My mother used to tell stories about the 1967 race riots in Detroit. She was 17 years old, living with her parents at 7 mile and Woodward. She told me how the National Guard rolled tanks down the street while her grandfather hid in the attic cradling an old army rifle.
Twenty five years later, in 1992, Los Angeles exploded in fury – triggered by the Rodney King verdict. I was 17 at the time, safely in a suburb on the other side of the country. She told all the old stories – pointed out the patterns.
Now here we are – a generation later.
Decades from now, children will hear the lessons their parents learn this summer. Grandparents will nod and confirm. Perhaps a particularly lucid great grandparent will roll out a dusty story from that hot summer of 1967.
People don’t forget this stuff, nor should they.
Different stories get passed down over the generations in nonwhite families and in urban families. I know of at least one story we all have in common: It’s that nothing’s going to change.
America needs the kind of change that lasts for decades. We need new stories that can become as real and as trustworthy as the lessons our parents and grandparents taught us. We need new patterns. We are fighting hundreds of years of muscle memory.
The mostly-white, mostly-male, mostly-straight establishment needs to do way better than our parents and our grandparents did.
I do know that rolling tanks down the streets didn’t work. Hiding in the attics clutching our guns didn’t work. Moving to the suburbs and isolating ourselves didn’t work. Militarizing the police didn’t work. Criminalizing poverty and blackness and addiction certainly didn’t work. Exploiting labor so hard that people can’t even afford to live in the cities where they work didn’t work.
We need disproportionate reactions of virtue, rather than violence. We need to commit to listening and compassion and partnership and rebuilding and generosity all out of proportion to every crime and abuse and horror. The 1967 riots were -triggered- by a raid on an unlicensed bar, but they weren’t -about- that bar. The LA riots were triggered by Rodney King’s death, but not fundamentally -about- him.
That’s why, even though arresting and prosecuting the man who killed George Floyd is an absolutely essential step – it’s mistaken, shortsighted, and frankly disingenuous to think that his arrest – a tiny shred of justice – addresses the real problem.
It’s about our karma as a nation – the stories that we tell – not any particular crime.
This is the work of generations. We should commit to starting today.