Why The 2020 Anti-Racism Uprisings Feel Different

Posted by News Beat on June 05, 2020  •  16 min read
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Listen to this special bonus episode of News Beat podcast featuring an interview with Larry Hamm, a lifelong activist and veteran of the 1967 Newark Rebellion.

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A nation already reeling from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the disproportionate toll it has taken on African Americans has been gripped by nationwide racial uprisings, ignited by the horrific slaying of 46-year-old George Floyd by a white police officer. 

Floyd is the latest in a long list of unarmed African Americans who've been killed by law enforcement yet for several reasons—viral cellphone videos of his gruesome murder, among these—his brutal death has penetrated the nation’s collective consciousness and inspired countless to swarm the streets in outrage, demanding change. 

Pinned to the ground, Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee pressed against his neck, Floyd begged for his life, repeatedly crying out “I can’t breathe”—the same excruciating final words uttered 11 times by New York’s Eric Garner in 2014 as he was choked to death by police. The dreadful phrase is now yet again protestors' collective rallying cry, emblazoned on shirts and signs across America. 

In recent days, commentators have compared these rebellions to the waves of protests that engulfed America in the 1960s.

In fact, there were more than 1,000 uprisings between 1960 and 1972, according to Lawrence 'Larry' Hamm, a lifelong New Jersey activist and chairman of the grassroots People's Organization for Progress, who is running a primary challenge against Democratic U.S. Senator Cory Booker in the Garden State’s July 7 primary. 

In ‘67 and ‘68 alone, nearly 150 rebellions engulfed the country’s cities, including in Hamm’s hometown of Newark, where 26 people died and more than 25,000 bullets were fired. To this day, Hamm can recall the smell of smoldering buildings, the crunch of shattered glass under his feet. 

“You had the police, local police, the state police, and the National Guard working in tandem to try and put down this rebellion,” Hamm explains in “Why We Riot,” our episode examining how institutionalized racism causes marginalized communities to inevitably rise up. 

“That’s how you know you have a rebellion," he continues. "If you call in the Army, you know it’s obviously not a riot. A riot is something that happens after a football game or a soccer game, and the police can take care of it and handle it or whatever. If you have to declare Marshall Law, if you have to declare a state of emergency, and within the state of emergency you declare Marshall Law, you set curfews and you send in the Army, obviously, there’s an uprising taking place. And Newark wasn’t the first. Nor was it the only one.”

Understandably, some will maintain that nothing compares to the protests sparked by Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Indeed, MLK’s death shattered the nation, but the pain was particularly acute among African American communities. 

“The killing of Martin, it was just too much. You couldn’t take it anymore,” renowned intellectual Dr. Cornel West explains in our “Why We Riot” episode. “Something snapped inside of all of us.”

To gain a better understanding of this moment, we reached out to Hamm to discuss the historical nature of these rebellions, and whether he thinks this recent visceral response can finally produce systematic change. 

The following is a transcript of Hamm’s interview, edited for clarity. 

News Beat: Was there a sense in Newark and across dozens of cities that saw large-scale protests during the Sixties that systematic change would be achieved?

Larry Hamm: Not only was there a sense, we actually had a slogan in the ‘70s to describe what had happened in the 60s, the slogan was called ‘right-around-the-cornerism.’ It was that sense that in the '60s, there was so much uprising that a lot of people believed, and, you know, the uprisings were a material basis for that belief, this wasn't a belief based on thin air. This was a belief based on the hundreds of rebellions that went on during the '60s. Between 1960 and 1972, there were over 1,000 urban uprisings in the United States. In the years of 1967, in 1968, both those years, there were almost 150 rebellions in different cities during both those years, '67 and '68.

