It has been more than four months since the start of global protests stemming from the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black at the hands of police. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have taken to the streets in a fashion reminiscent of the protests of 1967 and 1968. Frustrations are high. Millennials and the younger generation known as “Zoomers” are spearheading the largest movement for civil rights since the 1960s, while facing the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Ricky Riley is an Atlanta-based journalist and creative.
But why risk it all? And why did this particular moment end up being the tipping point? The simple answer is that there is nothing to do. The pandemic has prevented any meaningful social interaction. The more complicated answer, however, is that people—especially young people—have lost hope in the broken social and political system that governs us all.
Recent events bring to mind the Long, Hot Summer of 1967—another tipping point highlighting the plight of poor Black Americans. Police brutality remains as rampant now as it was in 1967. Black people continue to grapple with high unemployment along with housing and job discrimination—like they did in 1967. The war on drugs has ravaged Black families and created a generation of men and women who may never realize their dreams due to small, non-violent convictions. Over 50 years ago, in 1967, there were protests and uprisings in 34 states during the first nine months of the year. Black Americans took to the streets in some 150 cities.
Like now, the political establishment of the mid-1960s treated the moment as a wave of anarchy. “No one is safe on the streets, in his home, or on his property”, Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) said in response to the uprising, “we are rapidly approaching a state of anarchy”. Thousands of people were injured during the uprisings, and 83 people are known to have died. The catalyst for the nationwide protests and uprisings then was the same as now: police brutality toward Black Americans.
One of the biggest uprisings was sparked by the beating of a cab driver by police in Newark, New Jersey on 12 July 1967. A wave of protests and unrest left 23 dead and the city engulfed in flames. On 23 July, Detroit police raided a club, arresting Black patrons and sparking a five-day rebellion that left 43 dead and 7,000 people arrested. By September 1967, the nation had changed drastically. In many ways, the events of the past few months feel like a similar historic change.
COVID-19 and the Economic Fallout
According to the latest data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. The number of recorded deaths has surpassed 200,000. As nations around the world show signs of recovery, cases in the US continue skyrocket.
Across the country, Americans are losing their jobs as a result of quarantines imposed to contain the pandemic. Although this has of course happened around the world, in the United States, social safety nets are nearly non-existent. As of mid-September, the white unemployment rate currently stands at 8.4 percent and Black unemployment is 14.6 percent. Compare this to 1968, when the Black unemployment rate was 6.7 percent. Most Americans received a stimulus check for 1,200 US dollars to cover basic expenses in April, and unemployment benefits were temporarily expanded, but expired at the end of July.
High unemployment is one factor, but the real issue is the lack of a bounce back in the labour market. The pandemic wiped out ten years of economic gains for the Black community in two months. Economists and other experts attribute the rising Black unemployment to racial discrimination, with Black women suffering the most. A report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) shows that the unemployment rate for Black women currently stands at 16.5 percent.
The lack of jobs and the rising number of COVID-19 cases has further led to a housing and rent crisis. For many families around the nation, going to work in the midst of a pandemic is not an option—it is a necessity. Renters living in apartment units are the most vulnerable and thus more likely to become homeless. Evictions expert Emily Benfer estimates that 20 to 28 million Americans will face evictions due to the lasting impact of COVID-19. Simply put, landlords are no longer accommodating tenants. They will no longer allow the pandemic to halt rent collection.
In July, researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that the temporary rent collection bans at the beginning of the nationwide shutdown are essentially over, causing eviction rates in many cities to return to pre-COVID-19 rates. This is a serious issue because wages and the economy are far from where they were before the pandemic. Research also shows that Black households, and especially households headed by Black women, are more likely to face eviction.
All of the worries and financial issues have created a mental health crisis in America. A study from the CDC states “41% of respondents are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the pandemic.” There has been an uptick in suicides, depression, substance abuse, and so much more.
Quarantine and Increased Visibility
All of these issues were present before the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Armaud Arbery became national headlines. Like the police brutality that sparked the Long, Hot Summer, these cases highlight serious racial problems around the concept of authority and the meaning of justice. Arbery was beaten and killed in Brunswick, Georgia by Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael back in February of this year. The two white men tracked Arbery down and shot him in the middle of a street because they believed he was a robbery suspect.
Many cases prior to Arbery’s show how white people assume a position of power in daily interactions despite not possessing any actual legal authority. Generally speaking, there are few—if any—repercussions for their behaviour when this occurs. Indeed, in many instances the state even supports it. This racist idea is the root cause behind the extrajudicial killings of Black people.
Breonna Taylor, the EMT who was murdered by Louisville, Kentucky police, was killed while asleep at home. Sgt. Jon Mattingly, 47; Myles Cosgrove, 42; and Brett Hankison, 44, entered her home on March 13 and were met with gunfire from Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s partner. The victim’s family claimed the officers entered the home without knocking. Officers claimed they had a warrant looking for drugs, but a family lawsuit refutes that claim.
