What happens at the street level, though, is a different matter. I got a bad taste from a You Tube video that showed right-wing blogger Michael Strickland pulling a gun on a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Supporters of the movement argued that the it showed the restraint of the movement's organizers as they held back the crowd and protected him. I saw some very ugly rage and the movement's leaders (some of them masked) struggling to keep the angry crowd from degenerating into a mob. The danger passed only when the riot police (in full paramilitary gear) positioned themselves between the demonstrators and the man with the gun. Strickland justified his actions saying he felt menaced by the crowd and drew his gun in self-defense. Demonstrators justified their anger by saying that he was a well-known provocateur and that they were angry that he drew a gun on them. The whole episode really does credit to no one.
All of which is a rather long way of saying that every time Black Lives Matter holds a rally, they are playing with highly combustible materials and in real danger of an explosion. Demonstrations have degenerated into riots already in Ferguson and Baltimore. Demonstrations in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge came within a hair-breadth of riots or, arguably, broke out in very small, localized riots. This doesn't mean that be are back to the 1960's riots. Those were incomparably worse. All riots thus far have been short, low level, and contained. Large portions of the movement are fighting to keep the lid on it. Still, as I understand it, the '60's riots also started small and grew over time. In 1977 we had a blackout in New York City, and a mad orgy of looting broke out. In 2003 we had a blackout and all was quiet. Would it still be quiet today?
The sight of heavily militarized police looking like an occupying army disturbs me. But there is no denying that (with some notable exceptions) they have behaved with model professionalism in handling the demonstrations. Indeed, this appears to be at least one major change for the better since the 1960's -- the police are much better at crowd control and at maintaining calm in public demonstrations than in the past. That may end up being what saves us from sinking back into the 1960's.
So a few comments that no one will read. To the police and their supporters: Yes, there really is a problem. Granted, when a black man is shot by police, even in circumstances that seem outrageous, closer investigation almost always reveals that things were more complex, that the victim was a dubious character, and that the shooting was perhaps understandable under the stress of the moment. But just because the use of lethal force by police is rare and usually ambiguous does not mean that all is well. What is common is countless smaller uses of force, the endless insult of being treated as a criminal or at least criminal suspect. The psychological toll adds up. And if you doubt that this is true, consider what it is to be a cop. Police being killed in the line of duty is rare. But the endless stress of never knowing when someone might have it out for you is real. It works both ways. And there is a difference between saying that police are necessary, important, valuable -- heroes, even -- and saying that they should be unaccountable or above criticism. Wanting police to be effective and winking at abuse are not the same. Not all police departments are equal. Dallas, where the shooting took place, apparently has a model police department -- a black chief, numerous black officers (as the shooting made clear), excellent training in de-escalation, one of the lowest rates of shooting of any major city. The demonstration was completely peaceful before the shooting began.
To Black Lives Matter and supporters. All will be lost, and very soon, if you don't learn to curb the mob. There are people who there who know something about reigning in the mob that you can learn from. My first impulse would be to offer the Civil Rights Movement, which before sending people into a possible confrontation trained them in self-control. The problem here is that in the end, it did explode into uncontrollable rioting, so maybe that is not such a good example. But consider some other unlikely role models:
Louis Farrakhan: When he staged his Million Man March, he managed to keep well-behaved. I quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaking in the context of the Tea Party, but equally applicable to Black Lives Matter as well:
[L]ike all the other prospective Marchers, I read the papers and was well-versed in notion of not embarrassing your people in front of white folks. The last thing any of us wanted to do was to march down to the Mall and have the next day's headline read, "Niggers Can't Even March Without Fighting." In the months leading up to the March, organizers toured the country speaking to black men in the community and pushing the essential conservative aspects of the March. . . . The concept of violence, or even boisterous anger, was counter to the March's goals, and so while there was much surprise at how solemn the event came off, if you'd been watching from the start, it would have made sense. I think had someone done something to embarrass us, there really would have been hell to pay. We thought that media was looking for trouble, but we also thought it was within our power not to give it to them. . . . When you lead a protest you lead it, you own it, and your opponents, and the media, will hold you responsible for whatever happens in the course of that protest. This isn't left- [or right] wing bias, it's the nature of the threat.The Tea Party: The Tea Party's optics weren't always the greatest when it marched, but before long it moved off the streets and into other forms of activism. Black Lives Matter has shown some capacity to do this with its Campaign Zero making serious policy proposals. Granted, there are clear problems with moving from a grass roots movement of the streets into a lobbying group in the corridors of power. And the Tea Party is a classic example in the problems of attempting both. The street level Tea Party members and the ones in the corridors of power were pursuing very different agendas. Donald Trump is the outcome. But if you don't move beyond anger and the streets, eventually the movement will burn itself out.
Crown Heights: In 1991, the black residents of Crown Heights in New York City broke out in riots against Hassidic Jews. It was a most alarming spectacle because, while the US has had a wide variety of race riots in our history, anti-Semitic riots in the US were unheard-of until then. The Hassidic Jews were among the few white people who had not joined the general white flight from urban areas following the 1960's riots. Black residents perhaps resented their continued presence and certainly resented their growth and the sense that they were encroaching. They also saw the Hassids as being favored by the authorities. What finally set off the riots was when a Jewish driver's car ran over two black children and the private ambulances from the local Jewish hospital were seen as privileging the driver over the children. Al Sharpton made any number of anti-Semitic and inflammatory comments that no doubt contributed much to his reputation as a "race pimp." Nasty, anti-Semitic riots ensued. Nothing very edifying. But what was edifying was the aftermath in which leaders from both communities made a concerted effort to improve community relations. No doubt many conservatives disapproved, seeing the riots as so much lawlessness that should be met with punishment and not rewarded with outreach. But what mattered in the end was that it worked. The Hassidic community was not driven out, and ethnic relations improved over time.
Now the Million Man March was a one-time event and as such easier to control than numerous marches on numerous occasions all across the country. The Crown Heights reconciliation proved that a concerted effort can improve ethnic relations between two communities on a particular occasion. Once again, it may not scale up. But these (and, yes, the Civil Rights movement as well) do show that leadership matters, and that a strong message of restraint can pay off. In other words, hope is not impossible. But a whole lot more self-policing is called for.
Quick update: Well, one bit of encouragement. The New York subway went down on the anniversary of the great blackout with people getting hot, sweaty, impatient and irritable, but without any breakdown in order.