Riots or Rebellions: Understanding the Civil Unrest of 2014-15 — Tobin Miller Shearer

After eight years of teaching students about the civil rights movement, it has become clear that most of those who show up in my classroom bring with them a romantic view of the black struggle for freedom. Many can quote at least one short phrase from Martin Luther King’s August 28, 1963, speech given on the D.C. mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (usually – and predictably – “I have a dream”), but fewer – if any – can identify a single phrase from a speech by any other civil rights leader. Indeed, few can even name one other significant civil rights figure.

What they can do, however, is talk about King’s vision of an integrated society – what he and others referred to as the “beloved community.” They cherish the image of white people and black people living and working together in harmony without mentioning skin color or this country’s racist history. If race is discussed, it is merely referenced as one important part of appreciating diversity.

My students’ comments lead me to a single conclusion: The civil rights movement has been reduced to a romantic, dewy-eyed embrace of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. Politics have disappeared. The messy, controversial, hard-nosed work of organizing demonstrations and protests has been elided. My students and those they represent end up celebrating a past that never existed. They end up being ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of today’s racial crises. Looking for a King speech, they find far more bracing words and are cut adrift on a sea of racial disillusionment.

In my talk on Tuesday, November 2, “Riot or Rebellion: Understanding the Civil Unrest of 2014-15,” (UC Theater, 7:00 p.m.) I will set a context for understanding the civil unrest in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. During the civil rights movement, instances of urban unrest took place regularly but proliferated toward the end of the 1960s. In 1967 alone, 163 communities erupted in violence with particularly deadly encounters emerging in Newark, NJ, and Detroit, MI. Yet, as historian Thomas Sugrue notes, participants in those periods of urban unrest throughout the 1960s carefully chose two targets: shopkeepers and the police. Most white-controlled institutions emerged unscathed as did most white neighborhoods. Moreover, few schools, white churches, corporate headquarters, or office buildings were damaged even though such structures in downtown centers could have been easily accessed. Likewise, hospital buildings, university structures, trade union offices, and private homes emerged generally untouched. Only by understanding how and why those patterns emerged will we be able to effectively understand the urban unrest of the contemporary era.

My talk will center on three questions to help build that understanding: Who gets to report? Whose interests are at stake? Are the underlying causes being addressed? The answers to those questions will not only inform how we respond to the query – Was the urban unrest of 2014-15 a riot or rebellion? – but will also provide stable mooring for those uncertain what to do once the romance of the civil rights movement has frayed away.

In the 2008 film Blindness, directed by Fernando Meirelles, an unnamed city is beset by an epidemic of the “white sickness,” a disease that instantly turns everyone blind. Everyone, that is, except for one woman. The novel follows the story of seven people who are quarantined along with 300 other people in an abandoned madhouse. These seven are forced to band together in order to survive not only the horrors of living in a blind world, but also the most basic elements of humanity that take hold in the quarantine. Once out of the quarantine, the group must now try to make its way in a completely blind city, where humanity has all but descended into animal chaos. Only through the help of the one woman who has miraculously been spared blindness is the group able to hold on to some shred of humanity and recognize what it is to be human. After a brief introduction and viewing of several key scenes, we will discuss major themes of the movie: the fragility of society, gender relations, blindness, memory and history, and disease and try to apply the themes to several of the world’s current crises like the situation in Syria, the atrocities carried out by ISIS, and even the US political campaign for President.

Tobin Miller Shearer will present at DiverseU on Tuesday, November 2nd at 7 PM in the UC Theater.

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