ONE OF THE THINGS I used to do for a living was cover events such as they recently had in New York - riots, demonstrations, lootings, that sort of thing. I covered a few of them and I learned a few things. I learned never to get caught between the mob and police lines and never to wipe my eyes with a wet towel when tear gas was in the air and never to call my office at night from a lighted telephone booth. I learned also to forget everything I had ever read about riots.
I learned that first in Newark, N.J., when after the 1967 riot. I went door to door and asked about the stores that had been looted and those that had not. There had been a study done and what it concluded was that the mob had a certain intelligence - that it did not loot haphazardly. It looted, the study said, stores owned by persons who did not live in the community or stores owned by merchants who encouraged people to buy on credit.
Well, there was this one block that had two liquor stores and there was this group of men sitting on a stoop in front of one of the stores. It had been burned out. We asked them who owned that store and they said it was all such a pity. The owner was a man who lived in the neighborhood and everyone liked him. Then we asked about the store that had not been looted. That, too, was a pity, the man said. The store was owned by a man who lived in the suburbs. Everyone hated him.
I was stunned but then your first riot is always a stunning experience. The so-called poor and desperate people of the ghetto don't behave the way you would want or you would expect. They do some strange things. They laugh and they smile as they loot and they act, at least many of them, as if they are having a good time. They act as if they are having fun. The fact of the matter is, some of them are.
They act, of course, as if they have no respect for property - private property, is always the phrase you hear. You sort of expect that from kids, but the thing about a riot and looting is that you see plenty of adults. You see women taking shopping carts and go nonchalantly down supermarket aisles, taking what they want. It does your stomach no good to watch. You see grown men pull up with their cars and put television sets into the trunk.
The thing about it is that you were always taught that the poor were just like you, only poor. You were told that they shared your values and loved their country and knew the value of private property an were hoping some day to get a foot in the door to the American system. You were told these things in school and you were told these things by a government which declared war on poverty as if it was an enemy that could be seen, not to mention conquered. We had some high ideal then, and it was a good war to wage, but it was waged at the same time as Vietnam and it went nowhere.
It has been a decade since then, but I can understand how merchants an cops and others in New York could look at the looters and call them "animals." And you can understand, also, how some people could look at the newspaper pictures and television film and conclude that the looting was one big lark - lots of people having lots of fun at the expense of a relative few. There is something to that.
But what bothers me is that there is something in the air that says look no further than this - something that says it is useless to look past the pictures and the films to what we in the old days used to call the "underlying causes." It is, instead, like we have suddenly discovered that some of the poor are ill-mannered and crude and given to violence and entirely too cavalier about private property - as if, in short, we were back to the days when it was a shock to find out that poverty was more than a term describing annual income.
Somehow you get the notion that this generation - especially this generation of political leaders - feels it has fought its war against poverty and will fight no more. Somehow you get the notion that Vietnam and the war on poverty have been confused, that because they were both of the same era and both sponsored by the same President that they were both bad ideas. The result is a sort or resignation - an atmosphere in which balanced budgets are the priority, zero-based budgeting is hailed as a panacea banks one paid off before the poor can get social services and the President of the United States can say that his morality comes before the welfare of the poor.
In short, you get the feeling that the pendulum has swung too far that lots of people are doing what I tried to do after Newark - go home and forget about it. It didn't work and the next year Washington burned and Baltimore burned and lots of other cities burned.It didn't work.
It never does.