Is This Summer Really Our Generation's Tumultuous '60s?


It’s only been a month and a half since Omar Mateen opened fire into the crowded Pulse nightclub on a warm Orlando night. Shortly afterwards, Second Amendment advocates, citing the event, encouraged Trump supporters to bring firearms and plastic shields to rallies “for protection.” Just a few weeks ago, three consecutive days brought us, rapid-fire, the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge; the image of Philando Castile bleeding in his girlfriend’s arms; and the chaotic scatter of bodies when a military veteran picked off cops as “payback.”

This summer, like the summers preceding it, our feeds are clotted with the genres of media that inevitably follow tragedy: invitations to vigils, video testimonies of the vengeful and the grieving, footage of police in full-on riot gear marching, absurdly, in formation towards lines of protesters on suburban streets.

But this summer, unlike other summers, those police also deployed the first known domestic use of a “bomb robot,” against the sniper in Dallas. By late July, in Baton Rouge, another shooting left three more officers dead. The summer of 2016 opened with a knife fight between neo-Nazis and a nebulous group of counter-protesters; a KKK leader just announced he’s running for Senate; the charges against the police who killed Freddie Gray have been dropped.

Rolling into the conventions, the sense of an insurmountable schizm, a war going down on home turf, was only further externalized. At the RNC, speakers suggested replacing Black Lives Matter with Blue. And when Trump took the stage to formally accept the Republican nomination, he leveraged attacks on police and the threat of domestic terrorism to promise his supporters: “Safety will be restored.”

It’s been another long, hot summer, and it’s not even August. To my parents’ generation, the sense of something fracturing and the palpability of all this violence feels eerily familiar.

The temperature in Newark, New Jersey, on the day the 1967 uprising began was 87 degrees. It was a famously blistering summer, though not nearly as hot as this one promises to be. The sweltering atmosphere of 1967 is one of those things you hear about a lot; it’s a visceral, if kind of lazy, metaphor for the moment when tensions stop simmering and become a roiling boil.

On Newark, on July 11th of that year, a black cabbie was arrested by two white officers, dragged to a local precinct, and beaten so badly he was presumed dead. The ensuing violence lasted six days. Twenty-six were killed and hundreds wounded; the National Guard was called in to forcefully shut the city down. It was one of 159 race riots that blossomed across the country during that original “long hot summer,” a crucial counterpoint to the same year’s oft-canonized (and, let’s be real, pretty white) “summer of love.”

“These days, there’s definitely a sixties feel. Remember, it was an incident of police brutality that started most of the uprisings that occurred.” — Larry Hamm, civil rights organizer

Debi Hall-Dean, who is now in her sixties, was only a teenager in Newark at the time, but she remembers the tanks rolling into her New Jersey neighborhood and that afterwards, nothing much changed. She was still intimidated by the police. Her school was still largely segregated. Her city never quite rebuilt itself.

But as a community activist and something of a scholar on the subject—the event, “that feeling in the air,” molded most of the rest of her life—she believes “the adages about being ‘doomed to repeat our history.’” She still remembers mistaking rifles for water guns in the uprising’s first night.

“The similarities in the social climate leading up to the Rebellion, and the events throughout the country today, are mind-boggling,” she says. Larry Hamm, a civil rights organizer active during that time, concurs: “These days, it’s definitely a sixties feel,” he says. “Remember, it was an incident of police brutality that started most of the uprisings that occurred.”

Even within the Trump campaign, the parallel to the sixties has been explicitly voiced and translated into what passes for a concrete strategy. Last week, the Republican party took a page out of Nixon’s 1968 playbook to frame their candidate as the “law and order candidate.”

Never mind that violent crime, in most of America, is at its lowest point since Nixon actually ran—Trump, like Nixon, is betting the majority of America is ravenous for the “promise of order” in the wake of a summer and half a decade that’s felt downright apocalyptic. Of course, so far, there’s little in the way of a plan for quelling disorder; long-festering social unrest isn’t exactly a broken window. And, as we’ve seen, Trump’s imagined majority, unlike Nixon’s, isn’t exactly silent.

In America, we have a reflexive tendency to understand social discord and periods of intense activism in terms of what’s often referred to as “the long ‘60s,” a time that at its most expansive begins with the Little Rock Nine and ends around the close of the Vietnam War. Perhaps it’s because our parents were there; likely it has a lot to do with the deluge of cultural ephemera that’s documented and reimagined its more iconic moments. The world, which feels as if it’s being upended now, changed irreparably during those years. The Sixties have coffee table books and culturally ingrained protest songs, entire genres of movies dedicated to their movements and figures.

And yes, some of the struggle looks the same, if only because the original battles were never really won. In 2011, right before a separate wave of movement nostalgia claimed Occupy as an echo of 60s-era activism (remember that?), I exchanged emails with Peter Coyote, a prominent figure in San Francisco’s counterculture—and, I should add, the actor best-known for his role as the foreboding scientist in E.T.

“We lost every political battle in the sixties,” he told me. “We did not stop war, capitalism, imperialism. But…we won every cultural battle. There is, today, nowhere in America where you can’t find organic food, alternative spiritual practices, women’s groups, environmental groups.”

