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From The 1960s To 2020: Civil Unrest In The Face Of Systematic Injustice

Police hold off protesters during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
Police hold off protesters during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

Police arrested more than 4,000 people over the weekend, as protests swept cities across the country.

For many, the moment calls to mind history: the civil unrest of the 1960s and the protests after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.

Peniel Joseph, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, says these protests also signal a “generational opportunity” — to acknowledge and address racism and white supremacy within the country’s institutions.

Joseph’s new book is “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Interview Highlights

On his reaction to the protests over the weekend

“I think like many, I’ve been very saddened by the death of George Floyd and watching that video and then to see the protest, especially the peaceful protest was really a pleasure to see. Now, as those protests turned violent — through a combination of at times police brutality, but also at times people who have their own agendas — that’s been really sad to see.

“But I think the larger context here is that people are so, so fed up with not just police brutality and the criminal justice system, but with really decades of neglect and disinvestment and brutality and dehumanization, [especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic] in predominately African American communities, Latinx communities, Native American reservations. So I think we’re seeing really an outrage being expressed by people of all colors [and] one of the things that’s most striking is the multiracial, multicultural, multigenerational nature of the protesters.”

On whether the message of the protesters is getting out or whether the violent incidents are distracting Americans from the message

“We live in such a polarized country, in such a polarized time. The message is loud and clear. It’s a message of social justice. It’s a message of racial justice. But depending on your perspective, if you’re a law and order advocate — and law and order here being just a code word for the criminalization and incarceration of African Americans that’s been used from Richard Nixon all the way to Donald J. Trump — then you’re going to think that these protests are an example that we need a bigger criminal justice system, we need more jails, we need more police. So I think what we’re seeing is at least a cultural civil war in the United States that at times has spilled over into actual physical violence.”

On how these protests compare to the unrest of 1968 when people protested the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It’s comparable not on the scale of violence, but it’s comparable in the sense of you see a palpable tension in the air. And what’s also different, vastly different, is that the pandemic has left 40 million people unemployed. So we have a bigger wealth gap than we did in 1968. A bigger empathy gap. And it’s not just between black, white, Latinx, other people, but it’s between those who are wealthy, those who are elites, and really those who are suffering and immiserated, what we sometimes call an underclass.

“I think the biggest difference between then and now is that you’ve got movements like the Black Lives Matter movement that really have a very concrete policy agenda to try to not only just push through anti-racist policies, but to think about things like guaranteed income, health care for all, and really redistributing the resources that we put into our criminal justice system into communities. The Black Panthers discussed this. We think about the Panthers usually as this group that was armed, but the social side of the Panthers had free breakfast programs, free lunch programs. So this is really a problem of race and poverty and punishment that so many people are outraged about in the country.”

On what he makes of Robert O’Brien, the president’s national security advisor, telling CNN that he doesn’t believe there is “systemic racism” in U.S. law enforcement

“Well, I think that’s the absolutely wrong response. But I do think this: We’re faced with this national racial crisis, this racial and economic crisis. But we have a generational opportunity to do a few things to, one, acknowledge the depth and breadth of structural racism, of white supremacy in all of our institutions. And to do something about it. The criminal justice system is really a gateway to a panoramic system of oppression in the United States that impacts our public schools, our public spaces. It impacts our health care, our employment opportunities. So really is this huge, huge problem.

“And when [O’Brien] says that they work in the toughest neighborhoods in the United States, we can transform those tough neighborhoods into really bucolic great communities, if we shift the investments that we’ve made in criminal justice into the actual people that we’re trying to contain and punish. And that’s why so many people are out on the streets. The smaller criminal justice system that we have in the United States, the better it’s going to be for these neighborhoods and communities. And the bigger we ramp up this rhetoric of law and order, the bigger we continue to deny the racism in our institutions, the more uprisings and the more violence and the more dissatisfaction and disappointment in the United States and its institutions and really American democracy and its institutions.”

On Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms saying that the protests over the weekend were “chaos” and “not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.”

“I’d say that one, the looting is not the problem. I’d say that the violence that we’re seeing comes straight from the top. The president of the United States has inflamed pre-existing racial division in this country through an embrace of white supremacists. So when we see the president calling for law and order, the president tweeting out, ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts,’ of course, we’re going to see chaos in this context. And, of course, we’ve already heard reports and seen reports that right wing forces are doing graffiti and defacing buildings and institutions. So there is chaos, but that chaos is not coming from the people. It’s actually coming from the government.

“And what’s so interesting is Mayor Lance Bottoms, who I admire, she’s evoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King called rioting the language of the unheard. And he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, trying to bring people together towards a poor people’s campaign that was going to guarantee black citizenship and black dignity, not just for the African American community, but for all communities, including a guaranteed income. And King’s notion of citizenship meant these fundamental rights of health care, of voting, of a decent place to live. So people should not just [invoke] King vis-à-vis nonviolence and not talk about the truly transformative world that he wanted us all to live in.”

On the election of Richard Nixon just months after King was assassinated and whether President Trump might turn the protests into a political tool

“One word of caution for everyone who thinks that in the context of the pandemic, in the context of these real political rebellions that we’re seeing across the United States right now, it means that there’s going to be a changing of the guard in November. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace were the three candidates for president 1968. And forces on the left were so divided that Hubert Humphrey ends up losing a very, very close election. After Nixon is inaugurated in January of 1969, many on the left felt that his policies would be so repressive that they’d be able to get a progressive person in like George McGovern in 1972. That turned out not to be the case.

“But I would say that the difference between now and then is that you see the multiracial character of the protesters. We have a generational opportunity to squarely confront this history and to move in a new and more progressive direction.”


Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Paris also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on

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