This summer, criminal justice issues have risen to the forefront of America's national political conversation. It's not the first time, and it seems to happen often in a presidential election year. Although they must know that slogans such as "law and order" or "defund the police" are unhelpful in addressing the complex challenge of balancing freedom with personal safety, politicians apparently can't help themselves.
Four years ago, at the Republican convention in Cleveland, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former federal prosecutor, led the hall in a harrowing call-and-response as delegates chanted "Lock her up!" while Christie made the case against Hillary Clinton's near-miss with an FBI investigation into her email practices.
Ben Carson was another member of the vanquished-by-Donald Trump club who addressed the convention. Dr. Carson told the delegates that Mrs. Clinton had followed the lead of leftists inspired by Lucifer. It was not the only reference to Satan that year. Sen. Lindsey Graham, another Republican whose presidential hopes were dashed in the primary season, mentioned "Lucifer" a few times on the campaign trail, although on each occasion the basis of comparison was Trump, not Clinton. The Grand Old Party was as divided in 2016 as it had been any time since 1964 -- another convention in which the GOP altered its course.
The nominating convention that year was held in California, at the old Cow Palace in Daly City, outside San Francisco. There, the nominee told Republican delegates, and the nation, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." This kind of rhetoric sounds contemporary, doesn't it? In any event, that very week, a 15-year-old black youth in New York -- armed with a knife -- put that theory to the test. The result was rioting and violence, and a crucible not unlike the one we are going through in this country now.
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Although he was not a racist, conservative 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was so committed to the idea of limited government that called himself a "states' rights man," not quite knowing, or caring, how that sounded to African Americans.
Sen. Goldwater was so fixed on his ideas of federalism that he opposed federal civil rights legislation and aligned himself and his party with Southern defenders of Jim Crow. For that reason, reporters covering the 1964 convention asked Goldwater about two passing references to crime in his July 16 acceptance address. Republicans supported "law and order," he said at one point, while proclaiming later in his speech that he was determined "to keep the streets safe from bullies and marauders."
Was the Arizona senator saying that curbing street crime is a federal responsibility?
"I think the responsibility for this has to start someplace," he said at a press conference the day after his speech, "and it should start at the federal level."
If that sounds close to what Sen. Tom Cotton wrote in the New York Times, causing such an uproar -- and close to what President Trump regularly tweets -- well, it sounds that way to me, too.
In Goldwater's case there was an obvious inconsistency, but also a context Americans understood at the time. The day he delivered his acceptance address, a group of black youths sitting on a stoop on East 76th Street in New York City got into an altercation with a white apartment house superintendent who was hosing down the sidewalk. Words were exchanged. The man, either feeling entitled or by accident -- the accounts differed -- turned the hose on the kids.
They began throwing bottles at him, but one youth, 15-year-old James Powell, ran at the man, brandishing a knife. An off-duty New York City police officer happened by. No smartphone recorded what happened next. The cop said the teen refused orders to drop the knife and lunged at him. Whether that is what happened or not, the officer fired his revolver at the boy, killing him.
To whites, including Barry Goldwater, it seemed an example of bullies being stopped from marauding the streets of this country. To blacks, the symbolism of a white man hosing down blacks evoked Bull Connor's firehoses and police dogs. And African Americans didn't necessarily accept the police version about the knife.
Like many of the police killings that have recently torn this country apart (though not George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis), the case of James Powell was complicated. The youth had a history of petty offenses, including violence in school. He was clearly an instigator in the melee with the apartment building super. Yet, he'd also traveled to Washington, D.C., the year before for the great freedom march on the National Mall. He was on East 76th Street that day because he was enrolled in a special educational program for at-risk youths.
He was, noted Theodore White in "The Making of the President 1964," on a search.
Powell "was, by all reports, reaching for something," White wrote. "And he was shot while he was reaching for an education to make himself better -- and a knife to slash with."
The resulting riots in New York set the tone for the times, as well as the polarizing political rhetoric that lay ahead. The incident also serves as a contemporary reminder to white America that the upheaval we are enduring today isn't only about George Floyd or Michael Brown or Philando Castile or Walter Scott or Breonna Taylor. It's about all of them, and a thousand others, including 15-year-old James Powell. It concerns, as an early American patriot famously wrote, "a long train of abuses and usurpations."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.