Unconventional Summers: 1968 and 2020

        Pick the 50-year-old songs!

        “Hey, Jude”   The Beatles

        “Jumping Jack Flash”  The Rolling Stones

        “People Got to be Free”     The Rascals

        “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”     Otis Redding

        “This Guy’s in Love with You”     Herb Alpert

      “Living in a Ghost Town”    The Rolling Stones

        “Wish it would Rain”  The Temptations

        “Say a Little Prayer”    Aretha Franklin

         “Stupid Love”       Lady Gaga

        “The Box”          Reddy Ricch

Take a Sad Song and Make it Better

Remember the Beatles’ tune “Hey Jude”? Not their usual upbeat tune, but it carries positive advice: “Take a sad song and make it better.” “Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” Hard to imagine that these songs hit the charts in 1968, fifty years ago. (Pick the three that were produced in 2020).

Beatles contemporaries, the Rolling Stones, inspired by the current Pandemic, issued a more somber release this year: “Living in a Ghost Town.” This reggae-tinged blues rock tune’s lyrics speak to us today: “Live was so beautiful, then we got locked down” and “Please let this be over/not stuck in a world without end.”

 Today we are enmeshed in an emotional patchwork of slow and fast, a time of reflection and confusion, being solitary while others are packed in like sardines, an unusual time of rising temperatures and falling perspectives. Life goes on in America in 2020, like in 1968, but civil unrest, anger and chaos brought on by injustice, justice delayed, or justice denied and the stresses of job loss and disease has come to our streets.  Protests have turned violent with fatalities in Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Kenosha. Yet, as then, absent a voice of calm. While the nation holds its breath, the Pandemic numbers rise and fall and rise again. The nation’s political divide accentuates the situation, as opponents take opposite responses—one tempting the Pandemic with thousands of people seated close together, rejecting masks as “unConstitutional” while the other practices “social distancing” of six feet wearing masks in groups of 25, making traditional politicking challenging. Crucial to both sides: finding a way to educate all our children while protecting them from Corvid, eventually safely returning Americans to work and coming together to provide justice and dignity for all. Seemingly impossible goals, given that our country seems cleved with a knife.

You can get the play-by-play of ping-pong paddle thrashing political analysis elsewhere, I take a different tact since this is Past Becomes Present, right?  

Millions of Americans Suffered Hong Kong Flu in 1968

We share more than political conventions with 1968. You do not hear a lot about it, but 50 years ago Americans were stricken by the Hong Kong Flu (H3N2) beginning in July, contrary to reports that viruses recede in the summer. It began as an upper respiratory disease, then escalated to 500,000 cases in two weeks. Smithsonian Magazine in 2018 reported between one and four million people died of the Hong Kong Flu (evidently reporting from hospitals, doctors and morgues was not as exacting as it is now and there were no computers to instantly send the information). 

Upon reflection after collecting data in 1968, public health managers determined that soldiers returning from Vietnam likely carried the disease to California and the rest of the country. An even wider discrepancy is charted in the number of fatalities in the 1918 Pandemic, when testing and hospital and coroner reporting were hampered by lack of time and equipment in the midst of the outbreak: their best estimate between 25 million and 50 million, according to the Britannica.

In 2020 as of August 31, 2020, a total of 182,622 have died of Covid19 in America with just under 6 million reported cases since January 21. Concern now is whether the U.S. can continue or begin to be vigilant until at least the end of the year when a vaccine may appear. There were two waves of the disease in 1968, as we are seeing new waves throughout Europe, and in 1968, the second wave proved then to be more lethal than the first.

“Law and Order” Focus of Trump and Nixon

As the folding chairs and the cameras from the two 2020 conventions are repositioned, I attempt to recover from a Pandemic-enforced Zoom sensation unlike prior political meetups. I have watched both party’s conventions since 1960, when I was pre-teen. My family was not in a position to contribute to any party, but every four years we were positioned in front of that 12-inch black and white, until it became a little larger color box.

What I saw in August 1968, made all other conventions until now pale in comparison. The Republican GOP Convention that nominated Richard Nixon in Miami selected the location in part because the bridges there could be closed to block off protesters from the convention. But African Americans in the impoverished Liberty City neighborhood protested. From the podium, Nixon pledged to restore “Law and Order” to America. Later in 1968, the Democrats nominated Herbert Humphrey, who predicted the election would be about “common sense, and a time for maturity, strength and responsibility,” saying he would “unite the party” after a bruising primary, then unite the nation. The public had difficulty hearing his message as protesters and rioters battled with Chicago police. The civil unrest paralleled what had happened months prior throughout the country that year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

1968 Vietnam and Civil Rights Protests

Those of you born after 1958 probably have no memory of the 1968 political conventions. Five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the country mourned as the Vietnam War heated up. Five-hundred thousand Americans were fighting in southeast Asia and college campuses nation were lit up with protesters marching and chanting. Draftees made up 42 percent of the military but 58 percent of the casualties, dispatching military officers to inform anxious families nationwide. Nearly 1000 Americans were being killed each month in Vietnam and many more were injured, as Walter Cronkite gave an all-business, play-by-play and gruesome video from the battlefields filled our living rooms for the first time.

