President Johnson and the Kerner Commission

Kerner Commission report on 1967 riots seems eerily familiar

Following the 1967 wave of urban uprisings in Black communities, President Lyndon Johnson established the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?” As part of the relatively small field of social science on rioting, it is best known for its alarming statement that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” a dire prospect for a country that had dismantled the legal doctrine of “separate but equal” just a dozen years before.

Less often quoted is the Commission’s in-depth study of the nature and process of rioting. Altogether, Malcolm McLaughlin records in a recent book (Long, Hot Summer of 1967: Urban Rebellion in America), in the first nine months of 1967, “almost 170 cities in 34 states and the District of Columbia had experienced an uprising of some sort, and almost 40 communities had more than one. Few corners of urban America were left untouched.” In its effort to document and understand the riots, Kerner Commission reached the following conclusions, many of which seem very descriptive of the past year’s flashpoints of unrest from Ferguson, Missouri to Baltimore, Maryland.

The “typical” riot did not take place. The disorders of 1967 were unusual, irregular, complex and unpredictable social processes. Like most human events, they did not unfold in an orderly sequence. However, an analysis of our survey information leads to some conclusions about the riot process.

In general:

The civil disorders of 1967 involved Negroes acting against local symbols of white American society, authority and property in Negro neighborhoods—rather than against white persons.Read More »

MaidanBarricade01

Watching the Maidan protests in Ukraine

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

Martin Luther King Jr., revolutionary

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:

Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.

For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.

Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.

Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.

Martin Luther King, 1968:

There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.

In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.

This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.

See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.

Eight deaths in Bolivian political conflicts in 2012

Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensor del Pueblo) reports that 2012 was another busy year for social conflict in Bolivia. The office compiled a list of 500 political disputes that were the subject of protests or direct actions since January 1. (coverage: Erbol). The year is the deadliest in the country’s political life since 2008 with eight people losing their lives in these conflicts. Six of them died from violence by state forces; by my count, this is the most people killed by police responses to political actions in any one year since Evo Morales took power in January 2006.*

Those who died in 2012 were as follows:

  • Abel Rocha Bustamante, 27, and Michael Sosa, 23. Shot by police in the January Yapacaní conflict. (This blog’s coverage: 1|2)
  • Eliseo Rojas, 22. Reportedly electrocuted on a fence while attempting to storm police barracks during the Yapacaní conflict.
  • José Mamani Mamani, protester in Mallku Khota mining dispute, died of bullet wounds to the neck apparently fired by police on July 5.
  • Ambrosio Gonzáles, 45. Died from a police bullet during the July 31 operation to retake the Caranda gas plant, in Buenavista, Santa Cruz, which was seized by protesters demanding that a roadway and bridge be built.
  • FSTMB member Héctor Choque. Killed by an explosion of dynamite during fratricidal protests in La Paz between his union of mining employees and cooperative miners over the disposition of the Mallku Khota mine following its nationalization.
  • Óscar Omar Cruz Mallku, 17, dead from a gunshot, and Oscar Ricardo Gómez Bertón, 27, dead from wounds after a police raid on illegal used car sellers in Challapata, Oruro faced public resistance by the sellers.

*Police killed four protesters in 2007 and 2010. If one excludes the October 2012 Challapata event as a confrontation with criminal entrepreneurs during a raid, then all three years have the same number of police killings in political situations.

From the archives: On Strike, USA, 1936

From the Bolivian press, May 1936, this captioned photo illustrates the use of tear gas against American strikers during that turbulent period. The caption reads:

 This mask to protect against suffocating gases is not worn by a soldier nor by a militiaman, but rather a youth in North America on strike, who goes forth here well protected from the effects of teargas.

No further details are provided about the strike or the source of the image.

EnHuelga1936

Martin Luther King on riots and property destruction

Martin Luther King Jr. was an extremely committed proponent of nonviolent and nondestructive methods of protest. In his private strategic manifesto inside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, A New Sense of Direction,* he advocated “militant” and “defiant” action to dislocate the function of American cities and enforce a popular demand for economic redistribution, but he did not deviate on this tactical direction. He even declared, “I, Martin Luther King, take thee, Non-violence, to be my wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—this isn’t a bargaining experience—for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Still, the King of 1967 and 1968 would hardly be at home among some of the critics of property destruction who often revere him. First, he draws a strong moral distinction between “violence against property” and “violence against persons.” And second, rather than prioritizing rooting out property destroyers for obscuring his message, he tries to explain their message. Third, he is careful to emphasize police responsibility for most violence against people during the riots.  I quote him here at length describing the Black urban riots of summer 1967, the third consecutive summer of riot waves, largely touched off by local police violence. The following was first published in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967).

