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From the NS archive: Watching the loot-in

12 April 1968: On the riots and looting following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the days following the murder of Martin Luther King there were riots across the US. Alan Brien reported to the New Statesman about the mood gripping the country: there were looters (“the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters”), bewildered citizens who couldn’t believe their eyes, and shocked and chastened news organisations. Brien watched the virtual canonisation of Dr King and wondered how long the new-found unity sparked by his killing would last.

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The only cheerful faces I have seen here since the assassination of Martin Luther King last Thursday have been those of the negro looters on television. Colour is a great romanticiser of electronic images, painting tragedy as melodrama, tinting actuality with the pastel shades of Hollywood farce. Vietnam has almost vanished from the screens these past few days with its ketchup blood and dry-ice smoke, recalling inappropriate images of John Wayne wading novocaine-faced through the swamps of Iwo Jima.

Now the long-distance camera eyes sprout on stalks in the riot areas of the US's own cities, and many sequences we watch might almost be from some innocent, whimsical, indulgent, black-face musical of the Forties like Cabin in the Sky. The impulse-shoppers of the slums, celebrating an impromptu, out of season Christmas, could be observed queueing in an orderly fashion, like wartime civilians in Britain, outside broken-open shops. The fantasies of the commercials, where goodies rain down from Heaven and gadgets magically furnish empty rooms, were being acted out for real. The kind of easily portable wealth that professional criminals would search out  cash, jewellery, watches, etc  seemed often ignored. One woman staggered under the weight of a monster carton of Kleenex. A man almost danced down the street pushing a cumbrous dressing table with a huge mirror  and waved to the watching millions at home as he went. Another sat among the splintered glass, sparkling like tinsel in the TV spotlights, sensibly trying on a liberated pair of banana-yellow boots for comfort and style.

Friday night, at least in the early evening, was whoopee time for this tiny minority of the black poor, miraculously awarded the freedom of the shelves, while the rest of the nation was immobilised in shock. (I could not help wondering whether the motivational researchers, ever eager to devise some new gimmick for sharpening consumer appetites, might not be considering the replacement of the supermarket by the loot-a-market where customers would be encouraged to ransack a store, observed by concealed cameras, and only realise the cost of what they had stolen when the bill came at the end of the month.)

The looters were obeying the same pro-Jetarian instincts as did O'Casey's slumdwellers in The Plough and the Stars, when they pillaged Dublin shops in Easter week without intending any disrespect towards their national heroes, dying only a few blocks down the road. At first, the police stood by in most places, simply directing the traffic in flood-lit robbery as the exploited expropriated a little of the surplus profit of the exploiters  only to be gently rebuked by the New York Times next day for such un-American priority for people over things. Later, sniping and fire-bombing broke out and the law reasserted its traditional role. In Manhattan, rumour was full of tongues, pandering to that guilty thrill in anticipating the apocalypse, which is one of the deep excitements of modern metropolitans. Reports of besieged suburbs, hijacked buses, mutinying schools and marching mobs leapt from lip to lip. Toe true facts, available instantly on such radio stations as WINS, which broadcast an uninterrupted flow of news around the clock, were barely more credible as the astonishing weekend began.

The curfew in the nation's capital retreated to 4pm on Saturday  earlier than that in Saigon. More regular troops were deployed to protect Washington than Khe Sanh. New York is the only American city I know at all well. I have spent an annual working holiday here every year since 1961.

Each time I arrive I feel an intensifying weight of violence in the air which presses down on the visitor like the atmosphere of Venus on an exploring astronaut. The electric crackle of static which arcs from the hand to the doorknob or the lift buzzer – and makes many an unwary tourist imagine his coronary bas caught up with him at last  seems to symbolise the bottled aggression stored in these human batteries. In the past, my friends here have vied with each other, whether expatriates or natives, in telling tales of life in the asphalt jungle: mad taxi-drivers who kidnapped passengers to tell them the story of their lives; sadistic vandals terrorising an entire subway carriage for an hour's journey; six-year-old children threatened by knife-carrying nine-year-olds on the fringes of the Park; lessons invaded by drug addicts, alcoholics and sex perverts. My reaction has been shock and fear and a desire not to believe. Theirs has been a rather callous bravado  like sixth-formers putting the wind up a cissy new boy.

Now, this week, I am the one who has always expected this hell to break loose. Looking from the outside across the Atlantic, like many Britons, I have seen the storm cones hoisted for a hurricane. Since the killing of President Kennedy and Malcolm X, it seemed inevitable that more sacrificial victims would follow in time. It is the residents who cannot believe their eyes and ears and implore you to tell them that what is happening is impossible. For once, the old liberal cliché about everybody being guilty for the crime of one psychopath seems, if not true, at least universally believed to be true. There is a widespread desire to canonise Martin Luther King, a great and good man fit to stand alongside Gandhi or Danilo Dolci, into a saint and martyr unrivalled in history. Each man loves the thing he kills and the civil rights leader is rapidly becoming an immortal. His reputation escalates from hour to hour. A negro leader described him as the noblest human of our century. A rabbi called him the black Moses. The Pope's comparison of him to Christ crucified seems to almost nobody even a trifle hyperbolic.

It is an awe-inspiring and rather unnerving sight to see the mass media of American opinion-making (what one British journalist unkindly calls “The Bullshit Machine”) firing on all cylinders to a single theme. Dr King's picture is in every shop window, in every paper and magazine, punctuating almost every programme on TV. The US flag, and this is a nation of flag-fliers, is everywhere at half-mast, sometimes upside down (the sign of a nation in distress). Public events that might seem tactlessly light-hearted, such as the Oscar awards, are postponed or cancelled. Radio announcers assure you that you will hear nothing frivolous all day on their channel. The country has lost not just Dr King but the King. These words and images have done more to damp down riot than all the police and troops. Any negro anywhere is treated by whites as if he were personally a close relative of the murdered man. How long this spontaneous unity in mourning will last, no can tell. But it is an America I have never seen before.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Alan Brien (1925 – 2008) was a critic, foreign correspondent and author of “Lenin: a novel”.