• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: “Oh, When Will You Ever Learn?”

This line (in the headline above) from Pete Seeger's anti-Vietnam war anthem "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" (lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC) can still trigger the same emotions in me today in 2020, albeit for different reasons, as it did in the mid- to late 1960s. Although much has indeed positively changed in terms of certain American social and political attitudes, so much has also remained status quo. We live in an age where the fires of rage continue to be stoked by the politics of fear that invariably perpetuate injustice.


I grew up during a maelstrom of civil unrest, when the belief in American exceptionalism was seriously challenged by our past and present. Newspapers, magazines and documentary films contradicted the textbooks that underscored what a writer called "Myth America." My re-education came from two intersecting sources: school teach-ins (where assumptions of American justice were questioned and proven false) and youth-culture media (where, to quote the mantra of a popular superhero, "truth, justice and the American way" were under scrutiny).


I recently gave a keynote talk for the MagCulture conference on the important role played by agitational and critical periodicals throughout the 20th- and into 21st-century history. While researching and collecting images for my talk I found (and featured) this stunning coincidence. The April 5, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone, published when anti-war and civil rights protest demonstrations occurred in most college towns and American cities, was a wakeup call for those in youth culture who were not already aware of the frequent clashes between those practicing civil disobedience and the often-brutal responses at the hands of police and National Guard (e.g., "four dead in Ohio"). Coincidentally, on my computer desktop I have long kept a scan of this Rolling Stone (photo by Nacio Brown) and, more recently, a copy of Darnella Frazier's cellphone photo of Derek Chauvin, one of four former Minneapolis police officers charged with the killing of George Floyd. The similarities are tragically obvious.



Both images, though shot at different times and places, are evidence of police exercising undue bodily force, captured for the ages, and as damning for me as Francisco Goya's "The Third of May 1808" and hundreds of other similar acts of brutal power.


Police are not enemies of the people (many departments use the slogan "to protect and serve"), but history and politics have created an adversarial tension between the purveyors of power, administers of force and a profiled, discriminated citizenry. In short, the makers of law, enforcers of law and victims of law. It dawned on me as I reviewed my presentation that even though behavior changes with the times, it is rarely permanent enough.


When will we ever learn?

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