So with all these uprisings going on, revolution was in the air. And there definitely was a feeling that a movement could be built for fundamental transformation. Now, when I say that, that's an overarching assessment, but there were also other currents, you know, running through, there was a current that was not looking toward socio-economic transformation. But there was a current that was looking toward taking over the machinery of government at the local level. For instance in Newark, New Jersey, we had an apartheid arrangement. We had a very predominantly black city that was controlled by a white political elite. And that's why we had the slogan 'Black Power,' because other ethnic groups would have representation commensurate with their numbers on government bodies, but African Americans didn't. You know, we were in 1967, we were over 60% or maybe nearly 60% of the population in Newark, we had one representative on the nine-member City Council, who represented the like, the Bandustan, so to speak of Newark, which was the central Ward, where for decades they tried to herd all black people to live in. You know, so there was no way you could justify having a white representative for the Central Ward, so that one had—and only got it in 1960, it was like they got it as soon as the transformation was made—they got it because there was a civil rights movement in the '60s, of which many people were involved in that movement. And people felt, you know, that we should have political representation. And so of course, the easiest place to make that happen would be the all-black Central Ward. But for instance, you had the South Ward, which was predominately black, but it had a white representative. And so we had an apartheid political arrangement.

So the demand was for Black Power. And in most people's minds, Black Power meant black political power, that black people should have a right to self-determination, because under the current political arrangement, we were denied self-determination. We were black cities with white representatives, black congressional districts with white representatives, black counties, with white representatives, and so on. so forth. So Black Power was a struggle to get the black political representation that black people were due, under the so-called, and this is me speaking now, the rules of the game, so to speak. And that's what happened. And so you had two trains running, or several trains running. You had a train that was running, it said, 'We need fundamental transformation.' There was a strong anti-capitalist feeling in the 1960s, exemplified by groups like the Black Panther Party, which was not just calling for black representation, but the Black Panther Party was in fact, calling for systemic change, was calling for revolution. That's what they were calling for. It was calling for revolution. A lot of other groups that were progressive weren't necessarily opposed to revolution, but we're looking at the practical requirements of the moment. And the practical requirements were to get black representation, where it was due in those places where there were black communities or predominantly black wards, cities, counties, state legislative districts, congressional districts, state representatives, national representatives, etc.

You got to keep in mind that the '60s, it was complex. I mean, yes, the overarching characteristic was that it was a time of rebellion. It was a time of revolution. But there were a multiplicity of organizations that were involved in struggle, and they didn't all necessarily share the same ideology. Some of them were anti-capitalist. A lot of them weren't. Some of them were for revolutionary change. A lot of them were for political change in the strictest sense. Some of them were about economic uplift. Some of them weren't about changing the system, they were about self-help, you know, the belief that somehow we could create some type of black utopia within, you know, the current political arrangement. There were all kinds of currents, different currents running among white people, different currents, running among black people and other people to, all kinds of parts of the population were in motion, struggling for justice. And they had different ideologies, and a lot of times, these ideologies were in competition for the support of the people. So it was a very effervescent period.

You couldn't be in the '60s, you know, and not feel it, not since that change was in the air, and that change was possible. Even in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1967 in Newark, literally during when we were under military occupation, there was a Black Power conference in Newark. You know, it still amazes me when I read about it, how they made it happen, you know, in the aftermath of the actual uprising, and then during the actual military occupation that we were over, black leaders from around the country came to Newark and had a Black Power conference. So there was a lot going on. And yes, you know, there was a sense in the air—there's definitely an understanding that fundamental transformation was needed. And there was a belief among many, or amongst some, that revolution was possible.

NB: You were 13 years old during the Newark Rebellion in 1967. Can you describe what you saw then, juxtaposed with now?

