Today: “Déjà vu – or the time capsule”
There are protests in many cities of the U.S. this summer; protests that erupted due to an African American man dying while in police custody. Some of these protests have turned violent. Some of the protests have participants from other places that are not really interested in the issue at hand. Some of these protests are completely peaceful. Cities are burning this June in the U.S.
And with that I feel like we are in Déjà vu moment … My heart is filled with dismay at the pain I see on the streets, in my neighbors’ and friends’ eyes, when trying to explain this to the young ones. At the same time, as a humanitarian, as a historian, as someone who believes we are all one I cannot help but recall the events of the Red Summer in 1919, which led to protests and riots in Chicago and were followed by many other cities. Then there was the hot summer of 1967 (also in June), April 1968 riots following Dr. King’s assassination. Many recall 1992 and the so-called Rodney King riots as well as Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. All of these led to further protests in the other cities.
Indeed, this feel like déjà vu and whenever that happens we are being asked to not just look, stare, judge, turn away, or whatever re-action there may be. Peaceful protesters now facing tear-gas and more based on the assumption that there “may” be a rioter in there. How often in history have we had “assumptions” create havoc?
Action and Re-action
We are asked to remember and think. Re-acting right now (often in line with what has not worked in the past) can only exacerbate the situation – and yes there are many historical examples for that. Thus, take unified breath. If these incidents keep occurring clearly there must be an underlying, dormant issue that erupts when pushed too far. Like the proverbial volcano can, at some point, no longer hold back – the spark becomes a flame and then a fire. That does not mean that violence is the answer and simultaneously that leads to the question: who is inciting the violence?
In either case we need to ask: what is the root issue- IF we really want to solve this.
Words Matter – Actions Matter
First, let’s look at the language: riots vs. protests vs. demonstrations. Each word has a connotation, an association. All these events started at protest, declarations of anger and ended in violence. Violence not always perpetrated by those initially voicing their anger, as history and data analysis shows.
More importantly thought, for the U.S., the consistency of the root cause is obvious. Following the long summer of 1967 President Johnson created the Kerner Commission, which analyzed the situation, identified the causes and made a number of important recommendations for immediate action steps to avoid a recurrence. The identified issues as hand were: poverty, unemployment, prejudice, and police violence. Action was not taken to the degree advised based on objective data and analysis. Thus, as Kenneth T Walsh points out in the U.S. News & World Report on July 12, 2017 “The issues are the same” in 1967 and 2017 – and I will add in 2020.
Thus, if the root causes have been in the same in the history of protests, if those demonstrations then led to violence out of anger and violence by some instigators unrelated to the issue at hand, and if the responses are the same: when can it end? In other words, this pattern in U.S. history reminds me of Einstein’s musings that “”The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The emphasis here is on the “doing” as it’s not history that repeats itself; instead it is people doing the same thing over and over again based on their subconscious and conscious patterns spurred on by influencers they follow.
And yet, there is hope. There is a movement where we see people now “doing” something else. We see, especially the younger generation acting as peace-makers by going back out to the areas of protest and cleaning up. We see normally bystanders speaking up. We see that this summer of 2020 is an awakening to define where we want to go from here. In that, the rest of the world is experiencing this déjà vu remembering those historical predecessors in the U.S. while being amazed at the aggressive actions by police and National Guard, which seem far distant from a representational democracy.
The question is: where do the people of the U.S. want to take this country and themselves?
Are we going to have another déjà vu, wishing someone had learned from our writings, movies, images and more – which are all a form of time capsules – or are we finally able to hold ourselves accountable for the world we live in to unify across all barriers and come together as one to “create a more perfect union”?