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Current Events 1919 versus 2020: let’s talk about the Red Summer

Jul. 6, 2020
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Illustrations by Julia Tabor.

In the past few weeks, the algorithms and online powers that be have begun to shift their light away from the unrest in the streets. The streets are alive and full of the youth calling for justice: justice for George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Tony McDade, Oluwatoyin Salau, and many more. It’s bothersome to see publications give weight and substance to headlines about cartoon characters no longer being voiced by white actors, cartoon characters becoming the symbol for white allies, streaming sites removing episodes of beloved sitcoms featuring blackface, and realtors showing houses with “primary bedrooms” instead of “master bedrooms.” Trivial solutions to trivial problems that ignore the bigger one: Black people are dying. Black people have been dying at an alarming rate, without dignity, without justice, for hundreds of years. 

A hundred years ago, the climate in the United States was very similar to the climate today: the 1918 pandemic had wreaked havoc across the world and in 1919 tensions between Black and white Americans were reaching a boiling point. The Red Summer of 1919 was a series of race riots that swept the U.S. at the end of WWI, marking a confluence of social tensions around race, labor, and migration with a wider crisis of the world imperial system. In Chicago, the clash between Black and white came to a head with the murder of 17-year old Eugene Williams. On June 27, 1919, and on the de facto segregated shore of Lake Michigan, Eugene and several friends were wading, swimming, and floating in the water. They inadvertently floated in a raft toward and across the invisible color line. Witnesses identified 24-year-old white George Stauber as the one throwing stones at the group in the water until Williams fell into the water. Williams drowned and Black crowds demanded Stauber’s arrest, but their demands fell on deaf ears. Reinforcements of police were called to address the Black crowds. That night, groups of locals began to have violent clashes, and almost fifty people were shot, stabbed, or beaten. 

In the three days that followed, white people set fire to scores of Black-owned houses, Black-owned businesses, and homes owned by whites but rented to Black people, leaving a thousand Black people homeless. For several nights, gangs of white youth, members of local “athletic clubs,” rampaged through Black neighborhoods on the South Side, targeting Black people who were simply trying to defend their homes and families. Monday, July 28, was the worst day of violence: white rioters were literally pulling Black people off of streetcars in the South Side, beating them with planks, pipes, bricks, and fists. Throughout the city white gangs terrorized the streets, including soldiers and sailors in uniform. The streets of Chicago were no longer safe for the Black residents, their skin an indelible target. Over the course of the Chicago Race Riots, 38 people died—23 Black and 15 white—and over 500 were injured. 

In 1922, the interracial and state-implemented Chicago Commission on Race Relations published The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot in 1919. The report provided extensive evidence of racial discrimination and offered numerous recommendations for reform to correct the foundation of injustice and prevent future racial violence. Most of their recommendations were ignored. The commission discussed a litany of social issues like housing, working conditions, and the treatment of Black people in white-dominated industries, before proposing their recommendations. Many of the recommendations dealt with integration and bringing an end to racial discrimination in predominantly white neighborhoods, labor unions, restaurants, labor industries, etc. But there are several recommendations that are similar to the demands of BLM today, just as the events of 1919 mirror those of today. 

For starters, the Commission called for increased police accountability—that “all reports and complaints of neglect of duty or participation in rioting by police, deputy sheriffs, or militia be promptly investigated, and the offenders be promptly punished.” Further, the commission recommended that the courts deal fairly, and without discrimination, with all people charged with crime. Today, BLM demands accountability as well as the defunding of the police. Now, “defund the police” has become an exceedingly controversial statement. What it refers to is the ludicrous amount of local and federal funding that local police are endowed. This is money that could be reallocated to solving issues like those discussed by the Commission, i.e. affordable housing. Instead of funding a police department, that part of the city's budget could be reinvested in communities, especially the marginalized and, typically, Black and Latinx communities where much of the policing occurs. Taking funds that are divested from Black and Brown communities can be put back into social services for mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness to fund schools, hospitals, housing, and food in those communities and more. 

Another set of recommendations are about the role of the press and the handling of news involving Black people. They implore the press to “apply the same standards of accuracy, fairness, and sense of proportion, with avoidance of exaggeration, in publishing news about Negroes as about whites.” The Commission also argues that since public opinion of Black people is heavily influenced by the press, they “should exercise great caution in dealing with unverified reports of crimes of Negroes against white women, and should avoid the designation of trivial fights as race riots.” The Karens of the world, the Amy Coopers, the Carolyn Bryants—they all exercise their privilege effortlessly, and it’s Black people that have typically paid the price. But with today’s Twitter investigators and Facebook sleut’s, more and more of them are being exposed. Media—national, local, and social—is a powerful tool that can mobilize thousands, change the minds of the masses with a simple share, and turn the tides of public opinion. 

There’s a personal responsibility to educate oneself on the issues going on today; a significant amount of legwork is required to form informed opinions and understanding. But willful ignorance—hearing BLM and thinking it’s an attack on every other race, hearing BLM and thinking it means death to all cops, hearing “defund the police” as a personal attack—is exceptionally detrimental. Why is there a counter argument to human rights, to the rights of Black people in America? Black people are dying in the streets, without dignity, discarded. The mission of Black Lives Matter is to eradicate white supremacy, build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes, and combating and countering acts of violence. It’s about demanding the same rights and respect that Black people have been owed since 1619. The demands of today, just like the recommendations of 1919, are part of a bigger mission that’s more important than any removal of a TV episode: to protect Black lives.