LH: Well, what happened in the 1960s, because, remember the rebellions took place all throughout the 1960s. In fact, I'm gonna say this, these urban rebellions have taken place throughout American history. It just proves the rule where there is oppression, there is resistance. You know, black people had uprisings in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, into the 21st century, even in the 21st century, this is not the first urban disturbance, urban uprising, urban rebellion that we've had. And almost all of these rebellions have been sparked by incidents of police brutality. I'm sure there's some that was sparked by other incidents. But it's very difficult for me to think of one where police brutality, a brutal act, a brutal murder, brutal beating by police did not trigger did not light a fire to years of oppression and then people just explode. You know these rebellions, they're not planned. There's as much planning that goes into these rebellions, as there is for a hurricane or tornado. When the conditions are right, that's when they happen. You can't predict it. For sure you could see it, you could see it coming. But you don't know where that tornado is going to touch down first, you know?

And that's what these rebellions are. They are the result of social oppression and pressure built up over the years. And then suddenly, when people, just one thing, is the tipping point when people say I just can't take no more, and they just go out, and they do what they want to do. You know, some people do what they want to do. And you know, I'm just, in one sense, is terrible, right? The destruction that's left in the wake of these things, but in another sense, it's fine. Because you ignored for years the fact that the police were unjustly harassing, brutalizing, beating, killing, violating the Constitutional rights of people, you turned your eyes away from that for years. People, the activists marched and protested, and you ignored them. So now, you reap the whirlwind.

And I tell these people out there don't come to me to ask me to condemn people who are doing things. If you didn't want these disturbances to happen, then you should end the police brutality. Every time we say 'Enough is enough,' you must end this from happening. And then there's a whole passion play that's been acted out in every city over and over again. People crying for reform, promising things, but only touching the edges of the structure, never going to the heart of the matter. And then you have these explosions. And this is the cost of ignoring the cries of people who are oppressed and who want an end to their oppression. So, while I have sympathy for those small business owners, who get caught up in this stuff, but you too, you too, small business owner. When did you speak out against injustice? When did you take a stand with the oppressed? You didn't. You took their money, year after year after year. And you ignored what was going on in your community and now, you reap the whirlwind.

The Bible says you reap what you sow. And America is reaping what she's sown by ignoring decade after decade, the demand to radically reform the police doesn't begin to describe what must be done to the police in America. It has to be totally deconstructed and reconstructed again, because it was constructed on the basis of racial oppression, growing out of the slave patrols of the 19th century, supporting, being, in fact, the Bulwark, when you look at these history books. In most of the pictures, you don't see the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan rides at night. In most of those pictures, you see police beating, water hosing, putting dogs on the people who are fighting against Jim Crow, racial apartheid in America. The police were an essential component in the maintenance of the system of racial slavery and the system of racial apartheid in America, the legal system, and now it is a critical component in the enforcement of the de facto system that continues after the deconstruction of Jim Crow segregation, of the segregation isn’t law. It's only the laws that have been removed, you know, the segregation is still there. The power relationships of the old period are still there. And the structure of white superordination and black subordination is still there.

NB: What makes George Floyd’s slaying different than the others? It’s something I think we’re all having trouble grasping. No one wants to compare the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. Do you think the pandemic, especially the disproportionate impact it has had on the health and financial well-being of African Americans, has fueled these protests? What other racial injustices are compounding this?

LH: What we have here is the perfect storm of oppression leading to a mass rebellion, a mass response, because as you said, first of all, the technology of the day, the cell phone, more than 3 billion of them in the world today, made possible for people to see the actual murder of George Floyd in real time. Because when it was first being videotaped, it was broadcast, it wasn't just videotape, I read an article that said that 19,000 people saw the murder of George Floyd while it was taking place because of the people who were standing there with their cell phones. So people saw it. And the people who didn't see it got to see it almost immediately after it was happening. It's not like we had to wait for the 11 o'clock news, or the 12 o'clock news. You know, they saw it when it happened. And it was instantly broadcast to the world, to everybody that didn't see it the moment it happened. And it was so horrific, so grotesque, so abominable, and so iconic of the phenomenon of white supremacy in America that it filled people with disgust. And people who probably had never been to a demonstration in their lives, couldn't sleep that night. Couldn't feel good at that moment. Couldn't find the words to talk to somebody about it. And they felt compelled that they had to do something about it.

