Article — From the March 2010 issue

The Soft-Kill Solution

New frontiers in pain compliance

( 2 of 8 )

Television’s entry into American political life coincided with the rise of the civil-rights movement in the South. The first sign that the new medium was making crowd control problematic came with growing black militancy in the early Sixties. Activists discovered that John F. Kennedy, whose election to the presidency had inspired great hope for the redress of racial inequality, would intervene to protect the rights of black people only if compelled by media exposure of white-supremacist violence, and so with a keen sense for street theater they began to use civil disobedience to bring local governments into vivid, televised conflicts with federal authority. The goal was both the moral jujitsu of Richard Gregg’s classic study, The Power of Non-Violence, which compares Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to the deft maneuvers of the martial art, and what Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky called “political jujitsu” — “utilizing the power of one part of the power structure against another part” — in this case, arousing the Northern public’s moral outrage to force federal action against Southern segregationists. Television’s visual immediacy and vast reach provided the leverage.

2 Connor’s men used both fire hoses and “monitor guns,” a type of water cannon. These devices were rarely deployed in the U.S. after Birmingham. Elsewhere, however, the use of water cannons remains common.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference won the movement’s first major battle, of course, in the Birmingham, Alabama, anti-segregation campaign of 1963. Culminating in huge youth marches that Newsweek named the “Children’s Crusade,” the campaign captured unprecedented media attention when a thousand high school students took to the streets in defiance of a court injunction and Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor ordered his men to turn highpressure fire hoses and police dogs on them.2 As images of Connor’s ugly methods filled television screens and front pages worldwide, the Kennedy Administration found itself facing rising anger in the North’s black ghettos, outrage from white liberals, and a Cold War public-relations debacle that escalated when Klansmen bombed King’s brother’s house and the SCLC’s headquarters. Kennedy finally dispatched 3,000 federalized National Guardsmen to help persuade white officials to negotiate. Black activists were mobilized as never before: that summer, the Justice Department counted more than 1,400 civil-rights demonstrations nationwide, including the landmark march on Washington.

3 Until the practice was brought to national attention by reporters, electric cattle prods were used throughout the South against civil-rights activists, both in the streets and as torture devices in jails.

Two years later, when the SCLC employed a similar strategy in Selma, the city’s sheriff, Jim Clark, showed that he had learned nothing from Bull Connor: Clark and his deputized “posse” used electric cattle prods to drive 150 young protesters on a forced march into the countryside.3 Then came “Bloody Sunday,” when, with dozens of reporters and cameramen present, Clark’s mounted posse, backed by Alabama state troopers, charged into a parade of 600 marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, wielding tear gas, clubs, and cattle prods against people dressed for church. That evening, in one of television’s most remarkable moments, ABC interrupted its Sunday Night Movie — Judgment at Nuremberg, appropriately — with fifteen minutes of graphic footage from the attack. A week later, as protest mounted across the United States, Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, legislation that, at long last, would guarantee all Americans the vote.

But Johnson’s gesture may have come too late. Television had also changed the dynamics of the ghetto uprising; never before could riots leap so contagiously from city to city and coast to coast. Starting in 1964, when a police shooting in Harlem sparked riots that spread to Brooklyn, Newark, Philadelphia, and Rochester, each summer brought wider and more devastating outbreaks of urban unrest — in April 1968, King’s assassination sparked riots in more than a hundred cities. As King himself had once said, “Riots are the voice of the unheard,” and, increasingly, city governments began to listen to their black citizens.

At the same time, coverage of the escalating Vietnam War was also fueling unrest with evening newscasts of the fierce Tet Offensive. A young nation of potential draftees saw what was in store for them, and antiwar protest erupted on campuses across the nation. In Chicago that August, Mayor Richard Daley was taking no chances with the Democratic National Convention; he dispatched thousands of National Guardsmen to patrol with fixed bayonets and sent an Army brigade to wait in the suburbs. Police violence against antiwar groups climaxed when, in full view of television cameras, Chicago cops attacked protesters outside the Hilton Hotel, swinging nightsticks at anyone within reach. “The whole world is watching!” roared the crowd. Convention delegates denounced Daley for “Gestapo tactics,” and a commission later called the melee a “police riot,” but the mayor was unperturbed. “A policeman is not there to create disorder,” he explained in a memorable malapropism. “A policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

By April 1970, Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, was telling reporters, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” Three weeks later, after Richard Nixon went on live television to announce his order to expand the war to Cambodia, the National Guard was mobilized against campus uprisings in sixteen states. At Kent State University, in Ohio, troops opened fire on protesters, killing four and wounding nine. Ten days later, police opened fire on a women’s dormitory at Jackson State College in Mississippi, killing two students and wounding nine more. In the resulting furor, Nixon, according to his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, yielded to “public pressure” and announced a timetable for withdrawal from Cambodia.

is a writer living in Brooklyn. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Owning the Weather,” appeared in the January 2006 issue.

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October 2019