The past week has seen protests against police violence in dozens of major cities across the United States, including some of the biggest and most prolonged demonstrations in years. To many, the uprisings, particularly when they veered into property destruction, bring to mind the urban unrest of the 1960s, from the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles to the Newark and Detroit riots in the summer of 1967 to unrest in almost every major American city in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968.
Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a scholar of 1960s and 1970s protest movements, particularly against white supremacy and mass incarceration. Her most recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, won the Pulitzer Prize in History.
“Not protesting at all would not keep white racial violence at bay,” Thompson argues. “Protests keep happening precisely because white supremacy is never sufficiently reined in.”
We spoke on the phone Monday afternoon about the parallels and differences between the urban protests and riots of the late 1960s and those occurring today. A transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Big dumb question first: How are the protests happening now similar to and different from unrest in the 1960s, like Newark or Detroit in 1967, or the protests after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in April 1968?
Heather Ann Thompson
There seem to be so many similarities. Because racial injustice just seems to be baked into the DNA of this country, periodically and throughout history there come these moments when people just can’t take it anymore. They feel that the injustice is so particularly glaring or there’s such a compendium of unjust events one right after the other that they explode.
Those kinds of explosions of individual frustration and hurt happen all the time, every day, and then there are moments when something touches a nerve and there’s a collective explosion.
A similar moment was when Emmett Till was lynched and murdered in 1955. Like this moment today, that killing touched a collective nerve. Too many young African American boys and men had been lynched and murdered. We’re in a similar moment; there is an ever-present drumbeat of racial violence.
So, not only is the wanton murder of black men by racist whites similar to what has happened before in history, but is today’s collective uprising. It’s a mix of protest in terms of carrying signs and slogans, but also rage and tears and lashing out. And, like in the 1960s, there has been some looting, because the glaring injustice of racial inequality is time and again accompanied by the injustice of economic inequality. That is why in these moments people also lash out at the rich and property. So in that sense we’ve been here before.
There’s much that’s different too though, and it’s all pretty scary. We have a president who has no regard for the First Amendment, the press, for calming dissent, for doing concrete things that could make this a better situation rather than worse. We don’t know our way forward from this moment. In the past there were at least calmer heads at the top trying to figure out what to do to bring peace. Some people wanted more cops, but others were saying we actually need to make substantive changes and fix what got us into this mess
How does the composition of the protests today compare to the late ’60s?
Heather Ann Thompson
Again, there are similarities and differences. There’s a remarkable multiracial presence in the streets today marching for racial justice. Certainly in inner-city streets of the North, that does look quite different than it did in the 1960s. But of course the civil rights uprisings in the South were quite multiracial, but less so in the urban North then.
I think that young people of all groups are now coming out because of their collective sense that the leadership has taken this country in such a terrible direction. Like in the ’60s, there is an element of today’s protests that is clearly generational. A whole generation of young people, black and white and brown, who understand that their future, the racial future of this country, is in real jeopardy right now, and I think that motivates people to take to the streets.
A lot of how people feel about these protests is mediated by media coverage. How does the media portrayal of events compare to 1967-68?
Heather Ann Thompson
The media rhetoric just sounds so familiar. The distinctions that people are continually trying to draw between the “real” protesters and violent provocateurs. The repeated rhetoric about outside agitators versus legitimate protesters. A lot of that media rhetoric is the same. But Trump’s America is different in that the media is also being attacked, much like in totalitarian nations where reporters can be arrested and locked up and jailed. When the CNN reporters were arrested, it sent an eerie message. The mainstream media is less obviously and not necessarily part of the establishment now in the same way it used to be. Of course, it really depends on which media you’re talking about.
I guess even that is not completely new. During Vietnam, there were reporters willing to get on the nightly news and be extremely critical of police violence against demonstrators. So we’re seeing similar divides in the media today.
In the late 1960s, you had concrete organizations like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society, and earlier the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that could give some structure to what was happening on the streets. Obviously the protests weren’t all some masterminded radical plot the way leaders like Richard Nixon or Nelson Rockefeller tried to portray them, but you had real organizational bones behind the discontent. Are we seeing a similar organizational coalescence now?
Heather Ann Thompson
This is a very fluid situation on the ground. I think that the way the White House is trying to portray it is very similar to how Nixon was trying to portray all uprisings: It was either a communist plot or a black plot. Rockefeller was much more concerned with communists, Nixon was much more concerned with “the blacks.” The White House is saying this is all antifa and there’s zero evidence for that. From a superficial standpoint it’s eerily similar.
