A Life of Love and Riots

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When the hippies danced in Golden Gate Park in January 1967 at the Human Be-In that marked the unofficial preview to the Summer of Love, my parents rolled in the sheets in Chicago, Illinois. Allegedly, I was conceived during a blizzard that brought lots of Libra babies to the Midwest that year. When the looters burned Detroit to the ground, I was kicking in the womb. When my parents drove (with me in utero) to Montreal from Chicago for "Expo 67," they took a detour through Lansing and Port Huron to avoid the ashes of post-riot Motown.

In October 1967, the day Che Guevera was murdered in Bolivia—it was also John Lennon's 27th birthday—I was born in Chicago's Cook County Hospital. (When I went to visit the hospital decades later, it was closed. But just this century, the county reversed plans to demolish the historic hospital building under pressure from preservationists to renovate it instead.)

The so-called summer of love was also the summer of riots, and being a product of that period has shaped my life. In 1987, I dropped out of a small college in Ohio and moved to the inner-city of Detroit, where it looked like the riot was still going on twenty years later. That twentieth anniversary of love and riot, I also attended my first Rainbow Gathering on national forest land in western North Carolina to verify that the hippie vision of communal love still commanded converts. While I never participated in a full-scale riot, I attended more than an a few organized protests that some protagonists wished had become organized riots. My reflections on love and riots are not so much my story, but the story that this world we inhabit has made of me.

The wild world I was born into wasn't all patchouli and peace signs; it was a contested terrain of unwieldy unrest at a controversial impasse in American social history. Four decades later, the conditions for riot feel ripe. The worldwide urban population today is larger than the entire global population in 1967, creating the situation that Mike Davis described as a "Planet of the Slums."

On the other hand, the summer of love anniversary looks like an easily sold commodity and even an occasion for an official commemoration endorsed by the mayor of San Francisco. And the old Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury is expected to sell for almost a million dollars at a charity auction of 1967 memorabilia.

But don't go looking for any "Summer of Riot" anniversary sales. Unlike "revolution," "riot" and all that it implies is one construct that capitalism isn't eager to recuperate. (I can think of a handful of decent rock songs and a weblog called "Riot Porn" that may be waiting to disprove this theory). When the Situationists described the Watts riot, they saw "festive celebration," "playful self-assertion," and "the potlatch of destruction." While some critics have opposed assigning a radical consciousness to a collective action rooted in spontaneity and basic desire, the Situationists recognized in riots an inherent economy of erasing economy itself that cannot be analyzed away: "People who destroy commodities show their human superiority over commodities." As palpable a force as destruction remains to remind us that the commodity is bereft of real beauty and befallen by its vapid brutality, any evidence of our human victory over it still escapes us.

As much as it tried, post-riot Detroit never really succeeded with the kind of urban integration and gentrification modeled by other metropolises. Of course, pockets of posh pervade the downtown area, and hotbeds of urban hip can be found in places like Hamtramck or near WayneState, but most of what resembles gentrification from other cities involves the urbanization of the inner suburbs and the faux bohemia of places like Ferndale. Some would say Detroit never recovered from the riot, and I wonder if the same will be said of New Orleans in relation to Katrina decades from now.

I relished the "instant badass status" that being from Detroit once gave me, but like my city, I suffered from a riot, a riot of aimless revenge against my whiteness and middleclass-ness. While riding my bicycle near the Jeffries projects in 1991, four young African-American men attacked me, knocking me to the ground, kicking my head and face repeatedly. I sustained several injuries that night, emotional and physical. Four years after that attack, I, too, left, and not just to the suburbs, but to the rural south.

But for all the violent crime and economic blight, the vacant expanses of Detroit's permanent decay also give birth to an ironic beauty that still enchants its native observers. Living in Detroit between 1987 and 1994, I imagined I was living after the fall, in a post-industrial tumor that in its silence can speak of the sparse existence that awaited all the civilized and privileged denizens of our decadent debtor nation.

The anonymous author of the amazing "detroitblog" observed in the early years of the new century what others had noticed previously, perhaps predicting our collective future, when finally "nature runs rampant, untrammeled by human endeavor." Exploring vast and feral fields within the city limits, we might also conclude, "It's the astonishing evidence that an entire neighborhood, and the society that it held, can vanish, with most traces of its presence wiped out in a matter of a few years, returning to the natural state in which it began."

Of course, many dreamers throughout history have defied logic and looked at disaster as opportunity, courting collapse and catastrophe as inevitable and chaotic weapons for carving out freedom. Some people with this perspective are just waiting for the fall; others wish to bring it on. Forever purveyors of romantically rebellious prose, the CrimethInc. Collective produced an "End Of The World" edition of Harbinger a few years back (and is allegedly returning to that theme with a forthcoming issue of Rolling Thunder).

In the former, the article "DISASTER" declared, "From inside our cubicles and confessionals, we can only envision total freedom and authentic living in the context of imminent destruction." If we cannot organize a riot to destroy civilization, we can at least welcome the riots wrought by hurricanes and earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes. Or so that line of thinking goes.

During the period of the 1960s that urban uprisings swept the United States, Martin Luther King proclaimed, "There is something painfully sad about a riot." To him, the sadness reflected political futility, the failure of a riot to achieve the kind of widespread, communal political change to which he devoted his life. King tirelessly lobbied for love against the logic of a more militant rhetoric, forever insisting that love become operative as a political tool. He claimed, "What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love."

As sad as riots are in King's analysis, the triumph of a "sentimental and anemic" love as commodity pollutes our postmodern predicament. In lieu of a more powerful and revolutionary love, we're left to seek the false security of offered by authority figures and their addictive denial of the real problems. Or we escape into the narcotic haze of the hyper-mediated or the heavily medicated. Or we long for riots, not so much as an effective tactic but as a welcome rupture of the imposed reality.

In wake of the natural and unnatural riots that describe our common mania and malaise, we are poised and perched on the frenetic precipice of more profound and impending disasters. Too often, love settles to be the much-needed consolation for living under such conditions. If we can extract love from its trap inside the commercial imagination, we might unlock its more medicinal properties for transforming society. Our future will likely include riots and love, and if so, let's hope for a destruction of the commodity that is more long lasting and a love less tainted by its marriage of consumer convenience to that system.


Creative Commons Image: Paris Riots # 2 by Tito Slack on Flickr.

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