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The Times They Are A-Changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

~ Bob Dylan, 1964

Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A-Changin’ during the disturbing year after President Kennedy died. The song has six verses. The ones above are the second verse, and the last one.

Here are some over-simple generalizations. Reasoning from rich history to general patterns usually does simplify things, and that’s valuable as long as you remember what you are doing. In this case, think back fifty years. Two revolutions developed in they 1960s. One was led by a black minister who preached non-violence, forgiveness, and dignity for all. Another was led by student groups who bombed buildings, advocated violent revolution, and called policemen pigs. King’s revolution succeeded; Abbie Hoffman’s did not.

Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964, the same year he escalated the war in Vietnam, and the same year Dylan wrote his anthem. Some might say it all came to ruin: the war, civil rights for all, Johnson’s presidency, and of course the older generation’s sense that things would be okay in the end. Things were not okay out in the streets, and when you added political assassinations to the riots, people felt a lot more unsettled than they had in the 1950s.

From the dictionary, a riot is a “violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.” Riots in the 1960s came in two stripes: (1) race riots in urban centers, such as Detroit and Watts; (2) violent protests against the war, many but not all of them on college campuses, where the Selective Service had its eye on young men to send them to Indochina. Above all of this turmoil, stands the extraordinary achievement of King and the people who followed his example: a sea change in attitudes about race that ended America’s de facto system of apartheid.

The civil rights movement also largely ended one of the most shameful phenomena in American history: lynching. The film Mississippi Burning tells the story of a lynching conducted by police in Mississippi during the height of the civil rights turmoil, when churches burned and people died. The shock of King’s assassination in 1968 seemed to make people pause and say, that’s enough. If even King can die by a bullet, we have to stop and consider what we’re doing.

This rough kind of immunization lasted for a couple of decades. By no means did violence directed against black people stop. It did not result in death so often, and therefore received less publicity. Gang and drug violence took center stage for a period. Then came Rodney King’s beating by police on March 3, 1991, recorded on videotape. Riots in Los Angeles followed in 1992, on acquittal of the officers involved. Police treatment of black people has been in the public’s mind ever since.

Freddie Gray’s death is the latest of many cases. You can say the deaths occur due to neglect, recklessness, callousness. Protesters, with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, suggest that police do not protect or care about the lives of black men in particular. When you see South Carolina policeman Michael Slager shoot Walter Scott in the back as Scott runs away, it looks like a blood sport. You have three seconds to run before I level my pistol at your back and pull the trigger. No wonder black men have a fight-or-flight reaction when they come into contact with police.

Now we have the treatment of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the clearest case of police mistreatment yet. During the entire forty-minute episode, police handled Gray in a way to cause maximum damage to his body, without overtly beating him or shooting him. They wound up breaking his neck. Their treatment complete, they still did not help the young man, though he clearly needed it. The same element of callousness evident in Eric Harris’s case – Harris pleads “I can’t breathe”, whereupon the police officer holding him down responds, “Fuck your breath” – is also evident in Gray’s treatment. In both cases, a black man flees police. When Harris says he has not done anything to deserve being shot, a police officer says, “You fucking ran. Shut the fuck up.”

The Brown, Harris, Scott, and Gray cases all show the same pattern. If you are a black male and you run away from police, police will do what they want with you. They will shoot you with a taser that turns out to be a real gun, then tell you to shut up when you cry out. They’ll shoot you in the back in a manner that looks like target practice, then handcuff you as you die. They’ll shoot you in the front and leave your body in the middle of the street for hours, like a dead animal. They’ll throw you in the back of a police van, shackle you, and break your neck as you slide around a small compartment. Do black lives matter? Police behavior toward black men speaks for itself.

The astonishing thing about Gray’s case is that the police union in Baltimore defends the officers who broke a young man’s neck when they had no reason to arrest him in the first place, then denied him medical treatment when he clearly needed it. Each case of police murder seems to be less ambiguous than the one before it. Gray’s is the least ambiguous of all. A young man catches the eye of a patrolman, and runs because he is afraid. Forty minutes later he is nearly dead. Subsequent investigation concluded the arresting officers were responsible for the injuries that led to Gray’s death.

Yet the Baltimore police charge Marilyn Mosby with rush to judgment when she calls the officers involved to account! Can the police union be serious? Do they honestly think the evidence supports their position? Do they think Mosby is careless or unjustified in her charge? If they criticize a prosecutor for prompt action in this case, one where evidence clearly points to negligent homicide, they apparently will defend any behavior on the part of their colleagues, no matter how grossly malicious or reckless.

I started with some reflections about the 1960s, to see how we arrived at this point. Since 9/11, we have observed an amazing transformation in police behavior, away from public service and toward a militarized force bent on both demonstrating and asserting public control over citizens. Black men are not the only victims of this transformation, but they are the most visible, and their treatment has been the worst. We thought the era of lynching black men might be over as we entered the 1970s, but it has returned. The difference is that now, as police assert control everywhere they can, lynching by police has become so common that we can hardly keep all the cases straight anymore.