It’s beginning to look a lot like the mid-1960s across America.
For young people, or those unaware of U.S. history, that’s not a good thing.
Protests around the country have escalated following the video-recorded killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man slain May 25 as a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes – as if Floyd were an animal. The alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill led police to confront and arrest Floyd.
The ongoing social unrest in dozens of cities brings to mind the conditions of a half-century ago, when racial inequality; disparate treatment in the judicial system; and tense relations between mostly white police departments and the black communities they lorded over sparked explosions around the country.
The roll call – Philadelphia in 1964; the Watts section of Los Angeles, 1965; Newark and Detroit, 1967, to name a few – often started with white police officers detaining black citizens on minor charges. Yet the arrests ignited deep-seated anger and frustration among black people desperately seeking equal treatment, humane living conditions and basic respect. (The above list of uprisings doesn’t even include the carnage in many cities after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.)
A federal panel released a report early in 1968 about the “riots” or “rebellions,” whichever term you prefer semantically. The so-called Kerner Commission cited racism as the cause of the unrest, and noted in the report’s introduction this oft-quoted passage: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
More than 50 years later, you have to wonder how much we’ve actually traveled from those conditions. Or, given the frequency with which black and brown people die at the hands of police, what must be done to alter those encounters.
Sure, African-Americans and Latinos have gained public office, joined key positions in corporations, and can buy property practically anywhere they can afford it. Yet they still face huge disparities in wealth, education and health care.
And black and Latino men continue to be the victims of some of the most egregious cases involving law-enforcement officials. I’m in perpetual unease for my own adult son.
Police seemed more than willing to keep a knee on Floyd’s neck as he was pleading to breathe. The officers did so despite such a minor criminal charge — and even as at least one bystander filmed the incident. (NBC News reported that the Minneapolis Police have rendered 44 people unconscious as a result of neck restraints over the past five years, the majority of them black.)
It was as if the officers had no fear of the potential consequences.
After video was released, four of the police officers were fired. One of them, Derek Chauvin, the one with his knee on Floyd’s neck, faces murder and manslaughter charges.
Floyd’s name has thus been added to a long list of black boys and men killed by police in what started out as the most minor of suspected crimes, be it theft from a store, playing in a park with a toy gun, or selling loose cigarettes. Some murder suspects running from authorities have fared better.
Current protests have taken place in the commonwealth, too, with some of the more destructive in Richmond. It’s an obvious target because of resentment to statues hailing Confederate Civil War leaders on Monument Avenue.
Virginia Beach also faced problems Sunday night as some protesters vandalized businesses at the Oceanfront.
Norfolk has had fewer concerns, however, and I’ve got to attribute much of that to Police Chief Larry Boone. He’s worked diligently to connect with civic groups during his tenure, while also assailing the gun violence that kills so many young black men in his city.
Boone even joined demonstrators over the weekend. At one point, he held a sign that read, “Black Lives Matter,” one of the organizations focusing on police misconduct.
Many of us tend to think the passage of time will always lead to progress, that conditions will naturally improve. The sad fact is, without sustained activity and a changing of hearts, society can just as easily regress.
George Floyd’s death, in all its video recorded horror, proves it.
Editor’s note: Roger Chesley will appear on a special two-hour edition of “Another View” starting at noon Thursday, discussing being a black man in America. Tune in to 89.5 WHRV-FM in Hampton Roads or stream at anotherviewradio.org.