So you had the horrific imagery blasted into people's consciousness. And then it happened during this pandemic, when the class and racial inequities within the healthcare system in America were laid bare for all to see. But then that is compounded not just by the pandemic itself, what it revealed about our healthcare system, but the lockdownI believe the lockdown and the tension that the lockdown caused, people couldn't go to work. They couldn't live their lives as they normally did many places people were under curfew, all of us were under curfew at some time. Many of us sick, many of us, particularly in the black community, even having lost loved ones in our family, friends that we knew, co-workers, all of this helped to create a tension, which that incident, combined with at that moment, I think helped to cause this explosion that we have seen across the country.

Do you know? I can't go to all the demonstrations. People are calling me because I imagine because of the big demonstration we had Saturday, one of the first and probably the largest, so far. People are calling me to come, be able to just organizing protests about Floyd. That's why I hardly have any voice now, because I was at one last night, in Paterson, where hundreds of people came out, Paterson, New Jersey. But people all across the state of New Jersey, are having demonstrations, and they're calling me, and there's like three or four going on the same day, same time. I can't go to all of them. But I think it's a wonderful thing. It's a wonderful thing that there's this outpouring from people wanting to, because if there was ever a time we need protest, it's now, because America is standing face-to-face with fascism.

And maybe as we have these protests, against [what happened to] Floyd, it will also help people to understand that there's an evil even greater, well not an even greater, but there are other evils that we must also organize and fight against. So that's why I think that all this protest is wonderful. I wouldn't care if there were 20 protests a day. The question now is, How do we sustain them through November? Because hopefully, the byproduct, there will be several byproducts. One byproduct will be putting things in place to ameliorate against the evil of police brutality. And hopefully, the other thing will feed into the removal of Trump from the White House, Trump who is now openly the titular head of the neo-fascist movement in the United States.

NB: In your description of just the grotesque, and the horror, and the real-time conveyance of this horrific murder of George Floyd, I can't help but think about Emmett Till. Do you feel there's a potential that on some level, that real-time portraying of what happened to George Floyd, and and the torture and the grotesqueness of that sinister murder, potentially George Floyd may be the Emmett Till of these these younger generations?

LH: This could be an Emmett Till moment, yes. The only thing that makes me hesitate a little bit is that we've had other Emmett Till moments: The murder of Philando Castile, that was an Emmett Till moment. The murder of Alton Sterling, that was an Emmett Till moment. We saw those murders. We had FaceTime then. And we saw those murders. We saw that cop shoot into the car. His girlfriend was right there. So we've had other Emmett Till moments. The question is, Will this be one? But see what we're getting here in this situation, we're really getting very subtle lessons in social change. I was in a gas station yesterday, getting gas, and there was a truck behind me. The truck pulled up to get gas and the man shut his engine off to get the gas, then when it was time to pay for the gas and he paid for the gas, and then he started his truck up again. The truck started but the engine wouldn't turn over. He started it again, the truck started but the engine wouldn't turn over. Again and again and again. And then finally, the engine ran and he was able to pull out of the demonstration. The movement is kind of like that. We have these moments where there's power there because you put your key in, you turn on the ignition, something does happen, but not enough to get the engine going.

We can only wait and see if this will be the moment that our engine starts to rev up and we're able to pull off in our movement for social justice. But each time is a good one, even when the engine doesn't start, is a good one, because you got to keep trying until the engine starts, right? Until it turns over, you got to keep trying. So we keep trying, this is one more effort. And you know, it's so terrible, that innocent blood has to be spilled before we can get enough people to come together to change this thing, but that may be the nature of the beast that we're dealing with. And it shouldn't be a foreign story to so many, particularly people who say they're Christian. Because in the Christian theology, it is in fact in the death of Jesus that we find salvation. So it shouldn't surprise us that innocent lives are taken in the struggle for social justice before there is some change. It's an unfortunate thing. And it's something that we don't want to happen. But it just seems that people don't really become concerned until they understand that it is a matter of life and death.