It was was, to date, the most depressing quote I’d transcribed in my short career, a confirmation of the most cynical assumptions one might have about social change: namely, that you can fight all you want, but in America, all justice struggles find their natural conclusion selling consumer goods.

“We lost every political battle in the Sixties. We did not stop war, capitalism, imperialism.” — Peter Coyote, activist

David Farber, a professor of history at Temple who has lectured and written extensively on the protests of the 1960s, tells me there’s never been a break, really, in the struggle for racial justice. (Hamm compares the lineage to a tide’s ebb and flow.)

“There are new levels of frustration again, though,” says Farber. “It’s easy to forget that people in the racial justice struggle were always looking past just those legal barriers that Southern states had erected, and harder questions that have to do with how capitalism works, how the justice system works, institutional racism. And I think those are the same struggles people are seeing today.”

For the older generation, that sense of turmoil felt, understandably, more immediate. As one activist, Heather Booth, told me, “I lived in Chicago, and Mayor [Richard J.] Daley had called out the police, telling them to shoot to kill…there were people that wondered, ‘Are we on the verge of a potential violent revolution?’” Hamm, chuckling, tells me they had a term for the kids who were gunning for a full-on dismantling of the system. “We used to call it right-around-the-corner-ism,” he says.

But whereas history (perhaps myopically) remembers that decade as a battle between well-defined camps—Freedom Fighters vs. the KKK; students vs. the war—today’s political divisions skew a little more diffuse. Extreme ideologies mutate and filter into leaderless camps. The Klan’s hyper-codified, hierarchical brand of white supremacy struggles to retain members, but terrorists like Dylann Roof still incubate, fueled by cherry-picked neo-Nazi propaganda. A presidential candidate mainstreams white nationalist thought in his media missives (by, say, retweeting white supremacists) and in his talking points—the wall, mass deportations.

The refractive nature works both ways. As Farber mentioned, where the student movements of the sixties largely rallied around the omnipresent draft and the civil rights movement, today’s college activists focus on adjacent, yet more intersectional issues. “Campus protest [now] has been motivated more by identity politics,” he says. “The exact issues aren’t the same. The immediacy of their experience moves them.”

And as Fusion’s Collier Meyerson pointed out recently, even on a microcosmic level today’s movements look different—white people organizing around civil rights tended to have well-defined roles, generally understood as being subservient to people of color. The idea of “allyship” in Black Lives Matter is nebulous and leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation; like other modern-day protest movements, it’s intentionally non-hierarchical.

Across the board, veterans of various ‘60s movements, perhaps looking to these tactical differences, characterized their organizing efforts as “more intense,” “more organized.” That flavor of activism, of course, was most effective in dismantling particular kinds of institutional racism. As Kareem Jackson, a St. Louis activist and rapper who goes by Tef Poe, told a writer for Dissent: “One of the negligent areas of the civil rights movement is that we did not move the moral compass of racism to the right direction.”

Still, this idea of organizing with a capital O remains a concern for those who were young and active in the ‘60s. Booth—a white woman who registered voters in Mississippi in ‘64 and founded one of the first underground abortion organizations, Jane—makes her electoral position pretty clear when I reach her on the DNC floor.

“1968 was the first year I could vote,” she says, “and I was so angry at how the society was treating us, that my first vote was for [write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party] Dick Gregory. The protest vote—and we got Nixon. I have regretted that vote. It was wrong, a mistake.”

Last week, Todd Gitlin, arguably America’s foremost historian of the long 1960s, published an op-ed in the New York Times referencing Trump’s invocation of Nixon’s “law and order” platform. In it, he urged Americans to distance themselves from “the facile notion that history is repeating itself.” Sure, there is a general sense that the world is coming apart, he wrote, but in his era the civil rights and student movements, “the protagonists in the streets,” were filled “with hope, anguish” at their country’s direction—”not resentment,” like the howling masses of Trump supporters, terrified at the perceived decline of a culture that likely never existed in the first place.

The swelling tides of the young and angry in the ‘60s, wrote Gitlin, “did not not want to Make America Great Again, they wanted to make it great at last.” Oddly absent from his op-ed are the present-day members of the latter group, today’s anguished civilians in the streets.

“They did not not want to Make America Great Again, they wanted to make it great at last.” — Todd Gitlin, historian

Booth, too, is skeptical of drawing too many parallels between our current climate and the turbulent ‘60s, though for different reasons. There was the war in Vietnam, for one thing—”It was always on the evening news, it was so present in our lives,” she says. “With our leaders being killed…it was a feeling like the war abroad, its violence, was coming home. And then there were the responses to violence in the streets.”

Of course, I wasn’t there, so my generation and I can’t really know. But it’s worth noting that today’s weapons of war are more insidious and targeted than those 50 years ago; that some of them have rolled down the streets in cities like Ferguson; that they’ve been trained against protesters and black lives, been used to commit mass acts of violence at home. Which isn’t to say that history ever really repeats itself—just that framing the present is a much messier and more nuanced endeavor.

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