An IMPD officer uses pepper spray into a tense crowd on Monument Circle in Indianapolis on Friday.
An IMPD officer uses pepper spray into a tense crowd on Monument Circle in Indianapolis on Friday.

By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS - What happens when a pandemic is squared by a spasm of civil unrest?

That is the situation confronting Americans today, as it did over a half century ago in 1968. Many American cities erupted in violence after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that April. And the Hong Kong flu pandemic killed 100,000 Americans and a million world-wide, with the Centers for Disease Control documenting that the initial wave hit as schools were going into the winter break, tamping down its spread and lethality. It "smoldered" for a couple of years, with the second pandemic season in 1969-70 far more severe than the first.

Hoosiers woke up Friday with the COVID-19 pandemic still on the rise here, killing at least 1,907 while 33,000 have tested positive, and a 16.9% jobless rate; while the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop brought unrest not only to the Twin Cities, but to Indiana's door step. Gunfire in downtown Louisville Thursday night wounded seven people protesting the March death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in her apartment. By Friday night, demonstrations turned tense in downtown Fort Wayne, where 29 people were arrested, and at Monument Circle in Indianapolis, where IMPD used pepper spray, four people were injured and windows were broken.

The recent deaths of Dreasjon Reed in a May altercation with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the June 16, 2019 death of Eric Logan by South Bend PD officer Ryan O'Neill have created simmering scenarios that have prompted emotional demonstrations, with IMPD responding by firing pepperballs at one.

Adding to the Indiana unrest is that COVID is infecting the African-American community in a disproportionate manner. As of Thursday, 43.8% of COVID cases infected white Hoosiers, who make up 85% of the population. Specifically, 13.5% of cases involve black Hoosiers, which make up 9.8% of the population. The Indiana State Department of Health lists 24% of cases afflicting "unknown" races. State Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, calls the COVID disparities a "very systemic problem."

The political wild card in all of this is President Trump, who has embraced racial wedges from the day he descended the escalator in Manhattan to declare his presidential candidacy, to Charlottesville, and now the Minnesota crisis. On Thursday, he threw gas on the American racial tinder box, tweeting, “...These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

His response was a far cry from that of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who calmed Indianapolis the night Rev. King was assassinated in 1968. Sen. Kennedy told a crowd that his own brother, President John F. Kennedy had been murdered by a white man, then quoted the Greek tragedian Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

"There's no easy answer," Gov. Eric Holcomb said Friday after he was asked about the violence in Minnesota, adding he had talked recently with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. "Whenever situations come up, I try to channel April 4, 1968. We had an example front and center in this state with Bobby Kennedy. He happened to be in the state of Indiana when we learned that Martin Luther King was taken from us and his eloquent and iconic words not only landed, but connected with people and really caused us to think about what would calm the waters and what would bring us peace. Injuring the innocent in the response to injustice is counter productive. I'm looking and appealing to people to find it in the goodness of their heart to be part of the solution here, and not part of the problem. I would ask folks to take a breath and be part of the solution."

Trump's "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" was an echo from the 1960s and will be well-received by his base, but it is gas poured on racial embers.

Louisville Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey told the Courier-Journal Thursday night, "It is not a riot. It is a revolt against a system in which people have felt oppressed. What I'm seeing is people who are trying their best to do something with their hurt, their pain and their frustration."

IMPD Chief Randy Taylor told WTHR-TV that he was shocked by the Minnesota video. "I think I'm in agreement with most people that that was certainly, totally uncalled for, totally unprofessional and those guys are gonna have to face those consequences. One, two, four cops do something bad like that and the rest of the department is thought to be the same, and that's not the case. That's not the case there and it's not the case here."

In the wake of Reed's May 6 death after an exchange of gunfire with a black IMPD officer who remains unidentified, Taylor said, "I hope people understand that if we've done something wrong, they can expect me to deal with that. I already dealt with a disciplinary issue with one of the officers involved with that, and I did that quickly because I know the community needed that."

IMPD later reported that more than two dozen threats had been made against its officers. IMPD Deputy Chief Chris Bailey told WTHR-TV, “The threats and even the overt acts where people have shown up at officers' houses and videotaped family members, that is just unacceptable.”

But it is indicative of the volatile situation at hand, even here in Indiana.

In South Bend, St. Joseph County Sheriff William Redman reacted to George Floyd's death, saying, "The past several days have caused me to suffer from a whirlwind of emotions including sadness, disgust and anger. Many of my colleagues and fellow officers share these same feelings over the death of George Floyd. Like most of you that have watched this horrible and beyond reprehensible video, what occurred is a serious lack of humanity. Please know that the women & men of the St. Joseph County Police Department are here to serve and protect you, no matter your race or ethnicity."

As 1968 drew to a close, it was Gary-born astronaut Frank Borman who rekindled basic humanity in a rapt and tormented nation when he read from the book of Genesis after Apollo 8 emerged from the dark side of the moon and the world caught the first glimpse of Earth from space.

Perhaps the launch of civilian astronauts Saturday on Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket will bring similar solace to a rattled nation.