Over the weekend, protests over police shootings spread from Minneapolis to dozens of cities, leading to riots and curfews in numerous places. For many, this brought to mind the waves of protests and civil unrest during the 1960s, which also resulted in violence and the destruction of property.
All this comes at a time when the country was on edge due to the coronavirus pandemic and a deep economic downturn. And it comes just five months ahead of a national election that was already certain to be contentious.
To gain some sense of the political and historical contexts for today’s events, Governing spoke with Michael W. Flamm, a historian at Ohio Wesleyan University. Flamm is the author of multiple books, including Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s and In the Heat of the Summer: The New York Riots of 1964 and the War on Crime. Here are edited excerpts of the interview:
Governing: You’re an expert on protests and police responses to protests. What are you thinking about as you watch the news now?
Flamm: My head is filled with many, many thoughts, from the personal tragedy of George Floyd to the larger social tragedy of racial history and violence.
The tragedy in Minneapolis follows a historical pattern of riots. The demonstrations often begin peacefully with individuals and groups trying to express their anger, their outrage, their grief. Gradually, the streets are filled with other people. When night falls, there are people with other interests, whether it’s burning or looting.
Sadly, the media focuses on the last group and drown out the earlier, peaceful protests. Violent protests for the media always beat peaceful protests. Footage of people burning buildings, smashing windows — as a producer, you know which images are going to keep more people glued to your channel.
There are hundreds of killings every year that involve police officers. Why do you think this one has sparked nationwide protests?
There are many explanations. Shootings typically take place in a split second. They involve a quick reaction and judgments. Shootings are complicated; the situations are very complex. This was not a shooting. This was a very different kind of homicide, a very different kind of murder. It was captured on video and didn’t happen in a dark alley, where the police officer may or may not have been threatened with a weapon.
It also comes at a moment when people are desperate to come out of their homes, to do something. It comes during a burst of good weather. My father lives in Minnesota and he can tell you how cold and wet it’s been there this spring.
And it occurs against a political and economic backdrop. I think the sense of desperation is growing. Many poor people are aware we’re on the verge of a wave of evictions across urban America the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades. This combination coming together is causing people to explode.
This is a political moment, so can you comment on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where antiwar protesters clashed with police? A federal commission later called it a “police riot,” but millions viewed the protesters as disruptive and out of hand. We’re seeing a similar split response now. Why do people interpret these events differently?
Let me begin with a fact. More than 60 percent of Americans who watched the police riot in Chicago believed they gave the demonstrators precisely what they deserved. Ultimately, the politics of law and order benefits conservatives. It plays to a fundamental conservatism in American society.
One of the lessons of Chicago in 1968 is that armed confrontations don’t help liberals and they don’t help Democrats. “The whole world is watching” was the chant. The demonstrators in Chicago believed — and I assume the demonstrators in Minneapolis believe — that history will be on their side, and that may not be right.
Even in 2016, President Trump presented himself as the “law and order” candidate, echoing Richard Nixon in 1968. Now, he is supporting law enforcement and calling for crackdowns on protesters. But will this message work as well for him as the incumbent?
Here’s where it gets a little bit complicated. Richard Nixon benefited greatly from the presence of George Wallace in 1968. (Note: Wallace, a former Democratic governor of Alabama, ran as a third-party candidate for president on a platform in support of racial segregation and law enforcement, taking up a police chief’s line that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” which Trump echoed last week in a tweet.)
Wallace was so extreme on the issue of law and order that he made Nixon seem like the responsible moderate on that issue. That helped him tremendously in 1968. I argue, it’s the law and order issue that allowed Nixon to win his narrow victory.
The dynamic here is there is no Wallace for Trump. Trump is Wallace. His actions may prove too extreme. The Democrats may find themselves in a good position here because of Biden’s positions on crime and law and order in the past.
It’s become a political cliché of our times that the nation is highly polarized. Some commentators have argued that while we may be divided, it’s nothing like the Civil War or the 1960s. Given what we’re seeing now, do you think that’s still true?
In 1968, you still had effectively four political parties in the U.S. Within the GOP, there were conservatives and moderates, and within Democrats, there were liberals and moderates. Those splits within the parties muted polarization.
Today, we have two largely homogenous political parties — and we have social media and we have an economic crisis and we have a pandemic and we have a president ready to pour gasoline on the fire because he believes his path to reelection leads through division. It’s like a perfect path to have widening of divisions in our society and politics.
One difference is that we don’t have a Vietnam War today. We’re not currently engaged in an international conflict simultaneously.
But we are living through the perfect storm of historical events. We have an economic crisis similar to 1929, a medical crisis similar to 1918 and now a political crisis similar to 1968. In a sense, we have the worst of all political worlds.