I was a young kid when the rioting in the 1960s was a seemingly daily fixture in our lives. You couldn’t miss it on the nightly TV newscasts or in the newspaper headlines. I watched them from a televised distance, both fascinated and worried by all that rage. I remember one day hearing about a riot occurring in Milwaukee, and I thought, “Oh-oh, they’re getting closer,” like it was a viral epidemic creeping across the land — a feeling we can all relate to these days.
Now, riots are inflaming our nation again — and they’re a whole lot closer than Milwaukee, even if you don’t count the apparent “youth quake” in Sioux Falls the other night — and the sight of them remains no less riveting and distressing. It sometimes feels like the country is tearing itself apart, just as it did 50 years ago.
There are differences between now and then, to be sure, but one compelling difference adds a new layer to the drama. Unlike the late 1960s, practically everyone today — the rioters, the protesters (who are different from rioters, a fact I learned around 1970 when I witnessed a peaceful anti-war demonstration in Sioux Falls), the police, the media and the bystanders — is armed with a camera, which changes the landscape completely. Now (and with apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron), the revolution, or whatever this is, really is being televised. In fact, it can’t escape it.
When Americans were exposed to the rioting, particularly the anti-war riots, in the 1960s, most of what they saw came to them in condensed clips during 30-minute nightly news broadcasts. (Sometimes, this spilled into prime time TV; the 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago spring to mind.) The images backed the information intoned to us by seemingly stolid anchors and reporters.
Now, our eyes are everywhere. That would be true even if we were limited to television coverage, which has become unblinking thanks to 24-hour news channels. But the advances in telephone technology and the arrival of social media have turned riots into prime-time battlefields, and every front has its own special story to tell.
We now see what the rioters are doing to stores, vehicles and neighborhoods, night after night and in city after city.
We now see what the police are doing to rioters and to protesters, as well as to journalists and to bystanders caught up in the bedlam.
In fact, we now even see what ignited it all, as the world has repeatedly watched the video of a Minnesota police officer kneeling on the throat of a black man until he was dead — and for some time thereafter. In a way, we’ve all become witnesses to that crime.
But the images also show you what any given videographer (a lofty and generous term for, say, a guy holding up a smartphone) wants you to see, and the story he (or she) wants to tell. He can show police officers pounding the snot out of protesters, or he can show rioters burning stores or antagonizing cops. This chaos is being shown to us from different perspectives, which sometimes aren’t necessarily complete, either by design or by circumstance.
However, this technology is also revealing other sides to the drama. We’re seeing police officers and protesters marching together, or kneeling in unison, or praying together for justice and peace. I really don’t recall encountering too many of these images in the 1960s, or perhaps they didn’t make the same impression on me that the violence did — which, from a ratings perspective, is forever the point.
I wonder what history might have been like if this modern technology had existed back then. One observation I read about the Vietnam War is that it became unpopular on the home front in part because television allowed people here to see what was actually happening on the Asian battlefields in something closer to real time. But what if cameras had been everywhere during those riots, with photos and videos capturing every twitch of every disturbance around the clock? How would the public perception have changed? It’s intriguing to contemplate.
One thing this current situation does share, arguably, with some of the rioting of the late ‘60s is that they both represent, in a way, anti-war demonstrations. Fifty years ago, it was a war in Southeast Asia; today, it’s a war here against injustice — one that has been waged for centuries. We don’t know when it will end, although we do know, deep down, how it MUST end.
Perhaps the current situation is a history lesson we didn’t want again, but it’s certainly one we must never forget.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.