A recent write up by lostcauser, Trouble every day, brought a memory to mind- back in the early 60's when I was just out of University, the Race Riots came to Buffalo NY.
A little background for you folks who weren't fortunate enough to be alive then. What had begun as a student movement, Black and White students working together to right an obvious wrong, had, as such movements are bound to do, degenerated into factionalism and distrust. It was called, remember, the Civil Rights Movement, because it was the Civil rights of Negros in the South which were being violated, eg., the right to vote, attend the school of their choice, and freely use any and all public facilities, such as toilets and busses. My classmates, like the students in other Northern Universities, went down into the South to help Negro voters to register, which was legal in the South but...discouraged. Some of the young people who chose to do this did not come back.
Up in the North people were by and large complacent. The races were separate but no one made a big deal about it. There were schools and neighborhoods that were mainly black, and schools and neighborhoods which were mainly white. My Father considered Harry Belafonte to be 'A good looking nigger' When my sister found out that I was dating a black student she told me ' You realize that no decent girl will have anything to do with you, don't you?' Gradually the relations between Black and White people became strained. Looking back I realize that Blacks in the North were tired of being considered second class citizens without even the dignity of being called second class citizens. They were tired of white only neighborhoods that were never labeled as such, places where no Black person with a lick of sense would go after dark unless they were tired of living.
Then, in 1966, came the Chicago riots. Ok, to be technical, they mainly concerned the Hispanic community, but to any right thinking American they were all niggers of one sort or another. In Buffalo we held our breath, certain that before long we would be next
At the time my then wife and I had a little bespoke jewelry business in a storefront below the tenement where we lived. The neighborhood was on the West side of Main street, and therefore a mixture of Black and Poor Whites, like us. Over on the East side were the solidly Black neighborhoods and businesses.
The summer of '67 was a scorcher. You could tell that trouble was brewing, it was all people talked about. It pains me to admit it, but I brought my old 22 single shot and sat up evenings with a neighbor who had an illegal handgun.
The actual riots ran from late June to early July. Where we lived we could hear isolated gunshots, and smell the sickly irritating odor of tear gas. Once I spotted a Black teenager running by lugging a console TV, no mean feat in those days . The air was that of a carnival, there on the fringes, it was hard to take it seriously. Over across Main Street, however, it was a different story. We heard gunshots and saw the searchlights turning night to day, and then from all points of the compass, it seemed, the rumble of heavy machinery.
If you were an out of towner, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the National Guard had been called out, with tanks, but this was Buffalo. What we heard was every bit of street cleaning equipment in the city arsenal being mobilized. The snow plows were especially impressive, monster trucks fronted with a V-shaped blade as wide as a city street, able to pile a twenty-foot drift of snow to either side. The cavalcade approached the East side from all directions, looking with their staring yellow headlamps like an army of dragons. They sealed the streets off and in the words of one gleeful bystander, 'Let 'em rip.'
Confined to their own neighborhoods, the rioters did just that. They smashed their own store windows, destroyed their own property, and generally vented their anger and frustration on anything and anyone available. Yes, some of the businesses were white-owned, but most weren't.
What I remember most was the attitude of the White police and politicians, the air of contempt with which the strategy had been formulated. It is hard to convey in these times of political correctness, but racist attitudes differed in the North only in the sense that it was considered bad taste to openly express them. A sort of 'we're not like those ignorant red-necks down South' kind of feeling. The streets of burned out houses and boarded windows provoked not sympathy but 'What can you expect from people who live like that?' So that racism, in the end, becomes like the snake Ouroboros that feeds on its own tail, which physiologically speaking is not a bad metaphor.