But in terms of what’s actually happening on the ground, I don’t think we fully know. A lot of this key organizational work on the ground seems to be really coalitional. A lot of the grassroots organizations that were already working on criminal justice reform or water justice or food justice are now coalescing around this issue. They’re coordinating and talking to one another about how to launch a peaceful protest. They stand together to resist people who want to fight people to turn it more violent.
What’s notable is that it’s not being led by the NAACP or the Urban League. And the state legislators are absolutely AWOL. It’s deeply grassroots.
You alluded to this earlier, but in 1968 there was a real effort by American elites to try to understand the root causes of rioting and try to craft solutions that went beyond simply crushing the riots by force. What were some of the ideas that came out of that effort, and what can we learn from that effort now?
Heather Ann Thompson
When Lyndon Johnson brought together the Kerner Commission to locate the causes of urban unrest, there were plenty of people who told him the truth about what the problem was. There was an entire minority report called The Harvest of American Racism, which was even more strident about how much change actually needed to happen in this country than the Kerner Report was, but the public never really saw it.
So, the protests did translate into some attempts to address the problem. But much of that was either window dressing or barely scratched the surface of what the real problem was. Very little was done to tackle the economic underpinnings of that kind of injustice. And certainly there was an unwillingness to tackle white supremacy.
So how do we get out of this now? If there’s nothing else I’d love for your readership to think of, it’s this: If you have 75+ cities burning, what does it say that from the leadership at every level, the only response has been more police? They’re deploying the National Guard and more police rather than imagining a different model, like peacekeeping forces, working with community organizations to bring calm. Think about the UN peacekeeping forces as a model as opposed to sending in the military, which only results in more violence and deaths.
Imagine if the response was, “We hear you and we’re going to do XYZ to change this. We’re going to have community organizations sit and monitor the police,” or, “We’re going to open up the question of how police officers are charged in these situations.” The response has not been to try to keep the peace in any way that we know might work.
One concern I’ve heard raised frequently is that protests, particularly violent protests that involve looting, risk triggering a backlash among white voters; the political scientist Omar Wasow has a recent paper suggesting this was an important factor in Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. How do you weigh that risk against the odds that protest will persuade people to take police violence and other underlying concerns seriously?
Heather Ann Thompson
This is an incredibly important strategic question people are thinking about. But to me, it’s not helpful, I think, to think about the rise of backlash as the fault or responsibility of people who spoke out on behalf of justice. We’ve somehow gotten this idea that we wouldn’t have had Nixon or law and order if it hadn’t been for the activism of the 1960s. And I just think that’s a fundamental misreading of the historical record. The truth of the matter is that it’s precisely because of that level of racial backlash — because of lynching, because of slavery, because of the high prevalence of white backlash — that the 1960s were born in the first place.
To the extent that that stuff was rolled back at all, it was perhaps because the protests of the 1960s had not succeeded in pushing racial injustice back fully, and is not because there had been protests. That level of backlash has always been there.
If Trump were to win reelection, or if this were to embolden MAGA, people will say, “That’s because people were protesting.” That’s a complete misreading. The white supremacists were on the march and on the move well before anyone showed up in downtown Philadelphia. They always are.
How do antiracist protests like this connect to the history of race riots where whites targeted black communities, as in Tulsa or Red Summer or Colfax?
Heather Ann Thompson
Again, I think the way we’ve set this up is dangerous, this idea that blacks need to be careful about how they struggle to be human because there might be another Rosewood or Tulsa or Chicago 1919.
What we have to understand is that the difference between what happens every day and what happened in Greenwood, Oklahoma, is a matter of magnitude but not kind. We tend to ignore the slow-rolling level of daily aggression and violence against people of color in this country, but we focus on these very dramatic episodes of white racial violence. And then we look at those incidents of white racial violence and say it’s a response to blacks being more demanding. All of those particularly ugly moments were by punctuated, escalated versions of what was going on every single day to the black and brown residents of this country. And they didn’t cause them simply by speaking out on behalf of justice.
It’s really important for us to digest this truth. Not protesting at all would not keep white racial violence at bay. It’s a complete twisting of what’s in fact going on. Protests keep happening precisely because white supremacy is never sufficiently reined in. It’s never seriously taken on by those with power. And so the people will continue to erupt.