Bob Ray Sanders

August 23, 2014

Riots part of American fabric for centuries

Unfortunately, we never learn the lessons to prevent recurring civil unrest.

The first time my name and photograph appeared on the front page of the Star-Telegram was July 25, 1967, long before I ever thought I would work for this newspaper.

Those were the days when, for the most part, black people in Texas and the South didn’t get their pictures in the paper unless they had committed a crime.

In fact, I used to joke about that event, saying that my parents spent most of the day trying to explain to the neighbors: “Yes that is his picture in the paper. But, no, he didn’t shoot anybody. And he’s not in jail — he wrote that story.”

Actually what I had written was a “Letter to the Editor” in response to the Detroit riots that had started a couple of days earlier. The editors decided to put it one the front page under the headline, “Riots Not the Answer, Negro Student Says.”

There had been several riots that “long hot summer” of 1967, including one in Newark that left 26 people dead.

All were painful events to watch, but I felt a personal connection to the one in the Motor City because I spent several summers there as a child and knew the city well. That summer, however, I stayed home in Texas to work, with plans for a trip to Detroit in December for the holidays.

As in many of the civil disturbances that were occurring during that time, the spark that ignited the explosion was a police encounter with someone in the black community. In this case, it was the raid of an after-hours joint, in which residents thought the mostly white police force was being abusive.

When it was all over, 43 people had died, almost 1,200 were injured, and more than 7,200 were arrested.

Just two years earlier, an incident involving police sparked the Watts riots in Los Angeles, resulting in $40 million in damages, 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries and thousands of arrests.

The year after Detroit, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. set off a rage that quickly spread to more than 100 cities across the country, including the nation’s capital, with dozens killed.

Since then, in communities that have festered with social injustice, poverty, unemployment and abusive police, we’ve seen many examples of what are often referred to as “race riots,” the latest being in Ferguson, Mo., a small St. Louis suburb in which an unarmed black 18-year-old was slain by a white police officer.

Once again, the nation grapples for answers, and the recommended solutions are always the same: Address the underlying cause of the unrest by dealing in advance with problems in communities with large numbers of disenfranchised, dispossessed and desperate people.

Riots are not new in America. We’ve had them for centuries, and for many reasons, from labor issues to political protests and even over trying to buy sneakers with some athlete’s name on them. And remember the Boston Tea Party?

As for the so-called “race riots,” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those usually referred to angry white mobs that attacked innocent black people, in some cases destroying entire communities, such as the massacre of blacks in Tulsa in 1921.

Just as I wrote in 1967, riots are not the answer to the problems facing oppressed or frustrated people. And while I do understand that frustration, I know burning and looting do nothing to help heal the racial divide in this country.

Unfortunately, neither do all the speeches and the peaceful demonstrations, for I have watched them for years.

When it’s all over, as it will be in Ferguson soon, we will return to our complacency — until the next incident that ignites an uprising.

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