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2020

28 years ago today marked the beginning of one of the most prolific events in American History: the LA riots. Five days of civil unrest led to numerous assaults, property damage, and race relations deteriorated drastically. But, how did this all begin? For years, there was always tension building up between multiple ethnic groups, and the government, but what really sparked the riot was the Rodney King trial.

 

On April 29 1992, people eagerly waited for the verdict on the trial of Rodney King. The trial was to decide whether the court should indict four white officers who were charged for assaulting Rodney King, an African American, after they had pulled him over for speeding through a highway and for trying to dodge the officers¹. Before the trial began, it was already problematic. Of the twelve jurors who had served on the trial, nine of them were white, none of them were African American².

 

Three hours after the court acquitted the officers, people started rioting: businesses were robbed and destroyed, and white Americans as well as light-skinned Latinos became became targets³. In addition, the LA riots also involved the Korean community, which already had a tense relationship with the African American community. Around the same time as the Rodney King incident, a Korean store clerk shot and killed a 15 year of African American who they had thought was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice⁴. 

 

Race relations in the United States continue to be in flux, often meandering between many high and low points. Even in a city as diverse as New York City is not exempt from this problem. Growing up in New York City, I’ve had the benefit of experiencing one the city’s most valuable assets--its diverse community. But, despite this, communities in New York City continue to struggle to build a strong relationship with one another, and especially with the government. For example, under “Stop and Frisk”, one of the most controversial policies in New York City, a majority of the people who were stopped were African American and Hispanic⁵. Even if it wasn’t their intent to target those groups, given the long complicated relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, it’s hard to not feel like they were being targeted. Pernicious policies such as this continue to have an everlasting impact on those affected and it is a part of the legacy of those who fail to curtail it. In this case, it was former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who had supported the policy, but he has since backtracked when presidential candidates derided him on the efficacy of this policy during the Democratic debates⁶.

 

Communities that are in close proximity to one another that are vastly different from one another often clash. Speaking from my own experience having grown up in a community that is mixed with Chinese, Italians, Jews, and Hispanics, something that can be considered normal in one group can be perceived as an offensive slight to someone else. Cultural and language barriers, as well as socio-economic status, often prevent people from building the relationships that are integral to the well being of the entire neighborhood, which creates racial enclaves where people are socially closed off from outsiders of their group.

 

Ultimately, I believe that all groups must come together to have a hard discussion about what their needs are and how they can work together to create policies that are beneficial to all groups involved. During my tenure working for a few social services nonprofits, something that stood out to me was having community leaders and representatives work closely with government officials to address the needs of the neighborhood. 

 

Additionally, one thing that I thought was beneficial was to have community events. In my old neighborhood, there were frequent block parties where all local residents, and those outside of it, gathered to enjoy the festivities and get to actually build relationships with one another. This is by no means a panacea to the problem, but I believe that it is one of the many ways we can build a positive relationship with members of the community.

 

 

  1. The Associated Press, “Rodney King riot: Timeline of key events”. The Associated Press, 2017. https://apnews.com/fa4d04d8281443fc8db0e27d6be52081/Rodney-King-riot:-Timeline-of-key-events
  2. Serrano, Richard A., Lozano, Carlos V., “Jury Picked for King Trial; No Blacks Chosen”, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1992, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-03-03-mn-2987-story.html
  3. Bates, Anjuli, Bates, Karen Grigsby, “When LA Erupted In Anger: A Look Back At The Rodney King Riots”, NPR, April 26, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/04/26/524744989/when-la-erupted-in-anger-a-look-back-at-the-rodney-king-riots
  4. Ibid.
  5. Southall, Ashley, Gold, Michael, “Why ‘Stop-and-Frisk’ Inflamed Black and Hispanic Neighborhoods”, The New York Times, February 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/nyregion/bloomberg-stop-and-frisk-new-york.html
  6. Ibid.

For me, and no doubt many others in the Macmillan Community, staying motivated since the widespread social distancing orders and campus shutdowns began in March has been extremely difficult. I’d love to be able to say that I’ve used extra time at home gained from not commuting to write or to read. Instead I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time keeping track of how many weeks it has been since I was last in my campus office (seven) and how long it has been since I had my haircut by a professional (seventy days). Some of the things I never thought I could miss -- a student walking into class after I had started lecture and asking a question I had already addressed -- are now the mundane normalcy I long for.