This bloodlust interpretation ignores one of the most striking features of the city riots. Violent they certainly were. But the violence, to a startling degree, was focused against property rather than against people. There were very few cases of injury to persons, and the vast majority of the rioters were not involved at all in attacking people. The much publicized “death toll” that marked the riots, and the many injuries, were overwhelmingly inflicted on the rioters by the military. It is clear that the riots were exacerbated by police action that was designed to injure or even to kill people. As for the snipers, no account of the riots claims that more than one or two dozen people were involved in sniping. From the facts, and unmistakable pattern emerges: a handful of Negroes used gunfire substantially to intimidate, not to kill; and all of the other participants had a different target—property.

I am aware that there are many who wince at a distinction between property and persons—who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.

The focus on property in the 1967 riots is not accidental. It has a message; it is saying something.

If hostility to whites were ever going to dominate a Negro’s attitude and reach murderous proportions, surely it would be during a riot. But this rare opportunity for bloodletting was sublimated into arson, or turned into a kind of stormy carnival of free-merchandise distribution. Why did the rioters avoid personal attacks? The explanation cannot be fear of retribution, because the physical risks incurred in the attacks on property were no less than for personal assaults. The military forces were treating acts of petty larceny as equal to murder. Far more rioters took chances with their own lives, in their attacks on property, than threatened the life of anyone else. Why were they so violent with property then? Because property represents the white power structure, which they were attacking and trying to destroy. A curious proof of the symbolic aspect of the looting for some who took part in it is the fact that, after the riots, police received hundreds of calls from Negroes trying to return merchandise they had taken. Those people wanted the experience of taking, of redressing the power imbalance that property represents. Possession, afterward, was secondary.

A deeper level of hostility came out in arson, which was far more dangerous than the looting. But it, too, was a demonstration and a warning. It was designed to express the depth of anger in the community.

King was not an proponent of these tactics, but he was a prominent voice (at times, the most prominent voice) of his community when they were carried out. Rather than devote attention to their ”obscuring the message,” he sought to analyze their message, even as he argued such tactics would not prove victorious. I wish those who follow in his strategic footsteps on these tactical choices, would also follow him in prioritizing such explanations.

* “A New Sense of Direction” was one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. It should be required reading for people seeking to understand King’s strategic vision. For more on King’s late political evolution, see Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There With You.

Data points on tactics and revolution

An article by George Lakey is circulating around the Internet* under the headline, “The More Violence, The Less Revolution.” While title is a quotation from 1930s radical Bart de Ligt, the thrust of the piece is to read Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s large-scale study Why Civil Resistance Works (website) under this headline. Chenoweth and Stephan do make a serious and wide-ranging attempt to measure the outcomes of tactical choices made by movements, and both their data and conclusions should be read widely among people interested in changing their societies. Chenoweth and Stephan’s expansive category of civil resistance is actually one that spans across existing internal debates in the Occupy Movement (and earlier generations of tactical debates in the global justice movement and elsewhere). Vitally, their analysis of what conditions make civil resistance successful can help us focus our tactical conversations in a very productive direction.**

George Lakey, while an opponent of both violent tactics and property destruction, issued a strong rejoinder to Chris Hedges’ The Cancer in Occupy, arguing: “The issue of the appropriateness of property destruction and/or violence is, like any other aspect of community organizing, not settled by blanket statements or posturing but by getting in there and dialoguing, over and over again.  Advocates of nonviolent action need to learn from the Civil Rights movement and the field of community organizing in this way—there really aren’t any shortcuts.” Lakey has developed a nuanced, historically informed position on nonviolence. His strategic approach to thinking about nonviolence that has been surprisingly contagious internationally. And Lakey is willing to have difficult conversations with people who profoundly disagree with him, to his credit.

However, Lakey’s headline and overall argument are a misreading of Chenoweth and Stephan. This rankles me both as a social scientist (quibble ahead) and as a student of/participant in freedom struggles. First, the quibble: Why Civil Resistance Works and related studies divide all struggles into “nonviolent” (like the first Intifada, Lavalas against the Duvaliers in Haiti, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and the Defiance Campaign in South Africa) and “violent” (like the Mexican, Chinese, Algerian, and Iranian Revolutions). 0 for “nonviolent,” 1 for “violent.” (Incidentally, I think my four examples on each side of the “nonviolent”/”violent” categorization is a fairly good representation of successful cases, biased towards things anyone reading this blog would probably recognize. A complete list is in the Methodological Appendix [pdf] they posted online.) A dichotomous variable (definition) cannot be used to produce the more x, the less y statements. Ever.

Okay, so the real problem here is the made plain by the wide, wide variety of things crammed into the nonviolent category, including nearly all of the tactical patterns Lakey and those citing this study through him are most likely to rail against inside of movements: confronting police with bricks and stones (Intifada), building burning barricades in the streets (Defiance campaign), yielding the moral high ground by defending against violence rather than showcasing differences in suffering. Both such militant, but ultimately civil revolutions and nearly pacifist mobilizations like Solidarity in Poland or the Velvet Revolution have much to teach us about how to resist.

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