Recasting ‘Riots’ as Black Rebellions

Indeed, she argues, the violent clashes, often with the police, that have broken out in Black communities from the 1960s up to the present “can only be properly understood as rebellions” — part of “a sustained insurgency.” “America on Fire” persuasively expands the chronology of these actions from a discrete six- or seven-year period in the ’60s to encompass, in evolving stages, every decade since. By her calculation — she includes a 25-page timeline of dates and locations — between July 1964 and April 2001 nearly 2,000, often violent, urban rebellions erupted in the United States in response to the racially biased policing of housing projects, public schools, parks, neighborhoods and street corners.

America learned the exact wrong lessons from the burning embers of Watts, Newark and Detroit, setting the stage for a shift from the War on Poverty to a War on Crime funded by the 1968 Safe Streets Act, which put the federal government in the business of crime control and encouraged local police departments to identify potential criminals before they committed crimes — in short, to try to manage problems caused by systemic racism beyond residents’ control.

Hinton recounts, in finely grained detail, how new resources devoted to policing Black communities in cities such as York, Pa., and Stockton, Calif., exacerbated the racial segregation, disinvestment, violence and punishment that would permanently scar the entire nation. The 1968 Kerner Commission report on the urban upheavals of the ’60s became an instant best seller that urged wholesale structural changes in policing, social welfare policies, employment, health care and more. But the commission’s recommendations were ignored in favor of equipping cities with police departments that had “veritable arsenals at their disposal.”

“America on Fire” documents scores of confrontations among Black communities, the police and white vigilantes in small and midsize cities undergoing a grueling process of school desegregation, emerging Black electoral power and inequality intensified by a rapidly deindustrializing economy. The police became a ubiquitous presence, surveilling, harassing and intimidating Black communities at the precise moment that Great Society programs receded. “The message was simple,” Hinton writes. “Black people should get used to the police being part of their pickup basketball games, walks home from work and family barbecues.” The expansion of law enforcement paralleled the rise of Black elected officials, creating a Dickensian fork in the road for much of the African-American community. Those able to escape from housing projects, poverty and segregated neighborhoods found access to undreamed-of opportunities just as the police were designated the primary enforcers of the nation’s rigid color line.

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