Forty-seven Aprils ago, Baltimore was in flames following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and my dad’s National Guard unit was ordered in to curb the unrest. By sheer coincidence, he ran into my uncle (his brother-in-law) who was in town for the Orioles’ April 10 opener. I thought about that last night when it was unclear until fairly late whether or not the O’s would cancel their game against the White Sox.
The other, more serious, story I can remember is this: My dad didn’t have any bullets! This is documentable. A 2008 story references “the National Guardsman dispatched to restore order who actually had no bullets in his gun” — and a letter to the editor, also written on the 40th anniversary of the riots, recalls: “I carried a .50-caliber machine gun and no bullets. I thank God no ammunition was issued because someone might have overreacted and killed someone.”
Thankfully, what we have witnessed in Baltimore this week doesn’t yet rival what happened in 1968, when six people died and around 700 were injured. And while one might debate whether or not it was wise to send in men like my father without live ammo (this was two years before Kent State), what was meant to avoid disaster could have easily backfired. According to my dad (who isn’t around to verify this) someone in the local media actually reported that the National Guardsmen didn’t have ammunition. This, as you can imagine, put their lives in great peril. Every time I see Bruce Willis punch out that reporter at the end of Die Hard, this is what I think of. (Here’s hoping I’m not spilling the beans by writing this. I mean, one hopes that what happened 47 years ago isn’t being replicated. I suppose we can take solace in the fact that very few rioters read this blog.)
Maybe this is why the recent events in Baltimore have not only left me especially depressed and demoralized, but have also sparked memories about the past — or, at least, about the stories about the past.
The horrific images and actions (a senior center set aflame; rioters intentionally cutting a fire hose so a CVS fire couldn’t be extinguished) juxtaposed with the out-of-touch Twitter reactions (one especially egregious one came from a liberal CNN contributor, who wrote: “Looting a real shame. But FAR MORE shameful is pattern of police violence against black community! Perspective, people. #BaltimoreRising“) also remind me why a generation of Americans like my dad rebelled against the permissiveness of the 1960s and 70s.
And I’m reminded of why the law and order issue resonated so much during my father’s day, and how the stark cleavage between — not just the rioters and the cops, but also between the bleeding-heart liberals and the working-class Americans (people who would later be known as “Reagan Democrats”) — was so stark. This wasn’t some esoteric debate; there was something primal — something existential — going on.
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After the experience of helping put down riots in Charm City, my dad became a correctional officer in Western Maryland — another of his biographical experiences that continues to inform my thinking. (If you’re not familiar with the state of prisons in Maryland, read this.) My father-in-law was also, for many years, a police officer in Washington, D.C. I mention this only because what I’m about to say might sound otherwise harsh: It’s hard to imagine why anyone would go into law enforcement. I mean, you’d almost have to be a sap. The public hates you, and the bureaucrats make you stand there while people throw rocks and bricks at you.
(Upon reflection, I actually do know why people do this. Sure, some people are attracted to the business because they want to carry a gun and drive fast, and others have a deep-abiding and noble call to service. My dad wanted to help people, to be sure. But people like my dad also do it because it’s a job. They do it because they don’t have college degrees, and because they want their kids to have a better life.)
* * *
Even before the recent rioting and looting and lawlessness, I was thinking of this during Marco Rubio’s announcement, when he was talking about his dad being a bartender. “That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium,” he said, “is the essence of the American Dream.” Even absent an immigration experience, I can relate. My version goes something like this: The journey from in front of those bars to behind this keyboard is the essence of the American Dream.
These experiences indelibly informed the politics of a generation of men like my dad. Until recently, though, these experiences were slowly receding into our memories. Holding a more sophisticated, less tribalistic, view of politics is a luxury that I have been afforded, perhaps, ironically, by virtue of my dad’s experience. And I suspect my story is a microcosm for many in my generation.
There are consequences. One of the reasons Republican fortunes have waned in recent years is probably because the crime rate has been down, and there have been fewer images of domestic lawlessness on our television sets. An irony of politics is that in solving a problem — your raison d’être — you become obsolete. Churchill was turned out after winning World War II; Bush was turned out after the fall of the Soviet Union.
What we witnessed in Baltimore hearkens back to the largely under-appreciated events that led Republicans into power during my dad’s lifetime. There’s a reason Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America opens with the Watts Riots of 1965.
This is from George Will’s 2008 review of the book:
“These,” said President Lyndon Johnson when lighting the national Christmas tree in December 1964, “are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” In his State of the Union address a few weeks later, he said, “We have achieved a unity of interest among our people that is unmatched in the history of freedom.” The nation was, however, stepping high, wide and plentiful along the lip of a volcano. The first eruption occurred seven months later in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. And in 1968, Republicans began winning seven of the next 10 presidential elections…
We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Baltimore riots of 1968, and Wednesday will mark the 23rd anniversary of the LA riots of 1992. And yet, here we are. It is utterly sad that we have made so little progress. And if one buys the notion that nations enjoy the amount of liberalism they can afford, there could be political implications, as well.