Police Violence Changes Riot Impacts

Pearl River     Riots are often studied, but little understood.  They are unpredictable by definition.  Why does a riot erupt in one place, but not another when the combustible conditions for a conflagration seem to exist in both?  How does a peaceful protest one-minute cross the line into a riot the next? Importantly, what impact do they have?  Are they effective in advancing causes, winning attention, and change, or do they have the opposite impact by provoking fear and repression?

In the ongoing reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a black man living in one of the whitest cities in America, there have been days of riots in that city.  Protests have broken out in dozens of places across the country, some of which have also targeted specific buildings and involved arson and arrests.

The conservative, but thoughtful, columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat opined about whether these current outbreaks of social disruption would help or hurt the Democrats’ chances in November.  He cited contending arguments on the issue, mysteriously finding it significant to litmus test the political leaning of the authors within a matter of degrees.  On one hand is “the research of the Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans… Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that ‘proximity to black-led nonviolent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines’ — enough to tip the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey to Nixon.”  On the other hand, “columnist Ryan Cooper argued that, in effect, that was then and this is now: Maybe riots weakened liberalism in the past, but the riots of 2015 were more localized and therefore less threatening, the America of 2015 was less white and therefore less easily threatened, and the Republicans of 2015 were ‘talking about prison reform, not Willie Horton.’”

Nothing too solid to hang onto with either hand there, that points a direction now, but 2020 holds a different weight in both hands:  police brutality and ubiquitous cellphone footage.  This morning as dawn was breaking, mi companera, was traumatized by one video after another from the previous nights’ protest of police violence.  A policeman was kicking a pregnant woman in Oakland. A policeman in Salt Lake City pushed over an elderly, white man for the crime of standing on the street.  Police in Atlanta were pulling people out of cars and macing them at curfew time.  Police in Seattle maced a child at 5:03 where there was a 5pm curfew and bus service had been stopped then and pulled people’s masks off to mace them in the face.  In Columbus, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pellets were fired by police at protestors and bystanders an hour before curfew began.  The stories were endless.  The police in many cities seem out of control.

An equation that tries to determine the impact of mass civil disobedience that takes a violent turn is going to have to factor in a new variable:  police overreaction and violence.  Arsonists and rioters are never going to win popular support, but the political impact is mitigated when police are both the incipient trigger for the protest and the explosive, violent reaction captured in response to the protest.  The line between protestor aggression and self-defense becomes blurred, confusing the public, and therefore the politics.

White policemen beating and killing black men, women, and children is Bull Connor gone viral and national.  As long as President Trump fans the flames, there is no spin that benefits the conservatives this time.  Of course, few will defend a riot. If they continue, it’s another story, but right now is different, and in the immortal words of comic Chris Rock, the American people are thinking, “I understand.”

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Elaine Race Massacre

Pearl River     Cities throughout America are erupting once again over the extra juridical killing of a black man by the police.  Some voices are calling for calm, while President Trump calls for chaos.  The “powers that be” would have us believe that this is one rouge cop with a record of police brutality.  The protestors would have us believe this is part of the systemic racism that has brought the stain of blood on our country and its people since the founding.

Talking to J. Chester Johnson, the Arkansas-bred, New York City-based, poet and scholar about his new book, Damaged Heritage:  The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation, on Wade’s World doesn’t leave much room for any conclusion other than the fact that country remains poisoned by the unreconciled racism dating back to slavery.  We’re only a bit over one-hundred years after the massacre in Elaine, Arkansas in the rich delta farmland in Phillips County, near Helena on the Mississippi River.  The several days of killing ended with somewhere between 100 and 235 African-American dead and a couple of whites. This was state-sponsored terrorism.  Most of the killing was done by federal troops that were mobilized from Fort Pike near Little Rock, originally named after Zebulon Pike, credited with the name of Pike’s Peak and later named Camp Joseph T. Robinson after the Arkansas Senator.  Some of the white deaths came from their friendly fire.  In the hullabaloo, the Governor at that time led the troops to Elaine for the killing.

In classic American fashion this was set off by the combustible mixture of class and race.  Robert Hill, an African-American coming back from service in World War I, was dissatisfied with the piddling paid to sharecroppers when cotton prices were at record highs in the war years.  Intuitively understanding the power of uniting community and labor interests, he began organizing several chapters of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union in and around Elaine.  Local planters, who were both employers and landlords, getting wind of the organizing, heard there was a meeting in a church in Hoops Spur.  A deputy sheriff and a carload went out late the night of September 30, 1919, to roust participants and disrupt the meeting, firing some shots towards the church.  Hill and the members were alert to potential trouble and had armed guards around the church.  It was on, and they fired back, killing one, and wounding the deputy.  Then came the deluge in subsequent days and a “killing field,” as Johnson calls it once the troops came as well as others from Tennessee, Mississippi, and southern Arkansas looking for blood, including Johnson’s grandfather who lived in Monticello and came up from McGehee where he worked for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad there.

The only bright notes in the Elaine story are Hill’s organizing, the work of the Little Rock-based lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones with the NAACP, and the renowned African-American journalist Ida B. Wells whose reporting and investigation brought news of the massacre coast to coast and out of the delta.  The long shadow cast by the events in Elaine is also slightly brightened by the decision written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes in Moore v. Dempsey that established the legal precedent central in the later civil rights movement that federal courts could intervene and overturn state and local courts where there were manifest instances denying the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution because of bias and racism.

What a horror!  What did we learn?  Johnson speaks of reconciliation in his book and on a personal level he seems to have found it, but in a hundred years we seem to have traded lynching and massacres for state sponsored racism at every level and police brutality and court approved immunity.

Listen to the protests in the streets of America now.  Same song.  Different verse.

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