We still have some months left in 2007, so we surely haven’t heard the end of the nostalgic chit-chat about the Summer of Love. You know, how it’s been forty years since “that generation” was defined by certain rock albums, protest movements, and sexual liberation. Todd Gitlin’s fantasies have spilled out everywhere in the popular media. And so on. I’ve already talked about this stuff in a few write-ups: on the “demise of pop music,” celebration of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album, and that other anniversary, the thirty years since The Clash’s self-titled album. Let me add another critical site: the anniversary this week of the Detroit riots.
Turns out it has been forty years since Detroit exploded in violence. Yes, forty years ago this week.
There is a lot to be said here, especially the question of whether we call what happened in Detroit a riot, rebellion, or neutral “civil unrest.” The terms mean something. “Riot” typically designates meaningless violence; “rebellion” infuses collective violence with a political agenda; “civil unrest” tries to stay neutral. Though, in staying so neutral, “civil unrest” also fails to take violence seriously. So, that’s worth talking about in another context. I’ll just call it a riot here, but without the apolitical connotations the term is supposed to have. I actually think “riot” is a productive term – it designates a spasm of violence which may or may not have a political agenda, yet we can always see or read in and/or behind violence a political reality. “Rebellion” is too purposeful for my thoughts here. (Perhaps it is appropriate for the event; I’m not scholar enough.)
What happened in Detroit in 1967 changed the city forever. Detroit, it’s worth noting, is no city among others. Detroit is iconic American, a center of industry now fading, a birthplace of so much American culture – from that industrial center to radical politics to popular music. The effects of 1967 are enduring enough that a Detroit Free Press writer could talk about a city “comeback” four decades later. Michel Martin’s conversation with former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer explores some of the long-term consequences of that bit of history. Definitely worth a listen. (Martin’s show is consistently just so smart.)
The facts are pretty straightforward. Police raided a club, confronted patrons inside, and the violence spilled out over five days. The so-called 12th Street Riot accelerated white flight, which, when coupled with the decline of the U.S. auto industry, led Detroit down a really sad path.
Detroit is of course not alone in marking 1967 as a year of very real, very transformative violence. Wikipedia has a list of riots and political violence (oh, the wonders of online research!). This is a long list of cities that exploded in 1967 in spasms of violence linked to poverty and racism. Huh? Summer of love?
So, there’s the obvious point to make here: the summer of love for some was the summer of a lot of violence for others. What gives? Why the persistent myth that 1967 was a summer of cultural progress and radicalism, where we all became freer, more blissful, happier? Who are these people telling this story? Is it just by chance that the story is always about a bunch of white kids? And why is the political issue always and exclusively Viet Nam?
I don’t want to simply note all of this as inconsistent or shortsighted historical storytelling. That’s true, but also a bit boring. In fact, I want to say something very different: the invention of the past as a summer of love is entirely consistent with the ideology of “the sixties generation.” The problem is that that generation has been completely dishonest about that ideology and how its emphasis on (an entirely familiar) individualism embraced the very heart of the past they wanted to repudiate. The summer of love was about indulgence and enjoyment, with the politics of war at least as much about an unwillingness to die as about brutal injustice across an ocean. Are these such noble ideals? Worthy of such nostalgia? Now, that generation stands to bankrupt the government with its social security claims, has turned completely conservative in its politics, and has generally given up any progressive politics beyond some glossy form of “representation.” Not to piss on representation – I’m thrilled that Clinton and G.W. Bush have had so many women and people of color in positions of power – but it is worth noting that, for all that representation, nothing much has changed for the desperately poor.
You know, the “other” of the summer of love.
The year following all this “summer of love” stuff, Martin Luther King, Jr. started the Poor People’s Campaign in earnest. King, Jr. was killed that April and the movement sputtered. One thing of note: it was already sputtering in 1967, largely because the “progressives” were too busy with changing the aesthetic features of the peculiarly American version of individualism and its indulgences, shifting from dad’s Buick and pipe to sex and dope. The same individualism, different features. I imagine the Poor People’s Campaign as just a bit too discomforting. King, Jr. was asking too many difficult questions, upsetting too many ideological forms.
And so we have 1967 as a year of violence in U.S. cities: Memphis, Newark, Boston, Tampa, and others. And Detroit, marked this week. That’s a lot of violence, really. How could we forget it? Isn’t it actually a little shameful to call it the summer of love when so many of our fellow citizens rose up in violence or were devastated by it – or, more likely, were both rising up and being devastated? For all the chatter about love, community, coming together, and so on, we see that the sixties generation both reproduced and continues to reproduce the very same violences of their parents’ generation. If you want to make a people invisible, the first act is to erase that peoples’ history from public consciousness. Doesn’t the nostalgia for the summer of love – forty years ago today! – enact that very erasure?
Problem is, of course, that “other” people remember that shit. They remember why. They remember when. They remember where. And they see the legacy of a public culture’s forgetting the struggle against injustice that birthed the violence (the summer of resistance? the summer of outrage?) and remembering only the fear (white flight). That’s my real question here: has the rhetoric of “summer of love” only served to reproduce this forgetting and remembering, by which I mean, really, to reproduce the very same injustices of their parents?