NB: What do you make of Trump's actions?

LH: Trump's recent language in terms of what must be done with regard to the protest, if that's not fascist language, I don't know what is. 'We must dominate them.' He's telling the governors, you must dominate them. You know he is clearly a man that's taking lessons out of Hitler's playbook. And it just shows what a dangerous point we're at in this country. You know, Trump clearly, I mean, no matter who is in the White House, we have to struggle. Because it's not just about who's in the White House, it's about a system that continues to function in an oppressive way, regardless who's in the White House. But Trump clearly represents something qualitatively different. And I think what he represents is, is neofascism or proto-fascism, whatever you want to use. He doesn't have people goosestepping in the streets yet. But that seems to be the path that he's on. And the people he admires and likes the most in the world are all these authoritarian, neo-fascists. You know, so clearly we are at a very dangerous crossroads, one path to democracy and the other path to fascism.

And we have to fight with all our might against fascism. The other thing is, What do we need for police reform? They are many things. This is a multi-dimensional problem. There's no one thing that's going to solve it. You need a whole bunch of things working in tandem. But it's like when you have a ball of yarn and it's all tangled up, there's that one knot, if you can untangle that knot, it'll help you untangle all the others. I think it's this: The police act with impunity because they know they're gonna get away with it. 99.9% of police brutality cases don't even end in the conviction of the officer. And 99% of police brutality incidents, don't even become a case. They don't they don't even get to the courthouse. Because the people they brutalized are so poor, most of them can't even afford any kind of vigorous legal defense. And so it's whatever way the prosecutor wants it to go. And the prosecutors depend on the police to do their work for them.

So the system is not going to reform itself. So I think the thing that's most important is that the police must understand that they cannot be above the law. And when I say the police are above the law, I am not speaking metaphorically, they are above the law. There's a different set of rules that are in operation for them, then there are for us. And the solution is to have one justice system that works the same way for everybody. Not one way for the police. And one way for the rest of us.

There are a bulwark of laws, federal state local laws, and even contractual agreements that work to protect police. Exactly in moments like this. They literally have it written into their contract, what the government that they work for, cannot do to them. For instance, the '48-Hour Rule.' If I go out and kill somebody, I better have a reason why as soon as I get arrested, or I'll be arrested quickly. The police have something called the 48 Hour Rule. They don't even have to talk to anybody for 48 hours. They got time to get their lie together, to get their union, to get legal representation, to get their own personal lawyer, to get their coworkers, to say whatever it is needs to be said. I mean from the jump. They have a set of arrangements that work to protect them. In the law itself, the standard of proof to prove their guilt is almost so high it can never be met. If they're convicted or charged with civil rights violations, the standard of proof is so high that you can hardly find them guilty on civil rights violations. Why do you think it's third-degree murder for Chauvin in Minneapolis? Because the prosecution doesn't think they can convict him on anything else. And they want to convict him on something because they know that if they don't convict Chauvin, that city will be ashes. And maybe a whole lot of cities too.

So we must change the laws, the laws that give police a certain degree of immunity, from jump street, as agents of the state. And I'm not speaking rhetorically here, sworn police officers whose job it is to uphold the laws of whatever state they work for, they have a certain degree of immunity that operates for them.

When we get beyond the law, they have a culture within the Force that protects them, a Blue Wall of Silence. They have an instant structure that's tilted toward them, because many prosecutors are former police officers or have family members that are former police officers, or whose whole network is law enforcement. They have a system that tilts toward them. They have a culture that works for them. They have laws that protect them, and that's why we can't get most of them convicted. So we have to remove those logs, remove that veil of protection, so that they know that if they commit an act like this, they will lose their job. They will lose their pension, and they will lose their freedom.

Topics: civil liberties, mass incarceration, police brutality

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