Wednesday, October 28, 2020

nothing has changed

On July 12 [1967], after John Smith, a black taxi driver in Newark, was seen being physically dragged into a police station after a minor traffic violation, two hundred protesters gathered outside the precinct; the assembly dissolved into an unruly ramble in which store windows were broken and a few Molotov cocktails were thrown. Two days later, state troopers and National Guardsmen moved into the city, an overreaction that was met with escalating violence. By July 17, 1,200 people had been jailed, 600 injured, and 23 killed. H. Rap Brown became famous that week when he called for "guerrilla war on the honkie white man." The following weekend, Detroit exploded into riots and looting after a raid on illegal gambling dens; another 1,200 people were arrested, and four thousand fires were set. Again, federal troops rolled into the city. Even as President Johnson was increasing the number of American soldiers in Vietnam to nearly a half million, worries about the war were temporarily overshadowed by stories about "the fire this time," hugely exaggerated reports of property damage (the $25 million of wreckage caused in Detroit was widely reported as $500 million) and a storm of "Who says it can't happen here?" editorials.
The poor, angry black man from the ghetto, ready to loot, shoot, and kill, became as much of a focus for the fears of Middle America - and of Middle American media - as the acid-tripping hippies and runaways pouring into San Francisco had been a month or two earlier, and Sidney Poitier, on a press tour for In the Heat of the Night, found himself asked again and again to denounce the rioters or ally with them, to identify himself politically at a moment when the ground was constantly shifting.

- Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

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