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Columns Tom Baxter

Whatever it is we’re going through, it isn’t ‘just like the ’60s.” We’re far past that

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

Over many years I’ve witnessed a good deal of unrest, civil and otherwise.

As a teenager I sat on a car hood and watched the National Guard vehicles rolling in from Selma, in advance of the thousands marching toward Montgomery. As a college student, I watched a building burn on my campus the night of the Kent State shootings. Lyle Harris and I rode around South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots. And I’ve seen many, smaller disruptions of civic order.

I speak of this by way of saying that any easy comparison between what happened this past weekend and similar unrest in the past is probably wrong. This was not “just like the ‘60s,” or anything which has come along since. There are many elements of the past, but this is something new. We don’t really know yet what it is.

Chance events have touched off national and international demonstrations before, but not on the scope of these. There were demonstrations, rioting and looting in cities like Atlanta which made the national news, but the big news was also in the smaller places — Davenport, Iowa, Greensboro, N.C., Eugene, Ore. — which were going through something they had never experienced, but weren’t big enough or singular enough to garner much notice.

Those who took to the streets over the weekend were a remarkable racial mix, both for good and ill. “That’s when the law changes,” activist William Boyd said at a demonstration in Montgomery, Ala., applauding the white protesters who had turned out. The speed with which Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has embraced hate crimes legislation after the biracial demonstrations in the Amaud Abery case offers evidence of that.

The white women who locked arms in Louisville, Ky., to form a shield between police and protesters were part of that story. So was the white man with the black umbrella caught smashing store windows in Minneapolis, and the white man arrested for setting fire to the Nashville Historic Courthouse. There is lots of footage of black protesters resisting white provocateurs, including UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones walking the streets of Albuquerque snatching spray cans out of the hands of white teenagers.

No, this was not just like the ‘60s.

If one past event seems like a precursor, I’d say it was the rioting in 1992 after four Los Angeles policemen were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. That was the first to be sparked by an amateur video. That precipitating footage ultimately touched off the modern, multi-dimensional riot. It was really about more than one grievance, and it was also a fly-in riot: a target opportunity, like the furor over the killing of George Floyd, for bad actors from all over to descend upon the city.

By and large the troublemakers who arrived in LA back in 1992 were there to loot, at a much more sophisticated level than the smash-and-grabbers. They were criminal but not political. Those who were responsible for much of the damage over this past weekend have had more ideological motives ascribed to them.

President Trump has threatened to have the shadowy Antifa declared a terrorist organization, but Antifa is really closer to a social media account than an organization in the old sense. There’s every bit as much reason to suspect Antifa was involved as there is to suspect the involvement of equally shadowy white supremacist groups. And probably some opportunists who are totally off the radar. When things get this bad, everybody shows up.

One troubling aspect of what just happened was the increasing hostility toward those trying to report on what was happening, including the on-air arrest of a CNN reporter and the off-air roughing up of several others, as well as attacks by protesters on reporters in Birmingham.

If this were just like the ‘60s, it would be good news for Trump, who could fashion a “law and order” campaign in the style of Richard Nixon in 1968. A backlash to the rioting could hurt Democrats, including those pushing in the Atlanta suburbs for gains in the legislature. But Richard Nixon wan’t an incumbent, and Trump isn’t Richard Nixon. Order, so far, has eluded him.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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