 Riots prior to 1968 revealed anger and destruction previously unrealized in American cities. Rev. King and Senator Kennedy’s assassinations combined with long-term grievances fueled discontent in cities coast-to-coast and torched black businesses.

2020 Conventions During Pandemic and Civil Unrest

First in mid-August 2020, the Democrats nominated for President former Vice President Joe Biden. In his acceptance, he noted the nation faced four major threats: The Pandemic, economic decline equal to the Great Depression, protests of racial injustice and the accelerating threat of climate change. He selected as his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the first black and first Asian woman nominated for Vice President. He spoke of “inequity and injustice that has grown up in America. Economic injustice. Racial injustice Environmental injustice.”

A week later Republican incumbent Donald Trump accepted the nomination from the White House lawn (A first given that the Hatch Act prohibits mixing politics with performance of professional duties on federally owned property paid for by American taxpayers.) He made it clear that he would follow the path of Richard Nixon (without mentioning him by name) to be the “Law and Order” President, to put an end to riots across America, using a military response. Behind in the polls during the summer, he planned a November victory mimicking Nixon. Not being known for the “long game,” Trump did not consider Nixon’s endgame.

Racial Disparity Pinpointed in 1968

Tone deaf response to America’s inequities reaches far back in our history. After the modern wave of civil unrest 50 years ago, some in Congress attempted to uncover the source of the riots by reviewing events in1965 (Watts), 1967 (Detroit) and 1968 (nationwide after Martin Luther King’s death). The Kerner Report found white society “created, maintained and condoned” conditions that reinforced despair in black neighborhoods and added fuel to the pre-existing anger. (Smithsoniamag.com, “Martin Luther King’s Assassination Sparked Uprisings in Cities Across America,” April 4, 2018) But putting words on paper was not enough to turn around the future of kids in a ghetto or restore hope to adults in 1968.

That year protests and riots occurred in 200 cities with major damage occurred in ten cities, including Washington D.C., Baltimore, New York, and Kansas City. Within ten days there were 43 deaths, 3,500 injuries, and 27,000 arrests. A total of 58,000 National guardsmen and state and federal troops were sent in to stop looting, arson, and sniper fire. Fifty-four cities had more than $100,000 in property damage. To put that amount into perspective: Washington experienced 1,200 fires and $24 million in insured property damage, which totals $174 million in today’s currency.  (Smithsonian Magazine, April 4, 2018) Obviously that expenditure did not begin to overcome the core problems that lead to civil unrest.  

Technology Speeds Up

How did modern communication change over 50 years? Cell phones make it easier to gather a flash mob by simultaneously notifying protesters to gather at a specific location and time. In 1968 iPhone video cameras did not exist to film what took place in the tight corners of a protest or to show what happened immediately prior to an altercation. Mayors and city leaders are able now to reach out to constituients or protesters with a message if their is an opportunity to dialogue. It depends on the communications skills of the leader. The challenge is to select the right words and determine the best person to deliver the message at the optimal time.

Today there are many more splinter groups not under united leadership making negotiations difficult and complicated. Protesters, anti-protesters, far-right and far-left contingents are ready, able, and willing to fight instantaneously. Each of these groups can recruit new members online without having a specific address. Protest rallies are catnip for angry or bored teens and twenty-somethings unemployed by the Pandemic. At the same time, idealists are determined to speak up for their cause, see a protest as an opportunity to make their voices heard.

Dialing up the danger for all sides: Open carry laws allowing a civilian to openly carry a firearm generally were not on the books in 1968. But by 2018, 45 states allowed open carry with a variety of specifications. Just four states, including the District of Columbia, prohibit the open carry of handguns. The last week of August a 17-year-old from illinois carrying a long gun was arrested in conjunction with the deaths of two protesters and injury to another in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The state’s disorderly conduct statute (Wis. Stat. 947.01) was amended nine years ago to allow a person to carry a firearm “without regard to whether the firearm is loaded or is conceealed or openly carried” unless with criminal intent. The intent is the question.

No matter how lethal or messy the situation in 2020 may appear, I want to believe in Americans’ ability to register our choices peacefully. That is essential in order to create a just world for all Americans, now and for generations to come. While I remain optimistic, my favorite: Aretha Franklin song from 1968: “Say a Little Prayer for You,” might provide solace 60 days out from Election Day.

Great-niece Abigail’s baby blanket. Her room is pink and gray. Not sure my kniting has improved since the 1960s. Knit during the 2020 conventions.

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