 

When it was clear that I would have to move classes from on-campus to online, I made a few changes to my syllabi. I had intended for students in one class, for example, to be using books and other library reference materials (not online) for an end-of-semester project. The closing of our campus as well as public libraries meant changing the assignment drastically to accommodate the students while still meeting the academic demands of the course. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can only do my best with the situation that all of us faculty face in this pandemic. I’ve said much the same to students who have been in touch about work and family issues that are significantly hampering their ability to complete the semester. 

 

This week, then, I want to find some positive areas on which to focus amidst this scary and depressing academic semester. There are some interesting assignments and projects being created by historians in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that are helping me to stay interested in the larger challenge of historical memory that will be so critical to future generations. Here are just three examples: 

 

The Washington Post last week highlighted an assignment created by University of Central Florida adjunct faculty member Kevin Mitchell Mercer in which students were asked to write about an artifact from 2020 that historians could use a century from now to tell the story of the pandemic. The Twitter discussion that followed the newspaper's coverage of Mercer’s assignment provides some insight into how our students are struggling with this major disruption in their academic and personal lives and will be valuable to future historians studying the social implications of the pandemic. 

 

In light of the intense focus now placed on 1918, the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) has put out a call for fellow historians to more fully document the history of the 1918 pandemic. SHGAPE will publish contributions by historians and other academics as blog entries intended to expand understanding of the 1918 pandemic while we grapple with the current crisis. Interested researchers from any field should visit this link

 

Finally, the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy seeks public participation in its effort to document the experiences of Americans in pharmacies during this pandemic. The organization invites the public to “share your pharmacy stories, photos, videos, artifacts, and other documentation of the COVID-19 pandemic.” For more information visit the Project’s web site https://aihp.org/collections/aihp-covid19-project/

 

The advertising industry keeps reminding us that we are “all in this together.” So what are you doing to keep yourself intellectually motivated during this difficult time? Are you planning for summer and fall classes or simply trying to get through the end of spring semester? Please share!

Although I’ve been working with college students now for more than twenty years, this semester has been unlike any we in academia have experienced in the past.

 

A few years back, during a particularly difficult New England winter, my college canceled school on three consecutive Mondays because of snow storms. That semester one of my US History II classes met only on Mondays for 2½ hours. Very few students in the class had internet in their homes so most relied on the college computing center for WiFi and technology access. I remember being flustered at how far off the syllabus we were when the semester finally ended in May. 

 

Here, in the spring 2020, however, we have clumsily converted our on-campus courses to fully online. I say clumsily because most faculty had a week or less to figure out how to best implement changes to on-campus practices in an online environment. For my colleagues at a community college we faced the enormous challenge of insufficient internet and technology access by our students. In the face of this pandemic we have been fortunate that our college has the resources to lend materials to students and help them gain short-term home access to WiFi.

 

Since hindsight is, of course, 20/20, I thought it would be helpful this week to acknowledge three simple things I wish I had known and/or done in January 2020: 

 

  • Students must have a library orientation during the first weeks of the semester. Usually we venture to the library as a class after the midterm for guidance on research projects. Had I taken this step earlier in the semester, however, more of my students would have been comfortable accessing library materials from home when the COVID-19 closures began, which would have made certain assignments easier to integrate.

 

  • Students must have everything they need for the entire semester at the start. In the past I have been really lax with students when it comes to getting copies of supplementary readings (novels, memoirs, etc). Oftentimes on the first day of class I will say something to the effect of: “You do not need a copy of this novel until late March.” Not anymore. Lesson learned the hard way as I currently have students unable to get access to library materials and unable to afford to purchase books online because of COVID-19-related loss of income.

 

  • Students must be able to download and upload materials to/from our learning management system. My on-campus students generally pass in written work in printed form. I’m learning from this semester’s experience that many of those students who choose to never take online classes do not actually know how to upload their work as an email attachment or to a learning management system’s drop box. This fall I plan to have every on-campus student submit a one-paragraph autobiography to me via our LaunchPad dropbox as a low-stakes assignment. In turn, they will be downloading my autobiography. I’m hoping to quickly identify anyone who may need extra help with our online tools as the semester is starting.

 

Given the speed at which we were forced to move from on-campus to fully online, these three simple tasks completed at the start of the semester might have helped my students and me transition with less stress. As educators we already need to be adaptable in unexpected situations. The COVID-19 crisis has shown us how important it is for us to prepare for big-picture crisis management. While we are fortunate to have the option to continue working with our on-campus students through online platforms, we still need to work together to find ways to make the process seamless in the future.