ways of another event that took place in 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During what became known as a “Police Riot”
over 10,000 protestors of all races, classes and denominations gathered to protest the Vietnam War and faced an all-out assault by police that drew in demonstrators, observers and innocent bystanders and was broadcast on every major television channel all over the world. This event was a marker that signified a major change in the political climate and was a precursor to the extremely polarized politics that dominate our national debates today. The issues we are dealing with are the same: race, inequality, war and economic injustice. Add to this the ongoing demolition of the middle class and the inability of a divided government to address any of it with a common sense of purpose and you have a mix that leads inevitably to social turmoil.
For me this past week’s events brought up not only memories from as long ago as 1968, but of another moment in which I saw and heard an echo of those times and those events. I’m reprinting here the first post on this Arclist blog, made on December 29, 2001, four months after the events of 9/11 in New York City. At the time it felt to me like the tragedies of the day were a sign of where we were heading if we didn’t wake up as a nation wake to who we were and what was our impact on the world. It was a low point in my visions of the immediate future. My outlook today isn’t nearly as dire. As a nation I believe we’ve advanced in our awareness, although it may not be obvious from what we are shown on the news. In spite of ongoing paranoia and prejudice I think we are more of a nation now than we were back then, more able to see one another, even those that we distrust, as human beings that ultimately depend on one another.
I post this then, as both a recollection and as a warning. The fast growing problems driven by economic inequality and environmental degradation transcend our own borders, as the attacks of 9/11 violently brought home. We can no longer deal with them effectively through the obstructed lenses of arrogance and bigotry. We must address our own shadows while engaging with the whole world. In the past decade we have learned much and perhaps begun to grow up out of our national adolescence. Something in me believes that however dire the onrushing darkness, we are becoming engaged and more capable of bringing in the light.
December 12th, 2001
Subject: Cities On Fire
As we creep up on the New Year I grow increasingly weary of being told by politicians and propagandists what “we” the American people have learned over this past year. The whole world has changed we are told, but outside the once protected borders of our national fairytale I don’t think things have changed very much at all. From the images and words broadcast over our national media I have to conclude that Americans have learned very little, other than to be more afraid. There is nothing I find reassuring in the faces of George and Laura (brought to you by Enron, Inc.) and Rudy (brought to you by Time Warner) found on the covers of every supermarket magazine. I keep wondering who is this great “we” promulgated by every talking head and pundit from Susan Stamberg to Charlie Rose.
When we are told that the best way to perform our patriotic duty is to go on consuming as if nothing will ever change us or slow us down, I only see more disillusion ahead. The symbol we currently wave in the face of the world’s poor is an enormous gas guzzling SUV proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes from it’s antennas. Our nation in relation to much of the rest of the world resembles a spoiled teenage bully who refuses to grow up, stoked on drugs and arrogance and technology. Our response to attacks on what we see as our inalienable right to consume is to declare war on anyone standing in our way.
I keep hearing about the responsibility of the world’s only ‘superpower’. What does that mean? It’s as if the only thing necessary for world conquest is to declare yourself the winner and then to kick the ass of anyone who disagrees. Like our surrogate Isreal in the Middle East, we’ve become the co-creators of our own worst nightmare. My best wish for this country in the New Year is that we wake up from the tailored national fantasy bought and paid for by the corporate powers now in charge. If not, we are likely to encounter more horrible lessons from the real world.
Wed Dec 19, 2001
Cities on Fire
They are gone.
All the people
All the concrete
All the glass
All the metal
All the money
All the lunch crowds
All the car exhausts
All the noise.
Only the silent hole
the arc lights
filling the emptiness
We act as if something we can do
will change it all
will bring it back.
Nothing will change
it is no more
it will never be again.
When I was very young
the cities burned.
Thirty years ago
instead of crumbling steel monuments
there were burning wooden tenements
armies patrolling the streets at midnight
in American cities,
the streets since knocked down
to build steel towers
over the graves of neighborhoods,
of slave quarters and refugee camps.
All the places where furies dwell.
We built the towers
to exhibit a nation’s soul.
Did we think the furies would go away
like the ghosts of empty houses?
They came back to us
They returned in the dark screaming faces
falling from burning towers
hurtling in suffocating vertigo
like the fall of empires.
The furies always come back.
Now we search for them in ruins
trying to torture them out of the earth
as if the earth created them
but they are ours.
Have you ever seen a city on fire?