Americans wake up each morning to banner headlines describing the latest urban eruption and go to bed reeling from seemingly endless TV images of burning buildings, overturned cars, and rampaging youths. These are not singular events. The whole country, it seems, is on fire and the anarchy in the inner city may spread to more affluent neighborhoods.
People are frightened and angry. Because the riots spread quickly from one city to another, the conclusion that they are somehow linked, possibly orchestrated by agitators — perhaps even Russian agents — seems plausible to many and absolutely incontrovertible to some. It is a heyday for conspiracy theorists and particularly white supremacists. Generally, there is an appetite for suppressive action, almost without regard to what form it might take.
It is the summer of 1967.
Those words were plucked virtually verbatim from Robert Shellow’s introduction to the 2018 volume of The Harvest of American Racism: The Political Meaning of Violence in the Summer of 1967.
The Harvest report was prepared for the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which had been established by President Lyndon Johnson and chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner “to analyze the cause of, and make policy recommendations with respect to, the urban rebellions that had swept the country with ferocious intensity,” according to political scientist Michael C. Dawson’s forward to the 2018 bound volume of the 1967 report.
The Harvest report was prepared “by a team of then mostly young social scientists [Shellow included] who were far more aggressive than the Commission leadership” and who saw the looting and vandalism and riots “in part as manifestation of the increasing political militancy of urban black youth.”
The country, the report’s authors argued, had two choices: “either massive, brutal repression of the black liberation movement, or finally acting to thoroughly address racial inequality — socially, economically, and politically.”
Johnson’s administration rejected the report as being “far too radical” and “politically ‘unviable,'” Dawson writes.
“One of the original researchers later found a copy in an archive with the word ‘Destroy’ stamped on the cover page,” he points out.
In his 2014 work The Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America, Matthew M. McLaughlin summarized the Harvest report’s “bleak conclusions” and radical recommendations.
“America, its authors warned, stood on the brink of race war. The long, hot summers had seen ‘recurrent clashes between police and Negro youths,’ in which ‘the shock troops of the white society meet those of the black.’ It was a matter of time before ‘one of these clashes [will] cause each side to call forth its partisans in increasing numbers.’
“A moderate response to the summer of 1967 would only increase contempt for the white-dominated social order, since ‘Negro youth today are just not interested in being moderately discriminated against.’ In case anyone doubted the urgency of the situation, the authors set out their predictions for the future in the report’s most chilling passages. It foresaw a worsening crisis and an ‘irreparable fractionation of whole cities into enemy camps’ as armed white vigilante homeowners rallied behind overstretched police forces.”
This “apocalypse could still be averted,” McLaughlin writes, “but only if America embraced radical change.” Not token concessions — poverty grants and some jobs here and there — but a “radical redistribution of power.” Which also means a radical redistribution of wealth.
A half-century later, as we live through the failures ’67, I see that history being remixed today. If we’re to seriously examine the political implications of this current historical inflection point, we cannot divorce Monday’s looting of Louis Vuitton from Sunday’s protest on the South Side against police brutality and the police state in which too many Black and Brown people live. They are both symptoms of a larger political crisis.
Protest movements — as Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward demonstrate in their seminal 1977 work Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail — are defined by “collective defiance.”
Rarely do the poor and marginalized become defiant; rarely do they stop blaming themselves for their impoverishment and marginalization and challenge a dominant authority that has self-evidently lost its legitimacy, Piven and Cloward write. When that happens, protecting couture retailers should not take priority over working toward systemic redress.
I adamantly disagree with the destruction of property and I think those who do it should be punished, but I must nonetheless concede that the system that made possible my peaceful strolls through the Gold Coast, my sightseeing along the Magnificent Mile, is morally, culturally, spiritually and economically bankrupt. I know it. You know it. Everyone knows it. The looters know it, too.
Now, as then, the country has two choices.