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Many storefronts near my office in downtown DC have been smashed. A restaurant killed off by the COVID shutdown suffered the further indignity of smashups and stupid graffiti. Some good pictures here:
Glass wall and windows at the Reagan Presidential Foundation totally destroyed. pic.twitter.com/D1maQwbs8H
— Zack Stanton (@zackstanton) May 31, 2020
As costly and stupid as this is (so far), it is nothing like the 1968 riots in DC.
On Friday, April 5, 1968, schools closed a little early because parents were picking up their kids after the reports of continued rioting in DC and other cities. I attended a private school in Alexandria VA and rode a school bus home to DC. As the bus approached Memorial Bridge, large smoke columns over downtown were visible across the Potomac. When we crossed the bridge, there were small numbers of office workers crossing to Virginia on foot. A couple actually looked scared.
How bad would it get? Could the violence and destruction stay contained? Lots of people left town.
A few days later every member of the DC Bar was called in to process the arraignments of the thousands arrested. My father had left the DOJ by then and had never been a criminal lawyer but answered the phone call and immediately got ready to go. He decided this should be a learning experience for his eldest son and we headed across town to the courthouse. It was already night.
The city was under martial law. There was no traffic. Where M Street meets Pennsylvania Avenue there was a military checkpoint. Huge barriers funneled any vehicles to an officer who demanded ID and the reason for being out at night. Giant floodlights bathed the area and the glare was almost blinding. It reminded me of how I always pictured the border of the Soviet sector in East Berlin. The officer was not thrilled to see me, a teenager who was not supposed to be out. My father assured him there would not be a problem. It took a while to get permission to pass. I did not know whether I should be afraid. Mostly, it was just weird.
I remember that the courthouse was a zoo. Ad hoc check-in stations and every courtroom looked busy. I was allowed to go with my father as he went to look for newly assigned clients. There was some kind of a holding cell with so many men that it looked like it would be impossible to sit down. I could hear the deafening sounds of dozens of frustrated, angry men all shouting. And uniformed men shouting back. Chaos. A cop or bailiff loudly ordered me out and I went to the courtroom with the number my father shouted to me as I left.
The great majority of the arrestees were late-comers to the looting, caught when the cops, regular military, and national guard had retaken most of the city. These prisoners tended to be older and rather pathetic. The instigators, hardcore rioters, and arsonists appeared to have evaded that wave of arrests. I watched my dad argue for release on personal recognizance for a client who had a single bad mark on his record—manslaughter thirty years earlier in Mississippi. (Later my father later made the rather bitter joke that his “client” had received a rather light sentence back then probably because the victim was also a black man, and killing one was probably a misdemeanor in Mississippi in those days.) The judge was clearly not used to handling this sort of thing and was flustered by the volume. The prosecutor agreed to the release but only after some discussion and after being loudly reminded by a superior that they had to reserve jail space for serious crimes and dangerous arrestees.
The stadium which was then the home of the Senators and Redskins was now an additional prisoner holding area. Nothing was normal.
Almost none of the stores and businesses ever returned. The “H St corridor” still had empty, burned-out houses and storefronts thirty years later. When there finally was rebuilding it was either gentrification or to accommodate the growth of downtown’s commercial space. The original residents and small shops were gone forever. The wounds to the city were lasting.
Since then, the DC police force has gone from 80% white to 52% black and 36% white. As in most cities, there has been new political power for blacks. Police everywhere must exhibit more professional attitudes, take new training, and deploy new monitoring technologies but the core problems have changed little and the inherent difficulties of the job of policing have probably worsened. All the failure, all the reasons for resentment and grievance are still around. Maybe more so. The current destruction downtown DC is nothing like 1968 but seems to make even less sense.
In 1968 there was frustration that hoped-for outcomes of the civil rights campaigns were not materializing but before the riots, there was still hope that things could change. In 2008 the country believed that Barrack Obama would make something happen because of his unique position as the first black president. Instead, he just stoked racial fears and identity politics around election time and then sent people back to the projects until the next election. They were expected to settle for the enjoyment of his personal wonderfulness and of his empty rhetorical gestures even as their lives remained unchanged. Obama may have done more to destroy hope than any supposedly racist GOP President. If he couldn’t make change, who can?
The idiots who just burned the low-income housing construction site in Minneapolis may have been onto something. A cruel as it sounds, maybe it is time to prevent any concentrations of people whose deficits (behavioral, educational, skills) make them more likely to pursue undesirable behaviors, especially if their surrounding community is not really a community so much as an enabling and criminal-sheltering enterprise. In a healthy social order, we are not defined or doomed by our deficits because family, community, church, and employment provide ongoing positive incentives and examples. Most of us quite literally borrow the virtues of others around us in order to live better lives. To take that away from birth is unfair and debilitating. People who make good lives despite that kind of situation are heroic.
Historically speaking, dysfunctional urban communities are not fixed by outsiders. They must either grow and change or be dissolved. Without the protection and encouragement of such environments, systematic, chronic crime has to dissipate.
As long as we plan and subsidize social arrangements that continue to produce exactly the same bad results decade after decade we should not be surprised by repeated the same bad events. Oodles more white guilt and a President Biden will change nothing except maybe to make it worse and make the only real solutions more unthinkable than they already are.Published in