How the George Floyd Protests Compare to 1968's Unrest

Is it different this time? That’s the question on so many lips as furious protesters march through streets all across the U.S. and major cities impose curfews. We ask because we’ve seen this movie before — explosions of activism that seem for an instant to herald a tectonic shift in the nation’s self-understanding, only to turn out to be the distant fading trumpets of a movement in retreat.

But what if this is an actual uprising? A revolution? Not in the silly way the words are sometimes used, as synonyms for “really big demonstrations” — but an actual uprising, the sort of thing that over history has toppled regimes?

In pondering the possibility, let’s look back at the last time serious people thought we were having a revolution: the multiple demonstrations and riots of the 1960s as the overlap of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement energized the left. Much of the energy was supplied by reaction to official violence: the attacks on peaceful marchers for racial equality in the South; the assassinations over a four-and-a-half year period of two Kennedys and a King; and then what seemed to those of us who lived through the era the logical culmination, National Guardsmen firing their weapons into the ranks of students protesting at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four marchers and wounding many others. (The police killing eleven days later of two young black men at Jackson State University received far less attention.)

People thought the country was on the verge of collapse. After Kent State, the stock market suffered its biggest one-day drop since the murder of JFK. Stanford historian Walter Scheidel argues that since primitive times, enormous inequality has been overcome only in convulsions of violence or disaster, and as protests spread, many Americans saw what was happening around them as both. Across the country, campus research facilities burned. In Manhattan, protesters clashed with hard-hatted construction workers, who after vanquishing the students were so touched by the madness of the moment that they stormed into City Hall to unfurl a banner reading “God Bless America.” By the time 100,000 demonstrators converged on Washington, D.C., in 1971 for the biggest antiwar rally in history, the U.S. military was in the streets — yes, that happened — including paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne. Some 12,000 protesters were arrested.

It was during these years that the radical left resurrected the old British slang “pigs” to refer to the police. But whereas the original usage stemmed from the notion that the police were corrupt and greedy, the newer meaning was meant to imply that the forces of law and order were mere satraps of an illegitimate authority. The conscious use of words of disrespect was a statement of its own, an insistence that the police were not entitled to any sort of deference by mere virtue of the office they held. If authority was illegitimate, the cops were no more than thugs.