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books Reclaiming the Power of Rebellion

Activist Derecka Purnell interviews historian Elizabeth Hinton about her new book, ‘America on Fire,’ and how the label “riot” discredits Black political demands.

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In August 2014, Edward Crawford, Jr., throws tear gas back at police during a protest in Ferguson after the murder of Michael Brown., Image: Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch // Boston Review

Protests are filled with symbolic figures. Four-minute die-ins on warm pavements to represent each hour that Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay in the August sun. “Sixteen shots and a cover up!” as a chant to expose the Chicago mayor, prosecutor, and police department for hiding the police murder of LaQuan McDonald. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds during moments of silence and reflection for each minute that George Floyd fought to live underneath the pressure of a cop’s knee to his neck. The cumulative killings by police etch these measurements onto our memories, tongues, and notepads.

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s
By Elizabeth Hinton
Liveright / W.W. Norton & Company; 408 pages
May 18, 2021
Hardcover:  $29.95
ISBN: 978-1-63149-890-9


W.W. Norton & Company

Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s recounts resistance. Not solely to police killings that go viral, but everyday Black resistance and rebellion to the fact of police. Hinton’s book details the rock throwers; the families who surround cop cars until they free someone in cuffs from the backseat; and the spectacular acts of Black community defense and retaliation in the wake of racial violence against them. In response, local and federal governments circulate the same tired reforms that seek to build public trust in police without removing any power from police. This ineffective cycle equates to more rebellions and subsequently more police repression. America on Fire offers a fresh account of why Black people have historically continued to fight back against all odds. I spoke with Hinton about this history, and how it might inform the future of resistance.

—Derecka Purnell

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Derecka Purnell: America on Fire is going to be such a gift to organizers and activists. It is more than just a historical book. It is political education.

Elizabeth Hinton: I’m bursting right now. That’s what I hoped for. I wanted the book to be a tool for activists and organizers. Ultimately, I wanted it to be in the hands of everybody who was out in the streets this summer, from the babies to the elders. That’s who I wrote it for. So to hear you, of all people, a thinker and a force whom I respect so much, say that is a little overwhelming.

DP: The book offers a deeper history to the activism going on in recent years, and in particular pushes back on how such moments of Black uprising historically have been called riots, but they were actually rebellions. Could you talk about why you felt it was important to push back on the mainstream conception of those events?

EH: Most people who participated in so-called riots during the 1960s and ’70s did not see themselves as “rioters” or “rioting.” In Detroit the 1967 rebellion is called the Great Rebellion. That’s how Detroiters refer to it, that’s how they remember it. So part of it is just trying to honor how the people who are involved in these events understood their own actions, rather than the labels other people placed onto them.

I use the word “rebellion” to emphasize the deep socioeconomic demands that were behind all of the incidents I describe, especially in what I call the Crucible Period of the late 1960s and early ’70s. They’re in response to incidents of police violence and the way that police themselves represent a system of oppression. But they’re also about decent housing. They’re about jobs. They’re about educational opportunities. They’re about resources. They’re about community control. They’re about not being treated like second-class citizens and they’re a call to fulfill the promises of the freedom struggle and the civil rights movement.

The term “riot” itself and the ways in which it has been used to describe these events, from Harlem in 1964 onward, ensures that the cycle of police violence will continue. Because in making the distinctions that Lyndon Johnson and others did—between civil rights activists as protesters and people who burned and threw rocks at police officers and looted as rioters—they labeled the latter and their actions as criminal and senseless. And if this political violence is criminal, then the only solution to that violence is more police.

So if we continue to use the terminology of riots to describe this political violence, we’re stuck in embracing policing as the only response to inequality.

DP: Yes, that’s such a good point for two reasons. One, by talking about using the word “riot” as a way to call for more police and more criminalization of Black people, you also draw attention to how unevenly the term is applied, and all the times that white people have rioted but have not been identified that way. The Red Summer of 1919 and the Tulsa Massacre weren’t called riots, and in those instances we see police collusion with white supremacy and white riots.

And then the second point is the comparison to the perception of civil rights protests and marches. I didn’t know the full history of the students’ sit-ins. My entire life I’ve been told: “Look at these students dressed up, sitting at these lunch counters, getting beat up beside the head. That’s what you need to do. That’s what Black Lives Matters protests need to look like.” In the beginning of the book, you’re saying, wait, wait, wait, these same student organizations were also involved with armed self-defense.

