A Better Way to Halt Destructive Riots

(Originally published at Washington Times)

As Baltimore burned on Monday evening, I was reminded of the riots that swept Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities in the wake of the tragic murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and of the rioting a year earlier in Cambridge, Maryland, and dozens of other cities around the country.

The Cambridge of 1967 was a racially divided powder keg ??? a city of some 13,000 working-class black and white citizens who distrusted each other, lived in separate neighborhoods in different parts of town, and struggled with the changes wrought by the civil rights revolution sweeping the nation. The mostly peaceful civil rights movement was morphing and splitting that summer into factions that differed both in terms of goals and tactics. Old-line leaders like King were giving way to younger more militant leaders who embraced violence and who were ready to go anywhere to preach revolution and racial hatred.

H. Rap Brown had worked in Cambridge previously, had just been elected as national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and was invited that summer to return to the Eastern Shore to rally Cambridge???s blacks to demand immediate change. He came and while addressing the crowd gathered to greet him, leaped up on a car and demanded that ???If Cambridge doesn???t come around, Cambridge got to be burned down.??? The crowd, incited by Mr. Brown???s rhetoric, set fire to an elementary school, began looting black-owned businesses and eventually, 20 buildings were engulfed in flames.

The riot, if that???s what it was, didn???t last much beyond that night. I learned what happened from a charter boat captain years later as Los Angeles was torn by riots in 1992. The Cambridge-based captain had his radio on as we trolled for fish in the Chesapeake. Provoked by reports from Los Angeles, he told us, ???Those guys don???t know how to end a riot,??? referring to the National Guardsmen called in to patrol the streets with empty weapons.

???I was a guardsman here when Cambridge blew up,??? the charter boat captain said, and told a story that we had never heard before and which is missing from most of what has been written since about that violent summer. ???We gathered that evening in the armory in downtown Cambridge when then-Gov. Spiro Agnew showed up. He was accompanied by an officer with a box of live ammo for our weapons and asked several guardsman to step forward.??? As the rioting began earlier in the day, the Cambridge National Guard, like their counterparts in Los Angeles, had been issued weapons, but no ammunition.

???Agnew ordered the guardsmen who stepped forward to visit ???every bar in Cambridge tonight and let people know that you were there when that crazy governor showed up, distributed live ammunition and ordered that tomorrow you should shoot first and ask questions later.?????? The captain said as the guardsmen began to leave to do as ordered, ???Agnew called to them, ???And please emphasize that I???m crazy.??????

It worked. The riot ended, no one was hurt, order was restored and eventually, moderates on both sides of the racial divide in the city were able to work out many of the problems that had made Cambridge a powder keg.

I later confirmed the essence of the captain???s story with Agnew himself who, though elected governor as a racial moderate over a quasi-segregationist Democrat, earned the enmity of the day???s civil rights leaders by meeting with 50 of them the next week and asking them to join him in condemning the violence and rhetoric of Mr. Brown who, in addition, to demanding Cambridge be burned, urged the rioters to shoot and kill police wherever and whenever they could. The civil rights leaders he met with refused, and denounced him for asking.

Too many of today???s politicians are heirs to those who couldn???t then bring themselves to either deal with or denounce such violence. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seemed to actually encourage the violent among the initial protesters and then delayed ordering her police to protect the innocent or call on the governor for help until the situation was dangerously out of control.

Her calls for restraint instead allowed the violent exploiters of a tragic situation the time and flexibility needed to blow up a major city and leave dozens of injured in their wake.

The captain was right.

??? David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.