In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Elizabeth Hinton, professor and author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, a work that charts the relationship between structural racism, policing, and Black rebellion in America, beginning in 1964’s Harlem through to the most recent George Floyd protests.
For many Americans, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s marked the beginning of racial equality, inclusivity, and a sense of a wrong fully righted. Hinton, however, sees it differently: “The post-civil rights turn to policing, surveillance and incarceration as urban policy is one of the biggest domestic policy failures in the history of the United States,” she told Jezebel.
Hinton starts off by interrogating the origins of the term “riot,” which is still commonly used to describe Black-led political protests. She traces its history back to 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson used the word to condemn a mass demonstration in Harlem, protesting the murder of a 15-year old Black high school student by a white NYPD officer. “By labeling this form of protest a riot, we have been trapped since the 1960s in this policy cycle where the only solution becomes more policing,” Hilton said.
Instead, she proposes the term “Black rebellion,” which does not dismiss these actions as spontaneous, misguided, or criminal like the misnomer “riot,” but instead recognizes their sustained nature, along with the larger political context at play. Elected officials registered the way these Black rebellions directly challenged white supremacy in the country, and mobilized law enforcement in response. “In many ways, Lyndon Johnson’s call for the war on crime in March 1965 was very much in response to the threat of Black rebellion,” Hinton said. “And the idea was, if we can expand police forces in communities of color and militarize those forces, then this will somehow serve as a deterrent.”
The strategy, Hinton explains, was to find young people of color who authorities suspected might spur a riot or might commit a crime and target them for criminalization. Meanwhile, public funding was drained from social welfare and mental health services, as well as job and educational youth programs, while cash poured into law enforcement and prisons, according to Hilton. (A dynamic that has informed our contemporary calls to defund the police.)
“I think that makes the kind of policing that we see even more devastating when police are kind of front line social service representatives and they’re not trained to handle the range of problems that they are expected to, especially in low-income communities of color,” Hinton said.
America on Fire is packed with stories of Black rebellion, primarily between 1960 and 1970, the hardest thing for Hinton was not being able to include all of the nearly 2,000 uprisings within that time period. Among them was a 1969 rebellion in St. Paul, Minnesota, where police tear-gassed a dance with Black teenagers. While many of the teens ran out and went home, some stayed behind and decided to fight back, including a 19-year- old woman: “A police officer ended up chasing her and beating her to the ground,” Hinton said. “She was visibly pregnant.” The rebellion lasted a few days.
Hinton said that this particular instance of police brutality illustrates a common dynamic between police and Black communities: What might have otherwise been an uneventful (and nonviolent) protest, outing, or dance becomes the site of violence catalyzed by authorities.
“These kids were just doing what kids do,” Hinton said. “But they were a group of Black teenagers gathered together at a dance hall, seen as potentially criminal or potentially rebellious and, in tear gassing them, the police, in fact, started this rebellion. It reflects the cycle of police violence and community violence.”