We Didn’t Start the Fire…
By the time you read this, the holiday season will be in
full swing. So, this column focuses on reflection of the past, and thanks – yes,
thanks – to our brothers and sisters in blue from the past. What they had to
deal with, and how they dealt with it, is an exploration most of us don’t
really know about and it has shaped what we – as law enforcement agencies today
– have become.
It’s easy for us, in any profession, to think we have it “rough.” Don’t get me wrong, my police family. You are out there wearing that badge every day dealing with things and attitudes I did not have to face. It’s a different world, particularly for you in patrol. We should, however, take a look back every so often and, when we do that, we are able to see the “glass half full” part of our profession. It’s kind of like the last couple of generations who have grown up with cell phones and digital downloads and never had to make a call from a rotary phone, or buy a CD to hear music (much less an LP – I still have quite a collection of vinyl!). It’s easy to get frustrated when your cell phone drops a call. But, folks, it’s a damn cell phone. The signal goes up into freaking space and comes back down, so you can FaceTime® with your friends and family.
What prompted all of this was a comment I saw on Twitter. Yes, I know. I should stay the hell off of Twitter, and I do, save for my real estate marketing. It’s hard to ignore certain comments, though. This one was semi-political in nature and ended with the words, “…the world is on fire.” I thought about that. Yes, there is division – political and racial. Yes, we have antifa goons roaming the streets of Portland and other places. We’ve had some protests, a lot of hatred and name-calling back and forth. Stuff is also bad in the Middle East (oh, huge surprise there, hmm?) and there are tensions everywhere.
Number one, everything I just mentioned has always been present in some form or another, domestically and globally. It’s all just more “in our face” today because of social media and the ability for anyone – a 12-year-old kid, maybe – to be a source of “news” in a matter of seconds. And, as for the world being “on fire,” I respectfully direct your attention to the year 1968.
You want the world “on fire”? That was it. The United States was embroiled in a nasty, bloody conflict in a little strip of Earth called Vietnam. 1968 may have been one of the deadliest years there, though I think we lost more service personnel the year after. We were bombing North Vietnam at a rate which was as unmitigated as anything which had ever happened in the history of war. More bombs fell on North Vietnam than all the bombing which occurred in WWII, both the European and Pacific theaters combined. Hanoi, for sure, was on fire, but so were the streets here at home.
1968 saw more protests than any time in our history. When I mean protests, folks, I’m not talking about a hundred or so idiots with handkerchiefs on their faces, breaking windows and burning cars. I’m talking about tens of thousands – in some events, hundreds of thousands–of Americans in the streets, marching, shouting, blocking streets, and fighting with police. These riots didn’t happen three or four times; they happened with regularity. The most prominent and noteworthy of the ’68 riots were in Detroit, in the Watts area of L.A. (which all but burned to the ground), and Chicago. Your predecessors were called to the streets, donning primitive riot gear, and with almost no training in how to deal with it. The supervisors of those days were basically throwing together teams of officers – anyone and everyone who was available – and deploying them wherever the demonstrators were present. Inevitably, rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown – not to mention bags of urine and feces – at police officers and they responded the way human beings under attack respond: They fought back. The results were bloodied and beaten protestors, injured cops, and members of antigovernment organizations, such as the Weather Underground, vowing to become more violent the next time. The Weather Underground planned and encouraged the killing of police officers and loudly stated that their goal was the dismantling of capitalism and the overthrowing of the US government. They were so radical that the Black Panther Party turned down their request to collaborate with them in their quest to take power.
Those who came before us, brothers and sisters, didn’t have high-tech communication gear. They didn’t have expandable batons, OC spray or TASER®s. They had revolvers, German Shepherds, tear gas, and big wooden clubs. And, they had zero training in “conflict management” or even field force tactics. These were street fights, pure and simple, and they got very ugly.
Add to this mayhem, which went unabated from 1967 well into 1971, that most police chiefs back then were not as educated, well-spoken, and experienced in public relations as they are today. So, each TV broadcast showing bloodied protestors getting dragged into paddy wagons only made things worse. On fire? Yes, the streets of America’s major cities absolutely were and this unrest raged under both Democratic and Republican presidents. When things were so bad in 1968 that President Johnson chose not to run for re-election, imagine what it was like for those underpaid and poorly trained uniformed cops on the street? America’s protests fueled similar protests worldwide. Buddhist monks were setting themselves on fire in the streets of South Vietnam. There were violent protests in France and England as people there jumped on the antiwar bandwagon. If you want a great depiction of that era, watch the Ken Burns documentary, The Vietnam War. It’s as much about what happened here in America as it is about the war itself.
We have come an awful long way since then. As a law enforcement profession, we have evolved into what, I believe, is the most well-trained, well-equipped and well-educated civil servants to be found anywhere on the planet. If you tell that to the average American citizen, they might laugh and say, “Yeah, right.” But, ask someone who moved here from a foreign country what he (or she) thinks. Go anywhere else in the world and cuss out a cop and experience the difference for yourself. Go to India or just about any country in Asia or Africa and pick up the phone to request a police officer because you have a problem, and they will laugh at you and tell you to handle it yourself.
You don’t even have to go to another country to see how your profession has evolved and what policing with few or no resources is like. Just go back to 1968.
When the world was truly on fire…
Ramesh Nyberg retired from law enforcement in November 2006 after 27 years in police work. He now owns his own private investigation agency, Nyberg Security and Investigations, and can be reached at Ramesh@NybergPi.com. He enjoys getting feedback from readers.