urban riots 40 years later

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at comm-org.wisc.edu
Sat Jul 21 08:35:17 CDT 2007

[ed: Peters message also provides the context to mention the recent 
P.O.V. documentary on PBS that presented some of the community 
organizing context around the Newark riots.]

From: "Peter Dreier" <dreier at oxy.edu>

Friends and Colleagues:

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the "long hot summer" of 1967, 
which experienced urban riots in 163 cities, most famously Detroit and 
Newark. One of those riots occurred in my hometown, Plainfield, New 
Jersey, about which I've written an essay, "Riot and Reunion," that 
appears this week in The Nation: 

What lessons have we learned in the past 40 years? Historian Michael 
Katz has a very provocative article, "Why Aren't US Cities Burning?", in 
the current (Summer 2007) issue of Dissent magazine. He concludes: "The 
nation's avoidance of civil violence in its segregated ghettos has one 
other lesson for Europeans concerned about urban unrest. It is that in 
modern techniques for managing marginalization -- for keeping the peace 
in the face of persistent, and growing, inequality -- the United States 
is a world leader." His article will be available next week on the 
Dissent website: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/issue/?issue=65. 
Historian Thomas Sugrue's article, "Burn Bebe Burn" in an earlier issue 
of Dissent (Winter 2006), also compares the urban riots in the US and 
France, http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=150.

Since the 1960s, only two major explosions of urban rioting-- in Miami 
and Los Angeles -- have occurred. But this is hardly the same as 
"keeping the peace." What Wilson has called "quiet riots" -- crime, 
violence, suicide, drug abuse, etc -- have persisted. As I wrote in an 
essay about the 10th anniversary of the LA unrest 
http://www.ncl.org/publications/ncr/92-1/ncr92104.pdf, riots are 
expressions of outrage about social conditions, but they are not truly 
political protests. They do not have a clear objective, a policy agenda, 
or a target for bringing about change. At most, riots are a wake-up 
call—to political and business leaders in particular, as well as to the 
media—that things are seething below the surface. What brings about 
positive change—especially for the poor and working class—is the slow, 
gradual, difficult work of union organizing,community organizing, and 
participation in electoral politics. To the extent that Los Angeles is a 
better city today than it was ten years ago,it is due to the grassroots 
activists—and their allies among foundations,media,clergy,and public 
officials—who have worked in the trenches pushing for change against 
difficult obstacles.

The 1960s riots triggered a great deal of national soul-searching about 
America's history of violence. President Johnson created a blue-ribbon 
task force to examine the causes of urban unrest and make 
recommendations. The Kerner Commission's report, released in 1968, is 
still worth reading for its indictment of racism and its ambitious 
goals, none of which were fully implemented by the federal government, 
which by then had diverted the nation's attention and resources to 
fighting the war in VietNam.

Much has been written about poverty since the 1960's. But among the most 
profound statements were those by Walter Reuther, the president of the 
United Auto Workers union, about the limitations of the nation's "war on 
poverty" in the 1960s, before the urban riots occurred. Representing the 
left wing of the Democratic Party, Reuther had been making proposals 
since World War 2 to renew the New Deal and engage in national economic 
planning.He advised Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to champion a bold 
federal program for full employment that would include government-funded 
public works and the conversion of the nation’s defense industry to 
production for civilian needs. This, he argued, would dramatically 
address the nation’s poverty population, create job opportunities for 
the poor and the near-poor (including blacks living in America's 
ghettos), and rebuild the nation’s troubled cities without being as 
politically divisive as a federal program identified primarily as 
serving poor blacks. Both presidents rejected Reuther’s advice. 
Johnson’s announcement of an ‘‘unconditional war on poverty’’ in his 
1964 State of the Union Address pleased Reuther, but the details of the 
plan revealed its limitations. The War on Poverty was a patchwork of 
small initiatives that did not address the nation’s basic inequalities. 
Testifying before Congress in April 1964, Reuther said that ‘‘while [the 
proposals] are good, [they] are not adequate, nor will they be 
successful in achieving their purposes, except as we begin to look at 
the broader problems [of the American economy].’’ He added that 
‘‘poverty is a reflection of our failure to achieve a more rational, 
more responsible, more equitable distribution of the abundance that is 
within our grasp.’’

Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign was the last time a major 
candidate focused on the problem of poverty. His impromtu remarks about 
poverty, racism, and violence in America, triggered by the murder of 
Martin Luther King in April 1968, are still very moving: 

John Edwards' current presidential campaign is the first since Kennedy's 
1968 crusade to seriously focus on poverty. Many cynical pundits are 
mocking Edwards' current 8-state anti-poverty tour as a political non 
-starter. A reporter on CNN two days ago claimed that Edwards' effort to 
focus national attention on poverty won't help him get elected President 
because poverty was a "sixties" issue, because Americans don't care 
about poverty, and because the poor don't vote. In fact, a quick Google 
search shows that Edwards' anti-poverty tour, in both rural and urban 
areas, is generating a lot of media attention. It is no accident that 
the New York Times magazine recently devoted an entire issue (June 10) 
to America's widening inequality and persistent poverty, including a 
powerful article on an SEIU organizing campaign and a cover story on 
Edwards' anti-poverty campaign: 

Edwards should applauded for showing leadership, for framing poverty as 
a "moral" issue, and for linking the issue of poverty to the widen 
issues of growing inequality and economic insecurity among the middle 
class. Today, 37 million Americans live below the official federal 
poverty line, but there are many more Americans who can barely make ends 
meet. For the first time in more than a generation, poverty is back on 
the national agenda. A new report by the Pew Research Center shows that 
public support for rising the minimum wage, for labor unions, and for 
federal government action to address poverty are higher now than at any 
time in 20 year:. 
In the past few years, voters in many states have overwhelmingly 
supported initiatives to raise their state's minimum wage. The 
popularity of Barbara Ehrenreich’s best-selling book, Nickel and Dimed, 
about America’s working poor, and the growing protests against 
Wal-Mart’s low pay, indicate that concerns about inequality and poverty 
are moving from the margin to the mainstream of American politics.
The urban riots unleashed a great deal of academic research about 
poverty, racism, and violence, much of it funded by the federal 
government and major foundations. Jerome Skolnick's The Politics of 
Protest (1969) was an early look at these issues. Alice O'Connor's book, 
Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the POor in 20th 
Century US History (2001) recounts much of the debate over the impact of 
social research on poverty during that period. Another wave of research 
on poverty, cities, and race was triggered by William Julius Wilson's 
book, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). This explosion of academic 
research has focused on the concentration of poverty, the role of racism 
in exacerbating poverty, and the influence of "social capital" - assets 
and networks -- among the poor. What's missing is a comparable amount of 
research about the rich and the impact of the social networks (including 
corporate boards and other elite institutions, and corporate PACs) among 
the powerful in exacerbating inequality and poverty.

Much has changed since the urban unrest of the 1960s, including the 
globalization of the economy, the export of US manufacturing jobs, the 
influx of new immigrants, the decline of union membership, the widening 
gap between the rich and everyone else, the deepening fiscal crisis of 
our cities, the slashing of federal funding for affordable housing and 
rebuilding urban neighborhoods, the accelerating of suburbanization 
(initially among the white middle class), and the growing 
suburbanization of poverty (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070423/press,

Given these trends, we need a new policy agenda to address the problems 
of poverty and inequality. The bold 1968 recommendations of the Kerner 
Report have been updated by a recent report by the Center for American 
Progress, From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty 
in Half. 
These recommendations should be the blueprint for the next war-on-poverty.

Peter Dreier
Dr. E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics
Chair, Urban & Environmental Policy Program
Occidental College
1600 Campus Road
Los Angeles, CA 90041
Phone: (323) 259-2913
FAX: (323) 259-2734

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great 
moral crises maintain their neutrality" - Dante

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