Regardless of what exactly happened that night, the 26-year-old victim had no part in the situation but was nevertheless shot eight times. Hankison was fired in June, and after months of waiting was indicted on three charges of “wanton endangerment”—not for shooting Taylor, but for firing into a neighbouring apartment building during the raid. The other officers were not charged at all. Together with the death of George Floyd, these murders highlight long-standing policing issues and societal racism, and have sparked another massive wave of protests at the time of this writing.
Amidst the national ongoing protests, another Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot multiple times in the back by Kenosha, Wisconsin police, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The video of his killing intensified protests and sparked a new wave of unrest in Wisconsin. By day three of the protests, white supremacist militias and police sympathizers had descended on Kenosha. Kyle Rittenhouse was one of them. Rittenhouse, who is not from Wisconsin, went to Kenosha with the sole intention of causing trouble. The 17-year-old gunman was greeted by police and given bottles of water before killing two white protesters and injuring a third victim.
His violence is celebrated by the Right because Rittenhouse upholds white supremacy through vigilantism. White violence continues to be justified, excused, and legitimized by the Right. Blake, on the other hand, is blamed for being nearly murdered in front of his own children.
Protesters are calling for answers and, more importantly, accountability: for officers to be fired for their misdeeds and convicted for unwarranted violence. As millions continue to march in the streets, they are demanding that over-inflated police budgets be re-evaluated. A recent New York Times report states that many American cities are gradually growing more peaceful, yet police budgets continue to increase while spending on education, community investment, and basic housing continues to be cut around the country.
Responding to the Movement
While the civil rights movement was in full force in 1967, so was the anti-war movement. Activist and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was instrumental in converging the two movements when he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on 4 April 1967, denouncing the Vietnam War and reaffirming his dedication to justice for all.
“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision”, King said more than 50 years ago. “There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.”
He galvanized white liberals to take action against the United States’ various crimes against its citizens. Those same white liberals flooded the streets to protest, just like millions of white supporters have done today. Equally similar to now, the liberal establishment was slow to support these causes in a meaningful way.
King’s willingness to call out the US effectively made him even more of a target. Liberal institutions such as the New York Times and Washington Post criticized King for speaking out against the war calling his language disruptive and foolhardy. Newsweek denounced his speech as “demagoguery and reckless distortions of fact”. An estimated 160 newspaper editorials and columns nationwide condemned his views on the war. In fact, at the time of King’s assassination a Harris Poll stated 75 percent of Americans disapproved of the civil rights icon. His stance against the war and calls for economic justice were regarded by many as a harbinger of doom.
The movement to defund American police departments has suffered a similar fate. Attacks from the Right are expected, but liberal politicians have come out and advocated for increasing police budgets around the country. Most notably, Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden has called for larger police budgets to address community policing. Democratic mayors around the country have bent the knee to Trump and police unions, allowing a heavier military presence in their cities. The irony here is that the Democrats and Republicans have vocalized their positions accordingly, but there is no difference in their response to police brutality.
In 1967, Americans believed increasing the number of police in urban areas was preferable to expanding education, housing and job opportunities to Black and brown citizens. October1967 saw one of the largest anti-war protests held in Washington, DC. About 100,000 people came face-to-face with military police armed to the tee. Iconic photos of the time show protesters placing daisies in the barrels of MPs’ rifles, highlighting the overlaps with the anti-war and peace movements of the time. An estimated 600 people were arrested for their participation. History has never forgotten their fight for peace.
Compare that to now. Protests in Portland and Seattle give us reason to believe that the United States is on the brink of fascism. The jackboot of the state stomped down on activists in late July, teargassing them, beating them, and even kidnapping some. Trump alerted the nation that he would pursue just such a response. In late May, he tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, referencing the infamous words of Miami police Chief Walter Headley in 1967.
Headley and Trump both welcomed violence against Americans. The violent response to protests was on display when Trump used federal and police forces to push protesters away from St. John’s Episcopal Church, a short walk from the White House. This is only one of many examples of police responding to protests against police violence with more violence.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the protests will continue and most likely morph into a call for new social and political reforms. The virus has laid bare the need for sweeping changes to housing, healthcare, policing, and racial and gender issues, which were also at the centre of the Long, Hot Summer in 1967.
The Kerner Commission of 1967, which was established to investigate the causes of the Long, Hot Summer, attributed inner-city strife to poverty, racism, and overwhelming injustice. The final report was released in March 1968, and politicians rejected its recommendations. One month later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The riots in the wake of Dr. King’s murder forced the US to change and led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Political leaders have similarly failed to address today’s issues. Since the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012, the movement has grown in popularity. But as defunding police and other social ills such as housing and economic inequalities become a sticking point for the movement, the country has been reluctant to change. Due to a lack of political power and a lack of other options, people will continue to risk their lives to protest—because COVID-19 has taken away their homes and jobs and made clear that something needs to change in the United States of America.