However much the media and public officials love to describe contemporary events – whatever they may be – as ‘unprecedented’, when it comes to protest in America there is exactly one precedent: the civil rights movement. That has proven true yet again this week.

First, it was invoked to wag a rhetorical finger at today’s unruly protesters, who never seem to measure up to the standards of decorum and civility set by their predecessors. The mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, called out the property destruction and looting that took place during protests there last Friday as ‘not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr’, and a rebuke to his ‘legacy … and the civil rights movement’. The White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, opened her briefing on 3 June with a quotation from King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech: ‘We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.’ As Jeanne Theoharis notes in A More Beautiful and Terrible History, such uses (and abuses) of the civil rights example have long been a bipartisan affair.

In response, King’s 1967 analysis of rioting as ‘the language of the unheard’ circulated widely on social media, while historians and scholars pushed back against facile uses of the civil rights movement in favour of a richer, more complicated and ultimately more challenging understanding of its legacies. There were also photo montages, juxtaposing images from civil rights protests with scenes from across the United States this week. Most of them showed not contrast but continuity – giving wordless testimony to the repeated need for mobilisations against white supremacy.

Understandably, the urban uprisings of 1968 have loomed largest in all of this. ‘In the past days,’ Zachary Karabell wrote in Politico, ‘1968 has emerged as a meme, a way to understand what we’re living through now.’ Echoing the disputes over King and the non-violent movement, much of the conversation around 1968 seeks to use the historical evidence to understand if riots and violent protest ‘work’ or not. The research of the political scientist Omar Wasow has circulated widely, suggesting that in the 1960s, violent protest fed into the white backlash, fracturing the New Deal coalition and shifting voters significantly to the right. It nicely confirms the prior beliefs of those already inclined to judge the current uprisings harshly – or those most inclined to view electoral effects as the most important measure of political success (or failure).

For people with different political inclinations, 1968 holds other lessons: when it comes to the daily realities of white supremacy in America, little has changed in fifty years; the 1960s riots drew necessary attention to the forms of oppression hidden by the term ‘de facto segregation’; then as now, Democratic-led cities headed by racial liberals seemed more likely to unleash police repression than to grant concessions on things like civilian review boards or substantial police reform.

Of course, there are important differences between 1968 and 2020, which some commentators have been careful to note. I am less interested, however, in whether the 1960s are the ‘right’ (empirically sound) point of comparison than in thinking about why analogies with the 1960s are so prominent.

The most obvious problem, evident in McEnany’s opportunistic and bad faith reference to King, is the way a decontextualised civil rights movement – a few lines from King, a quick nod to Rosa Parks – is used to discipline and delegitimise mobilisation, and justify the use of force against it. The history of Black struggle against white supremacy is conscripted into a ‘counter-resistance ideology’ (as Candice Delmas has put it) that serves the status quo.

More broadly, though, the recurrent and seemingly inevitable return to the 1960s reveals an impoverished public discourse around protest, and a desire to evade the messy work of political judgment by making historical reference do the discursive heavy-lifting. It signals a failure to ‘think without a banister’, in Hannah Arendt’s terms: to think through the particulars of this moment without subsuming them under established, unquestioned or unquestionable categories.

After decades of social welfare retrenchment and privatisation, along with the explosive growth of the state’s capacities to police, criminalise, detain and kill people of colour – conditions both starkly revealed and fatally exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – it seems likely that these protests, here and now, don’t have the same rationale or meaning as those of sixty years ago; it seems likely they won’t follow the same trajectory. The current demand to defund and abolish the police is of an entirely different order, and Trump’s recourse to naked state violence looks utterly unlike the liberal management of the 1960s – which meted out plenty of police violence, but also tried to demobilise uprisings with riot commissions, token reforms and social welfare spending. Taking all of this in is overwhelming, and it’s unclear what the conclusions should be. King’s assessment of riots could be instructive, provocative or useful – but we shouldn’t let his judgment stand in for ours.

One potentially important reason to refer to the 1960s is to show the changing sameness of police brutality in America: the systematic devaluation of black life holds as a stable pattern across the decades. Such references militate against Americans’ – particularly white Americans’ – desire to individualise deaths like George Floyd’s, reading each instance as a stand-alone, specific failure of specific officers.

But it makes a difference who’s speaking. The claim that nothing ever changes – that the racial violence of American history is a perpetual motion machine – means one thing when uttered by black people living under the daily, brutal burdens of white supremacy. It means something else when white Americans say it; and something else again when it comes from elected officials who have the power to respond materially to the demand to demilitarise and defund the police, and shift budgetary priorities to schools, housing and healthcare. The eternal recurrence of the 1960s provides a way to disavow the responsibility and power to act differently.

What I can’t shake, in the end, is a suspicion that replaying the 1960s as a way to understand protest and white supremacy now is part of what helps history repeat itself. At the risk of doing the precise thing I’m cautioning against, I’ll close with James Baldwin, writing in 1967:

If the show seems familiar, it is because the show has been running a very long time, and most of the actors have had no choice but to speak the same lines and make the moves assigned to them. There is a rumour – striking terror and chaos in the heart of the box office – that some people have become so weary of the spectacle that they have sent for a new show, which is presently on the road. But not until the wheels of the wagons are on our children’s necks will we consider reading or revising or throwing away this script.

And maybe not even then.