April 19, 2001
Riots, Then and Now
By BOB HERBERT
I can still remember leafing through the Life magazine in July 1967. I was
just back from overseas, a 22-year-old sergeant stationed at Fort Belvoir,
Va., where I would serve out my last few months in the Army.
On the cover of the magazine was a photograph of a 12-year-old boy lying
unconscious on the filthy pavement of a street in Newark, N.J. He was
bleeding from gunshot wounds.
The story was about the riots that in a few days had all but ruined Newark.
I froze when I got to page 16. There was a photo of a guy I knew from
Montclair, Billy Furr, caught in the act of looting beer from a liquor
store. The photo was the first in a frightening series that showed cops
suddenly appearing at the scene, Billy Furr running, a cop in a helmet
aiming a shotgun at Billy's back, and Billy continuing to run.
The cop shot and killed him. On page 22 was a picture of Billy lying on the
sidewalk, dead at 24. The cop with the shotgun stood over the body. He
didn't look particularly concerned. Pellets from the shotgun blast also
struck the 12-year-old boy whose photo was on the magazine's cover. Though
seriously wounded, he would survive. The cop didn't seem too concerned
about him either.
I remember sitting in the barracks at Fort Belvoir, stunned. And I still
feel strange whenever I see those pictures.
Last week there were riots in Cincinnati, sparked by the fatal shooting of
19-year-old Timothy Thomas, a black kid who was said to have run from a
cop. Mr. Thomas was wanted for failing to respond to several misdemeanor
traffic charges. Five of the charges were for not wearing a seat belt while
As in Newark, the rioting in Cincinnati was an explosive expression of the
rage among blacks that had built up from years of hateful treatment at the
hands of the police, public officials and other influential figures
throughout society, most of them white. You'll find that kind of maddening,
simmering rage everywhere you find black people in the United States. It is
the rage that comes from living in a society where every day there are
humiliating reminders of one's debased status.
But race issues are complex and sometimes paradoxical. It is possible to
look back over the past half-century and conclude that we have come a long
way and yet made surprisingly little progress, all at the same time.
Police brutality, a criminal justice system that works one way for whites
and another for blacks, employment discrimination, housing discrimination,
the continuing fanatical resistance to real integration, social
ostracism these are not remnants from some distant past, but rather the
everyday reality of life for blacks in America in 2001.
Black people are angry because there is more than ample reason to be angry.
That said, there is something both weird and very wrong about continuing to
respond to the outrages of racism and police brutality by throwing bottles,
smashing windows, overturning cars, looting stores, burning down buildings,
shooting at police officers and dragging innocent white motorists from
their vehicles and attempting to beat and stomp them to death.
I felt as sick watching the video of Reginald Denny being hauled from his
truck and savagely beaten during the Los Angeles riots in 1992 as I did
looking at the sequence of photos of Billy Furr being killed in 1967.
Few blacks ever riot. And some of the worst rioting over the past four
decades has had surprisingly interracial components. There was widespread
looting by whites as well as blacks in the horrible rioting that brought
Detroit to its knees less than two weeks after the outburst in Newark. And
more than half of the people arrested during the 1992 rioting in Los
Angeles were Hispanic.
But after the riots, when the smoke from the arson fires has lifted and the
spasms of violence have passed, it is the black residents who, inevitably,
have endured the worst of the suffering lives lost, neighborhoods
destroyed, hopes for the future derailed.
That is a peculiar way of addressing one's grievances.
Racism and police brutality should never be tolerated. But after so many
tragic eruptions over so many decades, it's time for everyone to recognize
the need for a smarter, more effective response to these evils than a riot.
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