No one should confuse riots with protests if they have genuine concern with the aspirations — and grievances — of African-Americans.
Yet, the political leadership in Minnesota — Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Gov. Tim Walz – exhibited confusion and indecision following the May 26 death of George Floyd. Their failure to act extended over a four-day period. After four days of chaos, large swaths of Minneapolis lay in ruins resulting from rioting , looting and arson.
Before the Minnesota National Guard deployment on May 30, over 170 stores had been destroyed. A $30 million affordable-housing project was burned, malls looted and rioters took over the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct building setting it ablaze. Shockingly, the police retreat from their own headquarters came under orders from Frey – turning it over to the mob.
Frey was the source of the stand-down order that allowed his own city to burn, while he kept repeating that the destruction was “just brick and mortar.”
As in Baltimore, following the 2015 death of Freddie Grey, there was a failure to distinguish the difference between protest with purpose and lawlessness. That mistake has been repeated now in other cities across the United States, including New York City.
The 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles were caused by a failure of public officials to timely call out the California National Guard. The result was a devastating loss of life and property. A stop of an African-American motorist for reckless driving led to looting, massive property damage, the death of 34 individuals, with 1,032 injured over six days.
Then- Lt. Gov. Glenn Anderson will always be remembered as “the man who fiddled while Watts burned.” Anderson was acting governor at the time because Gov. Pat Brown was on vacation.
Anderson’s five-hour delay in sending the National Guard into Watts led to an uproar against him. Anderson was defeated overwhelmingly in his 1966 re-election bid by Republican Robert Finch. The McCone Commission, which investigated the riots, singled Anderson out for “hesitating when he should have acted.”
The Watts riots were central to Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor against Brown in 1966. Reagan won in a landslide.
During the tumultuous 1960s, Wallace Johnson, Berkeley’s mayor (1963-71), was an advocate for restrained but resolute action in cases of riot. Johnson dealt regularly with both demonstrations and civil unrest in Berkeley beginning in 1964.
Johnson’s biggest challenge was the “People’s Park” riot in May 1969. At issue was a University of California-owned block of land converted by “street people” into an impromptu park without university permission – by “seizing the land.” With unruly crowds growing, Johnson took action to augment the badly outnumbered Berkeley Police.
Calling in “Mutual Aid” from neighboring communities, 500 police officers from nine departments were detailed to Berkeley. After a “state of extreme emergency” declaration from then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, the California National Guard was also deployed at Johnson’s request.
While Berkeley Police officers were well-trained, experienced in crowd control and known for their “restraint under provocation,” other participating departments and National Guardsmen had less training and experience.
On “Bloody Thursday” (May 15) street fighting broke out. With rocks, bricks and metal rods raining down from rooftops, an Alameda County deputy sheriff using a shotgun with “birdshot” unintentionally blinded one man and wounded another who eventually died. That created a new issue — the martyrdom of James Rector.
A second tragedy was the incredible flight of an Army helicopter spraying acrid tear gas as if crop dusting over the UC campus. This “campus-dusting” aroused thousands more to action.
An authorized protest march through Berkeley city streets drew 30,000 participants on May 30. The march was peaceful – conducted under the protective, watchful eye of Berkeley Police.
On June 2, Reagan withdrew the National Guard, declaring the “state of extreme emergency” over.
Jim Hartman is an attorney residing in Genoa. He grew up in Berkeley in the ’60s. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.