The Fire This TimeHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, Police, urban history, riots, Protest
In times of crisis, historical knowledge at least offers the small consolation of perspective. America’s current time of troubles, with the stress of the pandemic and economic meltdown now being intensified by nationwide protests and riots against police violence, inevitably calls to mind the last time the country was coming apart. The BBC described the protests ignited by the police killing of George Floyd as the “biggest racial clashes since the 1960s.”
Walter Shapiro of The New Republic echoed this comparison, noting, “The parallel on everyone’s lips is 1968—that wrenching year of assassination, riot, racism, war, and the breakdown of the bonds that hold us together as a people.” James Fallows in The Atlantic made the same connection, arguing, “The most traumatic year in modern American history was 1968. But what is now the second-most traumatic year, 2020, still has seven months to run.” Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse tweeted, “This past week has felt like a replay of Chicago 1968 all across the nation.”
But as these writers are quick to note, comparisons to 1968 have to be made carefully, with an awareness of differences as well as similarities. As in ’68, America is at war, but the conflict in Afghanistan is at a low ebb compared to the Vietnam War at that time. Further, America’s current wars are being fought with a volunteer army, so the issue of a draft incites no protests. Nor is America experiencing anything like the political violence that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
The real areas of similarity are the protests against police violence and systematic racism. As Kruse rightly observes, the issue itself has long been embedded in American history. There are records of protests over police brutality against African Americans going back to the 19th century. After the great migration of African Americans to the North in the early 20th century, protests against police violence flared up regularly, as with the 1919 riot in Chicago and the 1943 uprising in Detroit. More recent examples include the 1992 riots in Los Angeles over the beating of Rodney King and the 2014 uprising in Ferguson that spurred the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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