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Then as now, racial tension is tearing our country apart 

  • A protester is arrested during a rally at the Barclays Center over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis Friday, May 29, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Frank Franklin II

  • A sheriff's deputy drags a demonstrator off to the paddy wagon, in Houston, Texas, May 16, 1967. Some 20 demonstrators were arrested at Northwoods Junior High School in northeast Houston, charged with unlawful assembly. The demonstrations began after nine black and five white students were suspended from school for fighting. (AP Photo/Ed Kolenovsky) Ed Kolenovsky

Monitor columnist
Published: 6/2/2020 3:46:21 PM

For Rogers Johnson, turning back the clock was easy. He laughed and used a wonderful play on words, crisp and revealing in their simplicity, attributed to Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra.

“First things first,” the leader of the N.H. NAACP said by phone. “I was a product of the ’60s, so this is déjà vu all over again.”

Turn on the TV, read the newspapers, go online. Cops and citizens are fighting each other, all over the country, in major cities. Racial disharmony is exploding off the charts.

We’ve seen it before in recent years, the match and the fuse, then ensuing violence. This time the black man’s name was George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in Minnesota is yet another watershed moment in the history of race relations in this country.

If you’re old enough to remember the 1960s, or if you’ve read about it and seen those black-and-white photos from that era, you know African Americans were attacked by police dogs, beaten with clubs and sprayed with howitzer-like hoses.

Today? Police wearing riot gear are shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds gathering across the country since Floyd’s death. Some were rowdy and needed to be reeled in during stressful conditions. Others simply wanted respect, equal opportunities and the ability to drive to the corner market without being terrified.

“We want to make people aware that this is not unusual,” Johnson said, referring to Floyd’s death. “This is something that has occurred in everyday life in the black community, and that is how we handle things in America.”

Johnson saw both sides, the part about displaying justified anger – shortly after moments like Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 and Floyd’s death last month – and crossing a line that pushes this important matter to the background.

“Violence obscures the message,” Johnson said. “And you want a message that black people are concerned about just driving down the road and getting pulled over. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Rogers is a black man whose résumé of leadership and fighting discrimination sparkles. He grew up in a Westchester suburb of New York City. He and his brothers were great high school athletes, and there were plenty of African Americans around to play sandlot and organized ball.

And guess what? Someone forgot to tell the kids in Johnson’s neighborhood that black and white don’t mix.

“No racial discrimination,” Rogers said. “We played at everyone’s house, pool hopping in each neighborhood. We went to Rye Playland and the beach and Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. No one bothered anyone. It was magnificent.”

Janice M. Alberghene of Dover is 71. Her résumé is busting at the seams as well. She’s an author and a doctor of philosophy. She protested against the Vietnam War, but her mind flashed back to the 1960s and the other mayhem of the day.

In fact, her Facebook page says this: “Our cities burned in the 1960s; racism, poverty, the war in Vietnam. Year 2020. Our cities burn; racism, poverty, and the higher rates of COVID-19 that result. I’ve never been more angered by every ‘non-racist’ white person who stays silent. I don’t acquit myself of this crime, but I can sure as hell tell you that speaking up and acting up is everybody’s job.”

Alberghene’s radar is forever on high alert when tension like this explodes. She’s white. So’s her husband, Sen. David Watters, a Democrat from Dover, who teaches African American literature and history at the University of New Hampshire.

Their son? He’s a professional ballet dancer in Houston. He’s adopted. He’s black.

Alberghene was affable throughout our talk, but she admitted she grows upset when people look to her for answers, simply because of the color of her son’s skin.

“It’s the responsibility of all of us if we hear or see someone doing something that’s racist,” she said.

African Americans I spoke to said the same thing, that they’ve grown weary and impatient and can understand why people got mad, while knowing that the destruction of businesses is not the way to go.

Johnson said he saw two types of protesters, then and now. The 1960s, he said, was cleaner at its heart.

“The riots of the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “were a result of frustration with the lack of progress with race relations as a whole. Today’s riots are the results of people taking advantage of situations conducive of turmoil and not a reaction to racial injustice.”

No matter how you slice it, of course, the core issue remains the same. We’re not there yet. Perhaps we should listen to a pair of young adults. Maybe their perspective will inspire us to make changes.

Tyrell Whitted of Manchester is a black psychology major at the University of New Hampshire. He’s 24, far too young to remember the old days, but he’s analyzed both eras and said that what’s happening today is a rebirth of sorts from the ’60s.

He was slated to attend a rally on Tuesday night at Stark Park in Manchester to promote peaceful protesting. He wants to be a leader for change and believes his generation will get it done.

“It’s almost like the second wave of civil rights,” Whitted told me. “All over the country people are getting violent and the police are getting angry. We’re constantly being shown images of police brutality and racism. It seems to be constant, and we are going to break that cycle.”

Marcus Boggis is the 34-year-old son of Jerrianne Boggis, the head of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. She’s also on the board of the N.H. Civil Rights Commission.

Her son is an ‘IT’ guy living in Quincy, Mass. He knows the ’60s through reading and once thought that that era would evolve into something special, full of tolerance and color-blindness.

Now he’s not so sure.

“Frankly,” Boggis said, “I am a very optimistic person and I thought that no matter what we’ve gone through in the past, I never thought I’d have to worry about this when my kids are grown.”

His daughter is 2.

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