Writing in the wake of urban violence in the mid-sixties, Martin Luther King, Jr., asked Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The peaceful (on the part of protesters) marches led by King in the South had been pushed aside by urban violence in places like Watts, Hough (Cleveland), Newark and Detroit. It would even turn the peaceful Memphis march led by King into a riot. When he returned to Memphis to reclaim the necessity of peaceful protest, he was assassinated—ironically sparking the most widespread and destructive violence in United States history.
Today, my children and grandchildren ask me -- who lived through those times -- what comes next? I have to confess some similarities. Police brutality was the spark that ignited most all of the urban violence in the North. In real time the same debate occurred over looting destroying the message of the protest. Were they rebels or rioters? And, predictably, the response of the authorities was the same.
Some blamed outsiders or “riff-raff” for the destruction. More liberal voices saw it as the voice of the voiceless. Those who claimed civil rights victories in the South did nothing to put bread on the table or a roof over your head in the ghetto. The attitude was neatly captured by the phrase, “what good is it to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?” The various riot commissions formed in the wake of the violence failed to address this issue. In fact, money flowed into a new creation, SWAT teams.
Yet the current violence seems somehow different. Perhaps the illusion of American exceptionalism has been stripped away. One of the most influential social scientists of the mid-twentieth century, Seymour Martin Lipset, believed that despite America’s woes it had always been blessed by great leaders at key moments of crisis. Washington led us to victory in Revolution, Lincoln guided us through Civil War, and F.D.R. lifted us up during a Great Depression.
This century, George W. Bush has led us into two disastrous wars and Donald Trump has managed to antagonize almost all of our allies while embracing dictators trying to undermine our democracy. In the face of worldwide pandemic, we have withdrawn from WHO and politicized the response to the virus. The wealth gap has increased even as the working and middle classes have been asked to risk their lives in order to meet our culinary and fashion desires. As people of color die at disproportionate rates, Whites with automatic weapons protest for their right to party.
And then there is the social media and 24-hour news coverage. Unlike the sixties, we instantly see footage of Ahmaud Arbery shot while jogging, Amy Cooper playing the victim, and the public execution of George Floyd. The assault on the senses is constant and relentless, exacerbated by internet trolls and foreign interference. And, a president who daily rubs nerves raw as he misleads and incites.
Remember Obama’s beer summit? No matter how naïve the attempt may seem in retrospect, at least it was an attempt at dialog. Unfortunately, it was the last as Obama’s favorability rating among Whites slipped significantly. Hence forth, he was only permitted to address race directly when lecturing Blacks on personal responsibility. “Hope and change” has now been replaced with “dominate them."
King saw three problems as linked and entrenched and indeed they haunt us today -- militarism, poverty and racism. The nearly trillion dollars a year we spend on defense far outstrips the combined military budgets of our rivals and has done nothing to protect us from COVID 19. To address poverty King proposed a guaranteed annual income for all and a livable minimum wage.
Moreover, he believed a massive public works project would provide much needed jobs. How much less stress would we be feeling today if we had followed King’s advice. Racism, like militarism and poverty, required a “true revolution in values” to solve. It required agape or love for our fellow human beings. I believe he was on to something.