Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The cycles of history

Since no newspaper wanted to publish this op-ed by Rick Perlstein, Atrios printed it on his blog. I guess this means it is fair game to disseminate further, so here is the whole text:

The Op-Ed Which Wasn't Run

A white friend who's volunteering in refugee shelters on the Gulf Coast tells me the kind of things he's hearing around the small city where he's working.

A pastor is obsessed that "local" women not be allowed near the shelters: "At a community meeting they said these were the last evacuees, the poorest of the poor"--the most criminal, being his implication, the most likely to rape.

My friend says: "There were rumors that there were basically gangs of blacks walking up and down the main drag in town harassing business owners." The current line is that "some of them weren't even evacuees, they were just fake evacuees trying to stir up trouble and riot, because we all know that's what they want to do."

He talked to local police, who report no problems: just lost, confused families, in desperate need of help.

Yet "one of the most ridiculous rumors that has gone around is that 'the Civic Center is nothing but inmates. It's where they put all the criminals.'"

I immediately got that uncanny feeling: where had I heard things like this before?

The answer is: in my historical research about racial tensions forty years ago. I'm writing a book against the backlash against liberalism and civil rights in the 1960s. One of the things I've studied is race riots. John Schmidhauser, a former congressman from rural Iowa, told me about the time, in the summer of 1966, he held a question and answer session with constituents. Violence had broken out in the Chicago ghetto, and one of the farmers asked his congressman about an insistent rumor:

"Are they going to come out here on motorcycles?"

It's a funny image, a farmer quaking at the vision of black looters invading the cornfields of Iowa. But it's also awfully serious. The key word here is "they." It's a fact of life: in times of social stress when solid information is scarce, rumors fill the vacuum. Rumors are evidence of panic. The rumors only fuel further panic. The result, especially when the rumors involved are racial, can be a deadly stew of paranoia.

In the chaotic riot in Detroit in 1967, National Guardsman hopped up on exaggerated rumors of cop killers would descend upon a block and shoot out the streetlights to hide themselves from snipers. Guardsmen on the next block would hear the shots and think they were under attack by snipers. They would shoot at anything that moved. That was how, in Detroit, dozens of innocent people were shot. In one case, a firefighter was the one who died.

And now, a similar paranoia has turned deadly in New Orleans too. The early report Sunday was that police shot at eight suspicious characters at the 17th Street Canal, killing five. On Monday the report was clarified: the victims were contractors on their way to work to fix the canal.

It's not that human beings haven't committed awful crimes amidst the toxic muck of New Orleans--just as they did in the urban riots of the 1960s. It's not as if the onslaught of poor, frightened, and alien-seeming evacuees aren't making life nerve-wracking in the many scattered towns where they are straggling in as refugees. With statistical certainly, they have.

But now New Orleans has filled with tens of thousands of Army, police, and National Guard soldiers. They are doing courageous, necessary work. But that are also operating in a cultural context rife with paranoia. Many of the people they are policing are armed as well--also possessed of a hair-trigger paranoia that might presume every shotgun-like crack, every snapped powerline, every detonated firecracker, is a sniper's shot aimed at them.

And now there is that New Orleans diaspora, poor black men ("fake evacuees"?) wandering around unfamiliar towns.

It is the job of all of us to help ratchet down the paranoia: not to let the rumors spread. So none of these people start firing on each other.

Paranoia is not the exclusive province of Iowa farmers forty years ago, or--urban snobs take note--Louisiana yokels in rural parishes now. In 1992, in New York City, during the Los Angeles riots, the word spread on certain street corners about rioters burning buildings and overturning cars just a few blocks away. All of it was fantasy.

But now, everyone with an email account can be implicated in the spreading of such fantasies--nationwide.

One of the most riveting early accounts of conditions in New Orleans was an email sent around by Dr. Greg Henderson. "We hear gunshots frequently," he wrote. It wasn't long before that got transformed, in the dissemination, into: doctors get shot at frequently. An Army Times article reported that desperate evacuees at the Superdome, terrified that losing their place in line might mean losing their life, "defecated where they stood." Now, it's easy, if you take a moment to think about it, to understand that happening to people, perhaps elderly and sick, under unendurable conditions of duress. As circulated on the Internet, however, another interpretation takes shape: these people are not like us. Them. Savages that, if they come to your town, might just be capable of anything. Even if they are just lost, confused people, in desperate need of help.

We can do better. We must do better.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 12:08 PM | permalink | (0 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink