“When leaving today’s game, you must go west on Manchester toward the beach.  Or north on Prairie toward Culver City.”

Public Address Announcer at Lakers Game

I remember it vividly, not like it was just yesterday but not like it was twenty-two years ago either.  I was sitting in my great seats at the Great Western Forum watching as the game neared its great ending, the Lakers trying to put a little magic back in their first Magic-less playoff series with the Trailblazers, and we were cautioned about leaving the game that day. To a season ticket holder it was unusual to say the least.  I didn’t realize it when being broadcast during lulls in the game, but it soon thereafter became clear that there was an obvious effort on the part of the public address announcer not to stir any panic. Due to the undivulged circumstances behind the caution, it was bewildering if not frightening. The PA announcer repeated it multiple times before LA’s overtime victory and also advised us to tune our car radios to the news. The ominous voice never told us why.    

That was April 29, 1992, the late afternoon of which a jury acquitted four LAPD officers on charges of assault and use of excessive force for Rodney King’s beating.  The verdict almost instantaneously incited the LA Riots that lasted six days and caused 53 deaths, 2000 injuries and over a billion dollars in property damage.  It was a time before cell phones; and particularly for a fan at the game not listening to Chick Hearn’s call on the radio, and therefore oblivious to the immediate reaction of a disenfranchised and outraged South Central segment of the city, it was quite surreal to leave the venue to the sights and sounds of day one of the uprising—emergency vehicles whizzing by with lights flashing and sirens sounding, the sky lit by fire and smoke eerily hanging heavy, and occasional outbursts of gunfire. 

It is a memory plainly summoned up by the recent protests and ensuing events reacting to a justice system’s failure to indict in Ferguson, Missouri and again in Staten Island, New York, sparking wider-spread screams of racial injustice and organized protests in various cities throughout the country decrying law enforcement agencies losing focus, losing touch with their communities, or worse—losing their decency. Similarities in the precipitating sparks—yes.

But wait! Why is the police force now on the defensive? Our public servants courageously performing a dangerous, thankless job, day in and day out, all in the name of allowing us to live with the peace of mind that we are comfortably secure, are suddenly targeted as the cause of the lawlessness, looting and rioting we witness in our streets and on our televisions?  A media happy to oblige, fish food for the starving guppies who mindlessly swallow whatever is dropped onto the water’s surface, unaware of whether it’s poison or nutritious.  The nourishment encouraging us to feel like we need to take sides on issues that are much more complex to digest than the scattered tidbits we are fed.  Then some crazy goes off fully-cocked and ambushes two Brooklyn cops in the light of day, supposedly to retaliate against the villainous forces accused of getting away with murder; and the police, rightfully incensed and anguished, take umbrage at the added affront attacking their integrity, resent and justifiably fear a swelling tide of “kill-the pigs-sentiment” and righteously blame it on the protestors (as well as the Mayor accused of fomenting anti-police fervor).  Heightened alerts go out to police departments all over this great nation of ours to protect themselves!  WTF!

Media coverage and endless analysis of the events is a veritable fish-feeding frenzy.  The issues are nuanced, but rarely do we parse them in a productive way.  It feels uncomfortably, distressingly too familiar.  Same old song.  How is it that some things never seem to change?  


“We are people of this generation bred in at least moderate comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Port Huron Statement

A war that seems to have no purpose and no end.  Cries for peace and justice.  The Occupy movement.  Continued civil rights and liberties fights.  This preamble could easily be the manifesto for today’s youth.  But it actually was the opening paragraph to the Port Huron Statement, arguably the most important document of leftist politics for anyone still alive today.  I’m not particularly fond of labels, but for purposes of my point here, maybe “Progressive” is more apt, as a philosophy if not political: “Progressive” in the sense of a striving for societal advancement to improve the human condition—one appropriate lens by which to view the Port Huron Statement aka the “Agenda for a Generation”.  It was written more than fifty years ago, in 1962, by SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society—long branded as way far left. Read it, if you have the inclination but beware of its length (more than 25,000 words). If you’re like me, it’ll seem kind of tame today. It is still overwhelmingly relevant, fifty years later.  But if you’re not inclined (to devote the time or endure the brainwashing), don’t worry about not reading it, because the only point I’m trying to address here is how little we’ve progressed! (And though this piece was and is inspired by the recent events of Ferguson and Staten Island, I am not only talking about racial divisions.  My concerns could just as easily have been precipitated by economic or religious divisions, movements for peace or democracy, or rallies for equal rights—in essence, any of the same worries for our country expressed in the Port Huron Statement). [1]

