I had planned on going to Sandy Point or Rehoboth this summer, but the liberals of the world seem to want me on 14th Street. The tom-toms of progressive thinking are beating out the message that this summer blacks should riot.
The argument goes something like this: Unemployment is up; government jobs programs like CETA and federally subsidized summer jobs for teenagers are being cut or eliminated; new federal requirements for welfare and food stamp recipients make life harder for the poor; Ronald Reagan, a president poor people and particularly urban blacks view as the enemy, is a monument to national indifference in the White House.
To top it off, responsible Democratic Party leaders publicly condemn the Republican attitude to life among the poor and elderly -- even the working and middle classes. So liberal journals, betraying a left-wing romance with the idea of change through violence, are writing about the need for a riot among blacks and others in articles that give legitimacy to what anger may be percolating this spring, ready to boil over in city streets come summer.
It seems the liberals haven't quite gotten over the fact that they failed to convince many people that we need more social programs of the kind born of the last riots in the '60s, programs generally run so badly that they gave charity and compassion a bad name. So the liberals seem to be putting their last dollar on riots to vindicate them.
In The Nation magazine, social scientists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward write: "Large scale protest in the United States now seems certain." They go on to write that unions angry at the state of the economy, elderly people angry at threats to Social Security, and even environmentalists angry at James Watt will join with activists working for social service agencies -- people who are losing their jobs thanks to budget cuts -- to rage in the streets against Ronald Reagan. That coalition, they predict, will join with the poor to instigate "mass protest."
"Riots or Maurading Gangs -- Will They Strike Our Cities?" was the headline on a late April column by Neal Peirce that began: "The voices of concern are so responsible, so widespread they have to be taken seriously." There is Felix Rohatyn, chairman of New York City's Municipal Assistance Corporation, pointing to the "growing misery and despair among millions who cannot find work," warning that "violence is the handmaiden of despair" and that without a quick turn in the economy we may face a "very hot summer indeed."
Therefore, "Burn, baby, Burn," so we can all point at those Republican idiots and say, "I told you so."
Well, as a young black, I'd personally prefer the beach.
Fourteenth Street-afire-revisited may be fun for those who need a chit in the policy debate over the need for poverty programs, but for the people who are the poor another round of riots would mean living through days and nights of fear and watching neighborhoods just now on the mend from the '60s devastated again.
Almost anything to win an argument with conservatives, I say, but asking black people to riot again is asking too much. Besides, a race riot wouldn't do much good for the liberals. Their basic argument is not so much that Ronald Reagan is a racist president as a rich man's president. And the people who could best support that argument by rioting are not urban blacks. The people who could really do it are the blue-collar, white-skinned workers of middle America.
Fair is fair. This country has not seen a good white riot in years. People are almost starting to forget that most of the riots in our history were riots by whites: the Veterans' Bonus March in 1931, Chicago's Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Anti-Bank Riot in Baltimore in 1835, to name just a few triggered by deteriorating economic conditions.
One more time, I say. If there are going to be riots, give black people and black neighborhoods a break. What liberals need is a riot in a place like the Polish-German South Side of Milwaukee or the Little Italy neighborhood of Cleveland, working-class white neighborhoods where lots of people voted for Ronald Reagan
What liberals need is an old-time, white- ethnic riot among people who believe fervently in balanced budgets and tax cuts. That's what would send a screaming-loud message to Ronald Reagan that inflation and unemployment are replacing the American dream with night terrors of the kind that trickle-down economics won't stop.
Whites whose historic memories are short, though, might need some reminders on how to do a riot right, if they are crazy enough to do one at all.
First, you have to do it big, so big that the mayor and the police chief, with sirens blaring behind them, say that what we've got here -- no question -- is a real riot among white people.
Second, you have to get it going by 10 in the morning. That will give the 6 o'clock news teams plenty of time to get there for pictures of flaming buildings. As black folks can tell you, a riot isn't a riot if the TV cameras aren't rolling.
If you don't believe that, look at poor black neighborhoods today. Blacks are robbing, mugging, assualting each other at record rates. Drug use and alchol abuse are at all- time highs, as are divorce and child abuse. There is also a startling increase in the number of murders now being committed by strangers in big cities, in stark contrast to the old pattern of murders of passion comitted by people who at least know each other, often as best friends, if not lovers or spouses.
But where are the reporters? Where are the angry, bottle-throwing youth holding off police? More importantly, where are the TV cameras? It may be a riot if you live in the neighborhood and fear for your life. But its not a riot to CBS, The Washington Post or Time magazine, so for all the good it's doing it might as well be no riot at all.
If any blacks do decide to riot this summer, it may just be an extension of the kind of rioting that has already been going on in black neighborhoods, with gangs of unemployed kids starting to loiter in the downtown business areas frequented by whites.
It would be great fun to say that black people have smartened up and aren't going to despoil their own backyard if they riot this time, but the truth is there isn't much left in the backyard to burn. The '60s riots were outbursts against property. Stores owned by whites were looting and burned. There is likely to be a different breed of riots if the fire comes this time.
Summer urban riots in 1982, I suspect, would be more along the lines of the riots that struck Miami in 1980. That one is remembered for its awful crimes against people who owned stores or businesses near Liberty City. Those people were attacked -- even in their cars -- as they came near that ghetto.
In big Northeastern cities today the closest thing to a store that could be burned would be the small corner shops and fruit stands being opened by Orientals. As a favor to me, I ask that they be left alone so I can get a beer without walking 10 miles. The rest of the stores have long left for the suburbs: the department stores, the fix-it shops, the toy stores, even the supermarkets.
Riots this summer in big northern cities would be run-and-gun affairs, guerrilla attacks featuring more crimes against people than against property. And unlike Liberty City, most northern ghettos are not adjacent to affluent neighborhoods or business strips owned by whites and attracting whites.
The only way a major riot of the old-fashioned variety could visit most big cities is if poor people were to pick up and go downtown to what stores remain there and to the office buildings that house largely white suburban workers. That would require a mass movement. Never mind the absence of black power leaders or even a black or poor people's movement of the '60s kind; if such a mass movement of angry people were to occur, it would be readily detected by police. And the police would defuse the situation before it exploded into a riot or would meet it head-on with violence in the ghetto.
I might add that, politically, there wouldn't likely be great sympathy for rioters in these Republican, law-and-order days. Major cities, fighting to keep jobs within the boundaries of their tax base and occasionally attract a new business and revive night life, are not going to pamper people threatening what little has been done to rebuild cities since the last riots.
Black mayors, black middle-class people who are holding on to their way of life in the city despite spiralling housing costs, will find common cause with whites moving back to the city, with whites and blacks operating businesses in the city, and in a very clear class confrontation they will show no tolerance of rioters taking over any city. Times are hard for the middle-class, too, and they are protecting their own as dollars get tight.
What that translates into on the streets for the poor is that rioters are going to get their heads cracked by night sticks empowered by a vicious public resentment at riots. And the orders for that stop-riot action will come from black mayors and black police chiefs as quickly as from their white counterparts.
The sad part of this is that the Reagan administration in the fall may take pleasure in pointing out to liberal advocates of more social programs that there were no riots -- no expression of pain among the people they said were hurting so badly -- and, therefore, those people must not be hurting as much as the liberals say.
That riots have become the ultimate measure of pain among the poor is an indicator of the low state of public policy debate over the effect of the Reagan program.
What the liberals need is not to have blacks out on 14th Street again. No, what they need is to have blacks, like me, with reporters' notebook in hand, covering it in a white neighborhood. In fact, if you can arrange to have your white riot near the beach, right on.