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“Law & Order” Worked for Nixon; Will it Work for Trump?

May 29, 2020

law and order

As I watched the television images last night of protesters and burning buildings in Minneapolis, my mind kept going back more than half a century to 1968, another momentous and horrendous year in US history–probably no less fraught than 2020, including a deadly flu pandemic late in the year.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in Memphis in April, sparking riots of rage that devastated cities across the country. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in LA, throwing the Democratic nomination for president in turmoil since LBJ had already announced that he wouldn’t run again. The Vietnam War was raging and anti-war protests were everywhere. Young men who didn’t wanted to be drafted into the army were fleeing to Canada. The civil rights movement was still encountering massive resistance, especially in the South, and George Wallace (the segregationist governor of Alabama) was running for president as a 3rd party candidate. It was Wallace who used the phrase (tweeted last night by Trump) “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” at a rally in Pittsburgh in 1968.

But it wasn’t original with Wallace. It was first used by Miami Police Chief Walter Headly in a 1967 speech (the year of the Detroit riots) to describe his department’s policy to “combat young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.” He added, “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality.” Which was certainly true.

As it happened, the 1968 Republican convention during which Nixon secured the nomination was in Miami Beach from August 5-8. Several black civil rights groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress on Racial Equality, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee held a rally at the same time in Liberty City–one of larger black neighborhoods of Miami. A white man in a car with a “Wallace for President” bumpersticker tried to drive through the neighborhood. The car was pelted with rocks and bottles, and the driver fled on foot, but this set off three days of riots and looting, to which the police responded with massive force, killing three black men in the process.

Across Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, safely protected literally by drawbridges, most GOP conventioneers probably were unaware of what was happening in Liberty City. Nixon’s acceptance speech attacked LBJ’s anti-poverty programs. “For the past five years, we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed; programs for the cities; programs for the poor,” Nixon said. “And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land.” The Republicans loved it.

Three weeks later, in Richard Daley’s Chicago, the Democrats held their convention, which is the one which most people remember from that year. Thousands of anti-war protesters poured into the city, and Daley was ready. The National Guard had been mobilized and told to shoot to kill if necessary. A series of confrontations with law enforcement eventually culminated in the famous “police riot” that clouded downtown Chicago in tear gas and resulted in thousands of arrests. I can vividly remember driving through Georgia and Alabama at the time and listening in disbelief to what was happening on the car radio. It was utter chaos, and unlike the Miami riots which mostly just got local coverage, everyone in the country saw it on television.

All that turmoil didn’t go down well in Middle America. Nixon and Agnew branded the war protesters as anti- American and unpatriotic and made “law and order” the centerpiece of their campaign. And it worked.

Nixon squeezed out a narrow plurality of 500,000 votes over Hubert Humphrey and won the election. Wallace got 14% of the vote.

Flash forward to 2020. Another deeply polarized country traumatized by the Covid-19 pandemic. An African-American community fed up with entrenched racism and police brutality. An unexciting establishment Democratic candidate. And an utterly unscrupulous Donald Trump who is unpopular with a majority but commands a large base of culturally racist white “real Americans”. Of course he’s going to play the law-and-order card. He needs to scare white people.

Perhaps the most fundamental divide in American politics is whether you prioritize property or lives. It’s a constant throughout American history. It’s playing out today in the debate about opening up the economy in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Those TV images of burning buildings in Minneapolis have now become a symbol of that dichotomy.

America has changed since 1968, but has it changed enough? Especially White America? Do you vote for property or people’s lives? What do you value most: order or justice?

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