The Black Rebellions (1967) by Dave Dellinger

The Black Rebellions: 1967

(from Revolutionary Nonviolence: Essays by Dave Dellinger, Anchor Books 1971)

One of the oldest laments in human history is directed against those who "cry 'peace, peace,' when there is no peace." Today, after the outbreaks of counterviolence in Newark, Detroit and a growing number of other cities, we hear the hurt cries of those who mistakenly think that there was peace in our society and that it has been broken by impatient or criminal individuals. Many persons who themselves managed to get educated, employed, adequately housed and socially accepted to some degree, are crying "violence and crime, crime and violence" against the rebellious acts of those who have been victimized all their lives by crime and violence, including the violence of the police.

Those who have never been bitten by a rat or beaten up in the precinct house fall rather easily into the trap of thinking that "law and order" is the framework within which justice is administered and progress takes place. Without going into the usual statistics of unemployment, disease, and poverty, we can observe the kind of justice and progress that was operative in the black American community of Newark, in the following excerpt from a report by Steve Block of the Newark Community Union Project (N-C.U.P.):

Steve Block of N-C.U.P. wrote:
Tensions in Newark have been rising all spring and summer, and have been centered around two issues. First the mayor lured the New Jersey State School of Medicine and Dentistry to Newark, and a major part of the bait he used was the promise of 150 acres located in the heart of the Central Ward, the worst part of the ghetto. About 20,000 black people will be displaced as a result; and, as always, there are no real plans for finding or providing new homes for them. The black community has been furious and militant all spring and summer about this.

Second, the secretary of the Board of Education resigned. In appointing a successor the mayor and the other powers-that-be chose a white City Councilman . . . [with] no college education and no business experience. (The job consists mainly of handling the money.) The black community opposed him in favor of Wilbur Park, a black C.P.A. who works in a financial capacity. . . .
The spark that set off the . . riot . . . came Wednesday night, July 12. Two cops beat up a black cab driver, with a crowd of people looking on. (Were they stupid, or did they want a riot?) . . . (New Left Notes, July 24)

When the camouflaged and orderly violence of established society is challenged by the crude and unpredictable violence of a forming – but as yet inchoate – countersociety, it is hard for idealists and humanitarians to keep a proper perspective. There is a temptation to condemn the newest recourse to violence – that of the rebels – or at least to equate the violence of the two sides in a way that precludes solidarity with those seeking liberation from the status quo.

This temptation is particularly seductive for those of us who advocate nonviolent methods of struggle but who do not experience in our own daily lives the unremitting violence of existing police and property relationships. Rather than face up to our failure to have taken the lead with a truly revolutionary nonviolence that is engaged in combat here and now, we are tempted to dissociate ourselves from the rebels and to end up, albeit reluctantly, on the side of those who invoke "law and order," "the democratic process," and the protection of the innocent as justification for the suppressive violence of the police and troops. Yet one of the factors that induces serious revolutionaries and discouraged ghetto-dwellers to conclude that nonviolence is incapable of being developed into a method adequate to their needs is this very tendency of pacifists to line up, in moments of conflict, with the status quo. Thus a vicious circle is set up in which the advocates of nonviolence stand aloof from – or even repudiate – the only live revolutions in the making (Cuba, Vietnam, the black American communities ), and determined revolutionaries reject nonviolence out of hand because of the repeated defections from the revolutionary cause of those who champion it.

In this context I was saddened to see Martin Luther King, Jr. endorse the sending of federal troops into Detroit. One can only sympathize with him personally, given the pressures he has been under from all sides. But if there are occasions when those who act nonviolently themselves must become reluctant allies or critical supporters of those who resort to violence – as I believe there are – then at least there should be no doubt that we form our alliances on the side of the oppressed and exploited, not on the side of the establishment.

One can call for alternative, nonviolent methods of liberation and point out the dangers and shortcomings of the current form of rebellion, but it is contrary to the spirit of nonviolence to call for the punishment of those who have resorted to violence in their desperate search for a method of breaking out of the present intolerable situation. After all, nonviolence has ground to a halt in the area of black liberation, staggered by the depth of the problem and hesitating at the crossroads where one must move on from protest either to the illusions of liberal politics or to genuine revolution. The former means maintaining an uneasy alliance with the government but the latter requires solidarity with and loyalty to the people, even when they succumb to the temptations of violence.

The politics of Washington do not differ greatly from Saigon to Newark, from the Dominican Republic to Detroit. The current black revolts highlight both the hypocrisy and the futility of U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. How can a society in which millions of its own citizens fail to find jobs, housing, dignity, and meaningful democracy claim that its armed attacks on the towns and villages of Vietnam have the serious purpose of bringing the benefits of land reform, economic justice, and real democracy to the Vietnamese?

If slum-clearance housing in the United States enriches the real-estate operators and other commercial interests while frustrating the inhabitants of U.S. slums and ghettos, what chance is there that the expenditure of millions of dollars in high-sounding A.I.D. programs will do more than line the pockets of the tiny group of feudal landlords, war profiteers and generals who are the main collaborators of the United States in Vietnam? Those Americans who have taken seriously the Administration's claims of noble democratic purpose and ultimate success in Vietnam should re-examine their assumptions on the basis of the unmistakable message from the disillusioned black population of our own country.

There are some ghetto-dwellers who find it so oppressive in the United States that they are willingly in the armed forces, ready to settle for a regular paycheck, a degree of integration and the opportunity to wear a uniform which implies, however falsely, that they have become first-class citizens at last. But surely the revolts in Newark, Detroit and other cities, and the calloused attacks on the black population by police and national guardsmen should make them reconsider where their true loyalty lies.

All Americans who are shocked and appalled by the developing civil war in U.S. cities should redouble their efforts to bring about American military withdrawal from Vietnam. Not only the misdirection of funds and manpower but also the hardening of habits and attitudes contribute to the deterioration within the United States. Even as the U.S. armed forces often bomb, burn or shoot up Vietnamese villages suspected of harboring members of the N.L.F., or destroy a whole village from which there has been sniper fire, so there were instances in Newark, Detroit, and Spanish Harlem when police or other armed forces fired high-powered rifles indiscriminately into buildings that might hold snipers. As in Vietnam, a high percentage of the victims were women and children. Even as American troops and bombers feel frustrated and put upon by the successful resistance of the lowly Vietnamese and, quite naturally, resent the deaths of their buddies, so police and guardsmen were impelled to reassert their authority or revenge their slain cohorts by acts of senseless reprisal. Thus the Newark revolt, which had largely spent itself after two days of reaction to the arrest and beating of a cab driver, was transformed into a massacre on the third day, when the Newark police department, the New Jersey State Patrol and the National Guard decided to show the niggers who was boss.

An eyewitness reports:

"We have got to kill somebody to show these black bastards that we mean business," said one of the Newark patrolmen. This is exactly what they proceeded to do. The people of the Central Ward were systematically insulted, bludgeoned and killed after Friday morning. . . . Police were careful to cover their actions [as in Vietnam]. They haven't permitted newsmen to photograph the hundreds of bloody "casualties" which are being taken to the City Hospital. The death rate rose steadily after Friday morning even though the major portion of the rioting was over by that time. (National Guardian, July 22)

According to newspaper reports, forty percent of the Army troops sent to Detroit had been battle-hardened in Vietnam. Eyewitness accounts indicate that this meant, among other things, that some of them were able to shoot innocent people without the pangs of conscience that one might ordinarily expect. One of the prices France paid for her unsuccessful wars in Indochina and Algeria was the contempt for human life which many of the soldiers brought back with them. The longer the war continues in Vietnam the more casually will some of those who stick it out in the armed forces be able – whether as policemen, vigilantes or rebels – to take the lives of those who displease them at home.

Clearly the prospect is spiralling violence and a decline of humane values at home and abroad, unless U.S. troops can be withdrawn from Vietnam and kept out of America's troubled cities. But it is not enough to call for a simple redirection of federal funds from Vietnam to the United States. Massive freedom budgets at home can be as illusory as Washington-sponsored social reconstruction has been in Vietnam. Without local initiative and control by the people in whose interests the money is being spent, there can be no real dignity or self-determination. One of the characteristics of the ghetto-dwellers' present rebelliousness is resentment at having things done for them as well as to them by The Man.

The best way to combat violence is to work constructively against the cruelty and violence of the status quo. While remaining nonviolent ourselves, we must recognize and respond to the thrust for dignity of those who strike out, however blindly at times, against the system which oppresses them. Only those who have found a sense of dignity and worth in their own lives can believe enough in the dignity and worth of other human beings to become nonviolent. Others may be subservient or submissive – but that is not nonviolence, any more than the days without arson or sniping in our cities are days of peace.

Posted By

May 31 2020 18:10


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