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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Riot hyperbole in history

If you are disturbed by the discussion of what is happening in Baltimore tonight, then I offer some context.

My junior year in college, 1981-1982, my debate colleague and I advocated for fairly strict limits on police use of deadly force. Among the advantages we claimed was reduction in the risk of urban riots, which historically are often triggered by police violence.

Because we were 20 years old and every argument needed to involve significant threats, we used to reference portions of this quote in virtually every affirmative debate. It is from Louis H. Masotti, et al A Time to Burn?, 1969, p. x-xi:
To a very great extent, riots are a cry of utter despair, pleading for someone to hear and respond. Yet our response has been more talk, more unfulfilled promises, more tokenism, and recently, more suppression. And while we are talking, the disillusionment and frustration of the ghetto is accelerating at a frightening pace. The civil rights efforts of the past decade and the continual bombardment of the mass media have heightened the consciousness and raised the expectations of the Negro far beyond the level of our response. Those who say that riots have nothing to do with the civil rights movement are either engaging in enormous self-delusion or are attempting to protect the good name of a phase of the movement which is more palatable to themselves and the American public. They are blind to a long history of social revolutions which have often begun as broad-based nonviolent efforts to change institutionalized injustices, only to merge as violent social revolutions when more moderate efforts failed. As a minority of slightly more than ten per cent of the population, Negroes stand little chance of winning in a violent confrontation. But before the militant leaders push the Negro community beyond the point of no return, we must do some sober thinking about the consequences of such a confrontation. American society itself would be the ultimate loser. We would become the captives of fear and hate of a magnitude that would make Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa seem like meccas for civil libertarians. Such a confrontation would make a mockery of the American Revolution and the entire history of our experiment in democracy. But even this might be a relatively minor consequence. In a mood of rage and hate, the balance of power in this nation might very well shift into the reckless hands of those who would disrupt the precarious balance of peace between the nuclear powers and plunge the whole world into nuclear holocaust.
Update: here's a review of Masotti et al from Edward B. McLean in The Review of Politics, 1970. It is not kind:
"A Time to Burn?...is not a very good book and is already quite dated. The summers of 1968 and 1969 have not supported the assumption that the 1967 summer riots were a prelude to continuing and expanding violence in the Negro areas....Although the authors insist that theirs is a scholarly work, it is far more in the vein of commentary literature....as an effective and relevant examination of the problems of race in the country in 1960 and 1970, it has little value....Serious questions can be raised about the balance and seriousness of the evidence which is the basis of the book and the support for the authors' contention that" the U.S. is a country "on the verge of a race war, and very possibly on the brink of self-destruction." 
The book was coauthored by four colleagues from the Civil Violence Research Center at Case Western Reserve University. The coauthors are Kenneth Seminatore, Jeffrey K. Hadden, and Jerome R. Corsi. That last name is probably the most familiar as he is a well-known backer of Obama conspiracy theories.



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