I just published a long piece about the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. As I wrote it, another story kept emerging in my thoughts, a true story from my distant past.
It was 1968. April 5. A nice warm spring day in Washington DC, where I worked as a newly-minted trial lawyer at the Civil Aeronautics Board. The CAB offices were in a building at Connecticut Avenue just below the Washington Hilton. My then wife worked some blocks downtown for an association. Typical Washington jobs.
We got the news the previous day that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, the city where I grew up from age 2 to age 17 when I left for college. Washington was in flames, we were told, and the government was closing. I made my way downtown, leaving my car, a Volkswagen, parked on a sidewalk and walked to my wife’s office. Everyone was confused. There was no internet, no Google, no good way to find out “breaking news” that is now a staple of our daily existence. The rioting had started the evening before but there was no up-to-the-minute news. So, we watched the scene unfolding outside at a major downtown intersection. Gridlock. Total gridlock. No one moving. Horns honking. People shouting at each other from their cars. Panic.
I took a glass of scotch and walked down to the middle of the intersection, threading my way carefully through the cars. I wore my customary work clothes, a vested suit, as was common in those days. I put my drink down in the dead center of the intersection and became a traffic cop. I began “ordering” cars to wait before entering the intersection. Most drivers, though not all, obeyed, and a semblance of order began to emerge from the chaos.
Every so often a car would stop in passing by me, roll down the window and a frantic person, always white, would look out at me and yell “Thank you, oh thank God for you.” I didn’t know what to say except “you’re welcome.” The scene was totally surreal.
White people were fleeing the city by the tens of thousands. Some crying. I could see the smoke from the 7th Street NW and 14th Street NW corridors, just three blocks from where I stood and could smell the acrid odor. For whatever reason, I was not afraid, but fear was all around me. I suspected that those people thought the black people burning Washington were going to come after them if they didn’t get out of town quickly.
The aftermath is well known. One of the major reactive themes was, “those people are crazy because they burned their own businesses.” It was true. Many black-owned businesses in the area were savaged in the rioting. The rage was simply that – rage – and the rioters took it out on what was near them, their own businesses and even homes.
Crazy? Perhaps, but that’s what rage does. White people seem to think that rage should somehow be rational, in the way that a professional boxing match is rational – people fighting by agreement over a prize, winner-take-all. But, of course, that is not rage. That is just business. Rage is something else altogether, and we’re seeing it in Minneapolis and many other cities across the country. We should not be surprised.
My story ended quite simply and quietly. A relatively young police officer appeared out of the chaos surrounding the intersection. He was black, as were many members of the Washington police force. He walked toward me slowly, carefully. I thought, “great, reinforcements.” I looked at him and he looked at me, the anger etched in his face. He was in no mood to have a friendly chat with the white stranger doing a policeman’s job in a scene of total chaos. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I think I tried to smile and asked if he was going to stay. He said something about taking over and I picked up my drink and backed out of the intersection. He had no time or further interest in me. I understood then and understand now why that was so.
I can still see his face. He was in control of his anger, but it was obvious how conflicted he was to have been ordered to help these hysterical, panicked white people flee the city that was burning just down the road. I suspect he came from that direction, knew what was happening but was here now to do his duty, despite his personal pain and despair.
I confess I was glad to get back inside. But I will never forget the way that young black policeman looked at me. He felt no sense of thanks for me having helped out, no empathy, and I didn’t expect otherwise. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of his suffering even as he continued to do the duty he had sworn to perform.
The coda to the story is that there were mass arrests of protestors and rioters alike. A call went out for lawyers to come downtown to the courthouse to help process and represent those huge number of detained people, many of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing. My good friend and officemate at the CAB and I decided to volunteer. We drove into Washington that evening, passing military guards on the Key Bridge. Soldiers were stationed in the doors of businesses on M Street in Georgetown. Machine gun emplacements were visible on the lawn of the White House. Ultimately, we were rejected by the administrators of the court on grounds that as federal employees we had a conflict of interest in representing individuals charged with federal crimes. We drove home. The rioting lasted for four days.
And here we are again. Fifty-two years later. Same story. Again. And again.