Pandemic Protests, Part Four: Then and Now

Robert Brooks Contributor
Pandemic Protests, Part Four: Then and Now
Read Time: approx. 3:15

Cover: Photograph facing northeast showing a soldier standing guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW in Washington D.C. with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post is the fourth installment of a multi-part series dedicated to trying to understand what’s causing the recent unrest in our country. Click here to read Part One, here to read Part Two, and here to read Part Three.

Then and Now: 2020 has been a strange year to say the very least. During quarantine, our normal routines were completely upended. Kitchen tables turned into home-offices and wearing sweatpants seven days a week became socially acceptable because A) no one can see your lower half on Zoom calls and B) no one had a social life anymore. Weekdays and weekends started blending into one amorphous blob of time that didn’t really make sense. We had weird dreams and every day felt like groundhog day. The shared feeling of reliving the same day over and over again made us wonder if we’re really just living the same year over and over again, specifically the combustible stretch of 1968. What’s changed? What hasn’t? That’s what we’ll be taking a look at today.

Let’s start with similarities. For starters, 1968 was an election year. Republican nominee and former vice president Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic nominee, and incumbent vice president Hubert Humphrey. As Todd Gitlin writes for USA Today, “Richard Nixon handily mobilized law-and-order sentiment against urban disorder by pinning all the insurgencies, troubles and miseries on Democratic leadership.” President Trump on Sunday called for “law and order” as protests raged nationwide, saying Democratic mayors too “weak.” Secondly, in 1968 the world was also in the early stages of dealing with global pandemic. The Hong Kong flu ultimately killed an estimated one to four million people globally, including 100,000 Americans. On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit and the first to reach the Moon, orbit it, and return. On May 30, 2020 SpaceX became the first private company to send humans into orbit. More broadly, the Vietnam War was raging overseas. The conflict ultimately ended up lasting over 19 years. As Louis Menand wrote for the New Yorker, “Political and military leaders misunderstood the enemy’s motives; they misread conditions on the ground” and ultimately the “Pentagon Papers” were released which shed light on secrets being kept by the government. America is currently still involved in the War in Afghanistan, following a US invasion of the country in 2001. That means the modern day conflict has also lasted for nearly 19 years. Remember, in December the Washington Post also released the “Afghanistan Papers” which outline how “U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” Lastly, as it relates to what is currently going on, America’s civil rights movement culminated when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11. A week prior, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted in major American cities, lasting for several days afterwards. Over the past week this many US cities haven’t been under curfew since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.  

What’s Changed? First and foremost, everyone has a phone in their hands now. Moreover, these devices capture content that can be streamed in real time and shared millions of times. In some respects this is a good thing: it helped 17-year-old Darnella Frazier record former Minneapolis police officer David Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck before he died. Had she not done this, it may have been harder to substantiate Chauvin’s sadistic act. Conversely, false information can spread like wildfire. Continuing, Michael A. Cohen writes for the Boston Globe that, “Today’s police forces, for all their excesses caught on video and trumpeted by social media, are more professional and diverse than those in 1968. There are black mayors in many American cities and black and female police chiefs in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Dallas — something that would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.” Protesters are also more diverse. Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says “there’s a remarkable multiracial presence in the streets today marching for racial justice.” Although these are steps in the right direction, sadly, one of the biggest differences between now and then is the growing partisan divide. At the end of last year, the Pew Research Center “found that more than three-quarters of both Democrats and Republicans expressed at least ‘somewhat’ cold views of the other party — and that about 6 in 10 partisans expressed ‘very cold’ views of the opposition. For both parties, both metrics were higher than at any point in Pew’s past polling.” This difference is striking and certainly a step in the wrong direction.

Flag This: What’s interesting about the final difference mentioned above is that “people understand the partisan divide is growing and respondents [even] express concern about those divisions,” Philip Bump writes for the Washington Post. “More than three-quarters of each group sees the partisan divide as growing. Democrats are more likely to say they’re at least somewhat concerned about those divisions than are Republicans” Bump adds. The question then becomes, what is wrong with us? If we see there’s a problem, yet we continue to let it get worse, the easiest explanation is that we’re either lazy, careless, or both. The thing is, Americans certainly aren’t careless. While the motivations of some individuals in the protests are questionable, the sheer amount of people demonstrating should be a clear indication that people do care. Moreover, Americans aren’t lazy. We assign massive social value to the ideal of hard work. At the end of the day, what’s missing may be empathy. No one ever said you have to agree with another person, but you can certainly attempt to understand their perspective. That’s why we try to provide multiple viewpoints every single day with the belief that empathy and understanding can lead to action and unity. As stated in the first installment of this series, maybe that’s the first step towards finding our “better angels” and making sure we learn from both then and now.