John Samuel Tieman: What happens after the riots end?
Are we radicalizing a whole generation?
When I was in Vietnam, a near-by artillery unit called a cease-fire. Somebody realized they were shelling the wrong coordinates.
A private said, “I think we just shelled a village temple. I wonder if they were Viet Cong?”
To which the old sergeant replied, “It’s OK. They’re Vietcong. How do I know? If they weren’t Vietcong before, they god damn sure are now.”
I later learned that this sort of situation happened so often that it was something of a standing joke in Vietnam.
I thought about that old joke today. I live a few miles from the St. Louis riots. I also am an inner city teacher.
There was an incident that made international news. Two reporters, Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of The Huffington Post, were tear-gassed and arrested at a McDonald’s in Ferguson, the inner-ring suburb where the riots are taking place. What wasn’t reported was the fourteen year old girl who also was tear-gassed at that fast food joint. She was there for some fries and a smoothie. The next day, in my class, she only said a few words of explanation. But her seething, her seething. That’s how you make a Viet Cong.
As I write, the National Guard have just been mobilized, and sent to Ferguson. I must be the only leftist who supports, with reluctance and misgivings and ambivalence, the calling-out of the National Guard. I feel that, because the police have so militarized the situation, adding the actual military may impose restraint upon both the police and the looters. I also remember Kent State. I’ve always described myself as pacifistic, not a pacifist. Meaning I feel there are times when people, who do great harm, must be restrained. In this, I include the looters and the police. But I could be wrong. I speak out of both hope and fear.
Why fear? Because, this weekend, I was going to go to a demonstration in Ferguson. but it was raining cats and dogs so I didn’t go. The rain stopped. Then it was raining Molotov cocktails.
In truth, I am not wise enough to know what to do. Which brings me back to the Viet Cong. If Ferguson wasn’t radicalized before, it god damn sure is now. And that goes for many in the rest of St. Louis. I don’t know how these riots will end. But end they will. That much I can say for a fact.
I’m going to be very un-American. I suggest we become reflective. I suggest we address the underlying violence of racism itself. I suggest we look for long term solutions.
Americans are not a particularly reflective people. “Don’t dwell on the past” should be stamped on our coins. The place to start is by reflecting upon simple questions. What is the legacy of slavery in our city? What is the legacy of “white flight”? Those questions, and a few dozen others.
We need consider non-violence. Why? Well, we’re in the second week of rioting and, as my students might say, “How’s that violence thing going so far?” But we need to consider that violence is more than simply the throwing of a Molotov cocktail. I refer to the corrosive effect of a thousand small acts of racism. A few years ago, a man was detained in a mostly white suburban mall because he was window shopping while Black. That was Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University. And let me tell you another little story. Not long ago, some young Black males were diving through a white suburb outside St. Louis. They pulled-up next to a white woman, who takes one look at them and rolls-up her window and locks her door. So they all start making gang signs, one kid turns his baseball cap to the side, this and other defenses against the pain. And why pain? Because these young men were members of the chess club I used to sponsor at my high school. And that’s how you make a Viet Cong.
We need to consider long term solutions. As Emile Durkheim says, there is little one person can do to change a social fact. Societal change is a corporate act. I am not saying that the individual is irrelevant. Quite the contrary. I am saying that one person is only one part of a larger enterprise. I once was at a conference with Japanese educators. One fellow was talking about plans for schools near Tokyo, as I recall. He begins by talking about a five-year plan, then a ten-year plan. And he keeps going like this. I suddenly realized that this fellow is now talking about a plan for fifty years from now. It’s not very American to think in terms of decades, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea. Put simply, it’s taken generations to screw-up this city, and it’s going to take generations to fix it.
Whether calling-out the National Guard is a good idea, I don’t know. I can only hope so. In any event, these riots will end. And then what? More Viet Cong?