Although the Port Huron Statement can be seen as an agenda of hope, the turbulence of the 1960’s was borne of hopelessness.  And Fear.  An existential fear brought about by the nuclear bomb, its proliferation, and the Cold War.  Though the grievances and calls to action about our nation’s historical and continued deficiencies took root and coalesced in the early- and mid-Sixties, and the civil rights struggles for racial equality were thought to have culminated in the legislation of LBJ’s Great Society, my own coming-of-age on the subject and interrogation of where we were heading as a nation was the late Sixties. The incredible travesties of 1968, including the assassinations of Reverend King and Senator Kennedy, two towering proponents of change through non-violent means, as well as the Chicago police conducting war on its own people outside the Democratic National Convention were the height of turbulent times from which arose serious questioning of our nation’s path and future.  By 1969, the War became the 242 soldiers killed weekly in Vietnam, with faces and names portrayed like a yearbook by Life magazine, pictures of sons who went to a senseless war instead of college. 

The seeds of radicalism, especially for students, started as simple human cries for peace and justice—nuclear disarmament, civil rights, free speech, end senseless war.  Teach-ins and Sit-ins were the precursors to the Occupy Movement and now the street protests (against police and our justice system, or for reform to our policing and our race relations, dependent upon how you look at it or who is doing the protesting).  

But civil disobedience movements, as they are occurring, sometimes (most times) look strangely, confusingly, less like peaceful exercises of our constitutional rights and more like chaotic rebellion or anarchy. Understandably, the American mainstream confuses dissent with terror.  Perhaps because of images of violence conflicting with the message of peace.  Perhaps because of images of widespread lawlessness conflicting with the designs of those peacefully protesting.  Perhaps the militarized-appearing responses of those tasked with preventing lawlessness.  Perhaps because of the corrupting influence of the new left politics tapping into emotions which make it easy to radicalize the thought so that acts of defiance are somehow seen as more valorous, the more defiant the better. (Carried to its natural extremes, well, it creates what used to be termed subversives, and leads to some dissonant perceptions of the rightmindedness of the cause.)  Good fodder for the mainstream news media (and those stomping for maintaining the status quo), but arguably undermining the cause by distracting from and thereby diluting the message.  

Years of government overreactions in the 1960’s and into the 70’s—to civil rights and anti-war marches and protests, to campus unrest, and later to an ever-rising cross-section of reasonable people across our nation deciding it was time to make a stand—were prologue to the mass arrests of those standing up for the 99% or simply for justice and just causes.  

Images of an unruly populace untrusting of its police force, particularly a militarized one, serves no one’s interests and undermines the greater good done throughout the country, day in and day out, by our pubic servants bravely intent on protecting our communities. 

Let’s hope that we, because it is all of us after all who seemingly have amnesia or impossibly long learning curves—those governing, activist leadership, protest organizers and sympathizers, law enforcement, even the crazies and the criminals who instigate riot and worse—let’s hope we can learn something from the past so that we, as a concerned nation, can exercise our First Amendment rights in a way that avoids the same 1970 fate of the 4 dead in Ohio.  

Reverend King and RFK are no doubt rolling in their graves.  All these years down the road and it still seems like nothing’s changed, and when I think of the road we’re still traveling on, I can’t help but wonder, as Paul Simon sang over forty years ago, what’s gone wrong. [2]

1. This document represents the results of several months of writing and discussion among the membership, a draft paper, and revision by the Students for a Democratic Society national convention meeting in \cf2 Port Huron\cf0 , Michigan, June 11-15, 1962. It is represented as a document with which SDS officially identifies, but also as a living document open to change with our times and experiences. It is a beginning: in our own debate and education, in our dialogue with society. Published and distributed by Students for a Democratic Society 112 East 19 Street New York 3, New York GRamercy 3-2181

2.  AMERICAN TUNE © 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon