1968 All Over Again

GELFAND’S WORLD--It's 1968 all over again, except that this time people are marching in favor of science, women's rights, and the freedom of Muslims to travel. It's different than the chants of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh," but the emotion is right up there. Oh, and there's one other difference that is as the night to the day. 

As the eleven o'clock news came on Sunday night, local television stations had something live to cover, and for once, it wasn't a car chase on the 405. For the second night in a row, large crowds of protestors gathered at the Tom Bradley international terminal at LAX (photo above). By now everyone knows about the Trump administration's moves to freeze international travel for people from a few countries. (Ironically, the countries that provided the participants in the September 11 attacks and hosted Bin Laden weren't affected.) Los Angeles has a huge Iranian community, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and it was inevitable that some local families were going to be affected. 

So there they were, thousands of protesters with signs and chants, or just being there to make a point. They filled sidewalks and parts of the terminals and from time to time interrupted traffic flow on the airport's main roads. 

And that, you see, is where that big difference between 1968 and 2017 became apparent. Blocking a street or an intersection in 1968 was a whole different affair. An earlier generation remembers the police reading out the words, "This is an unlawful assembly." There was an official script that was colloquially referred to as "reading the riot act." Failure to disperse led to the police firing tear gas and, often enough, moving forward with clubs against the crowds. 

June 23, 1967: Los Angeles residents remember the so-called police riot at the Century Plaza hotel. More than ten thousand demonstrators began in Cheviot Hills Park and walked over towards the Century Plaza Hotel to protest the presence of President Lyndon Johnson and the escalation of the Viet Nam War. The crowd got jammed in front of the hotel and backed up for blocks along the street. I remember the noise of motorcycles being gunned and people screaming, then crowds retreating back towards Pico Blvd. Middle class, middle aged white people from all over the city were shoved around and hit with clubs. The event soured relations between Angelenos and the LAPD for a decade and more. 

Sunday night was different. As one reporter explained, the police had worked out an agreement with the protesters which allowed the crowd to close down the airport road for fifteen minutes of each half hour. 

Imagine that. No tear gas or swinging clubs. The police and the protesters kept the peace. This is not to say that the situation won't break down at some point, but the attitude on the part of the city's leaders is worlds away from how things used to be. 

There are a couple of differences between 1967 and 2017 that help to explain the change in outcomes. The biggest difference is that Los Angeles in 2017 is semi-officially in rebellion against the existence of the Trump administration. It isn't surprising that residents and elected leaders are on the same side in being annoyed with how the administration is toying with the lives of our own residents. 

Los Angeles in 2017 is enormously multinational, with dozens of Asian nationalities and probably an equal number of nationalities from the middle east and Africa. A lot of this is fairly new compared to the Los Angeles of 1967 -- if you add up the Iranians and Koreans you are looking at somewhere between half a million and a million Los Angeles residents. Add Jews, Latinos, African-Americans, and Armenians, and you have a disparate population that has in common the propensity to self-identify as members of minority populations. 

The 1960s were an era in which a smaller group of white, middle class people found themselves on the wrong side of the police barricades. There was a lot of anger on both sides. Somehow, much of the bad feeling has slowly evaporated. Perhaps it's the result of changes made since the federal court consent decree, but a lot of it is just time passing since a war that much of the current population wasn't around for. There is also the fact that we no longer have to deal with people like Chief Parker, who used the police to enforce racial separation and wasn't shy about saying so. 

This obviously doesn't mean that the LAPD is without issues, but at least it has learned to deal with a serious demonstration in a constructive way, a negotiated settlement that allowed both sides to retain their dignity and pride. 

The leftside Tea Party develops 

Recently, CityWatch referred to the development of the left wing equivalent of the right wing's Tea Party. The two sides are comparable in their total opposition to an elected president and their willingness to protest. The movement has recently become symbolized by a banner that said "Resist." 

This week, Eric Loomis in Lawyers Guns and Money wrote: 

I spent the afternoon celebrating my birthday by protesting with about 2000 fellow Rhode Islanders in support of our Muslim and Latino comrades.

Standing out there today, I realized that what we are seeing is the opening of the left Tea Party. Or at least that’s how it feels in Rhode Island. 

When we start to see demonstrations, even small ones, in Alabama and Mississippi and Kentucky, we will know that change is coming.  

What would scientists march for and against? 

This is a question that merits a detailed response, possibly a column (or a book) of its own. But there is one topic that needs to be explored, and a group of scientists and people who respect the process of science would be just as good as any others to push it. We should be getting really sick and tired of this administration reveling in its lies. Whether you call them alternative facts or just plain lies, the problem is clear. We might also add, "How can anybody trust a president and his administration when they can't even deal with something as trivial as the number of people who came to the inauguration? 

What are we going to do when something serious -- like an escalation of the tension with North Korea -- lands in our lap? People remembering the 1960s may also remember that Lyndon Johnson began to suffer from what the news media called the credibility gap. It seems to me that Trump has always had his own credibility gap, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net