Can you talk more about how much we miss when we only look at the “peaceful” aspect of activism of these individuals and ignore their other forms of resistance?

EH: I’m really glad that you brought up that point. You’re referring to the part of the book where I talk about how students at North Carolina A&T University were involved with organizing a nonviolent peaceful sit-in movement at the beginning of the 1960s—which begins with the sit-in at Woolworths in Greensboro—but then in 1969 A&T’s campus is the site of a rebellion against police. So we have to ask what changed between these events.

The chain of events that ends with the 1969 rebellion starts when high school students at the majority Black high school in Greensboro demanded an end to some of the arbitrary disciplinary measures that they were subjected to that white students weren’t, like a dress code. And they called for a Black studies curriculum. These were very common demands for the time.

DP: Same demands we have right now.

EH: Exactly. And the response on the part of school authorities was to bring in police. Eventually the high school students went to North Carolina A&T University students to get their help in this struggle against city and school authorities. As the A&T students became more involved, and as the police continued to tear gas, beat, and arrest these students—both the high school and the college students—eventually this culminated in the National Guard coming to the campus of A&T and ending in some kind of frenzy again, like many of these things. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but a sophomore at A&T died.

So how do we understand this progression from nonviolent direct action at the beginning of the ’60s to this horrible killing of an A&T student by the National Guard later in the decade? I think part of what we’re seeing is young people responding to the lack of concrete change in their daily lives—despite all of the promise of the civil rights movement. Despite the commitment among the mainstream movement to nonviolent protests, these tactics hadn’t worked to bring about the changes that Black people wanted.

It’s so important to understanding the timeline of rebellion that, contrary to what we often think, rebellion peaked after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and after the War of Crime began to spread into midsize cities in rural communities, outside of Detroit and Los Angeles and Chicago. King’s murder really signaled to a generation of young people that these nonviolent strategies in the end hadn’t worked. And of course this is happening amid the flourishing of Black Power and the power and influence of the Black Panthers and other militant groups that had a different script about police and that embraced a different form of protest.

So with the A&T students, we witness this shift from the politics of nonviolence as the guiding principle of the Black student struggle in the first half of the ’60s to self-defense in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Defending yourself against the police who are beating you, the police who are surveilling you and occupying your community and imposing violent conditions. And in some cities the white vigilante groups that are working in conjunction with police, and that the police aren’t giving you protection from. So, the option is to exercise your Second Amendment right to bear arms. And when the police are beating you, to fight back.

DP: I want to discuss how it was the National Guard that killed the A&T student. In recent years, when there’s outcry about police violence, one mainstream response to the protests is that policing is a local issue. If you want to stop police violence, you’re told you need to get engaged in your local communities because that’s where decisions are made. But in your book you argue that the federal government set the tone and the stage for policing locally, including the expansion of police positions and budgets. Can you talk about this relationship between the federal and the local, in terms of budget and in terms of policing?

EH: That question ties also to my first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (2017), which is a history of the development of the national crime control program from the Kennedy administration to the Reagan administration. I get pushback on this a lot. The official mantra is that crime control is a local matter, the federal government doesn’t have anything to do with it. But when Johnson calls for the War on Crime in 1965, it’s largely in response to the threat of Black rebellion and it’s a way to get police departments—big city police departments and smaller police departments—military grade weapons and to professionalize them. This is the beginning of the widespread professionalization of police. The national government forces state and local governments to make crime control a priority.

Alongside the enactment of monumental civil rights legislation and the War on Poverty—at the height of what we think of as progressive social change in the United States—our government begins allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to law enforcement. All of a sudden there’s all this money for law enforcement and, in order to qualify, state and local governments have to establish criminal justice planning agencies to engage in long-term plans about how they’re going to modernize and expand their police and prison and court systems to meet the challenges of the late twentieth century—which, of course, is a euphemism for the demographic changes that many cities are facing. This is after the Great Migration and cities are getting blacker and browner. And the War on Crime is part of the response.

By the late 1960s, the federal government is already beginning to disinvest from War on Poverty programs. So instead of job creation programs for low-income people and for people of color, we get a job creation program for police officers in the form of the War on Crime.

DP: To that point, last summer, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned protesters who demanded to defund the police because she explained that it would limit police jobs, one of the only ways, she claimed, that Black and brown people in Chicago can enter the middle class.

EH: Exactly. And this comes directly out of a long history of arguing that the solution to the problem of discriminatory policing is to hire more Black and brown officers. But you’re still a police officer in a uniform with a gun. Diversity doesn’t change the fundamental dynamics of policing.

So when it came to fighting rebellion, the feds basically gave state and local governments a 75–90 percent-off coupon on M4 carbines, on armored tanks, on helicopters, all these things. These are surplus weapons coming in from Vietnam and interventions in Latin American and the Caribbean. So essentially the federal government is buying all of this high-grade military equipment for law enforcement. When the armored tanks appeared in Ferguson in 2014 to suppress the uprising, people were like, “Where did this come from? This must be a War on Terror thing, a George W. Bush thing.” No, it begins with Johnson.

The federal agenda also becomes really important for the construction of prisons in the ’70s. Basically the Nixon administration incentivizes prison construction based on the projected growth of the Black youth population. This is terrifying stuff. By the time Ronald Reagan takes office, the federal government had already allocated something like $25 billion in today’s dollars to build up this crime control apparatus, which sets the nation on the road to mass incarceration. Social welfare programs had already become deeply tied to crime control and law enforcement, especially in cities with a majority or near majority of people of color. And so a lot of the federal grant programs disband by the early 1980s, but then take on new life through the DEA and FBI and asset forfeiture and all kinds of other programs.

Another more recent example of the way this federal influence works is in the 1994 Crime Bill where the community policing programs in New York and Chicago were essentially then taken up by the federal government and made part of the $10 billion COPS program which put 100,000 new police officers on the streets in targeted communities and shaped the widespread zero-tolerance practices that so many of us are trying to undo today. The federal government led us into embracing policing and surveillance and incarceration as the response to demographic changes, civil rights demands, and rebellion. As a way to manage racial inequality rather than investing the resources toward solving it.

This precedent shows that it’s also possible for the federal government to lead us in a different direction. Public safety should be a community issue, but I think communities can be supported by the vast resources and influence that the federal government has. And they’ve done it before and it’s possible that they can do it again.

DP: It gave me hope that the federal government just started giving money for police in the ’60s. That’s so recent. They could just as easily start taking that money away.

EH: Absolutely. But instead this idea that policing is the best, only way to get federal money into communities becomes so orthodox that by the time you get to the Carter administration, the federally funded employment programs for Black youth are essentially training them in how to install locks and closed circuit monitors and team up with police in housing projects. Even job training is about making young people complicit in their own surveillance and institutions that could lead to their incarceration and their criminalization.

DP: Yes, exactly that. And you could just pay people to do other work. The money is there, just uncouple it from policing and criminalization. Labor, criminalization, and policing are inextricably connected, so you can’t talk about policing without talking about inequality, capitalism, and exploitation.

Can you talk more about the relationship between the real needs of communities and how federal and local governments respond with policing instead? Where do you see that leading us?

EH: One of the things that the archives that I was working with really helped make come alive for me was the texture of the urban landscape from the late 1960s through the early 2000s. Many Black Americans ended up worse off going into the 1980s than they were in the 1970s. Much of this has to do with the continued embrace of police as the only solution.

There’s a chapter in the book on federal and local commissions tasked with understanding the cause of rebellions, and the Kerner Commission of course is the most famous one. Most of the members of these commissions were always white liberals, who would try to go and talk to people and hold hearings. And community members would tell these commissions about all of the systemic sources that were fueling inequality and the fundamental problems with police and propose all these solutions. But in most cases, the published conclusions of these commissions simply pathologized Black residents and especially the young people who rebelled, basically saying that Black people “overreact” to racism and that rebellion is just a spontaneous reaction, or an overreaction to a racist incident. But in the midst of that kind of pathologizing analysis, these commissions would also sometimes recognize some of the structural forces that led people to rebel in the first place. We see this in the Kerner Commission. But these structural recommendations are never followed. What gets implemented instead, time and time again, are the heavy-handed police reforms. And sometimes there’s a ceremonial expansion of a police community relations unit, or the hiring of more officers of color. But that doesn’t lead to fundamental changes in policing.

Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is make the case—or join the growing call in making the case—for why we have to move out of this reform paradigm that we’ve been in for the past half century or so. And we have to move away from the use of symbolic investigations, these symbolic declarations which might be good for policymakers’ PR but aren’t going to lead to any kind of long-term change. Reforms may improve some interactions between police and residents on a day-to-day basis, but they’re not going to save lives. They’re not going to prevent more police killings from happening. And as a result, political violence, even when it seems to have subsided, will continue to be a feature in U.S. life.

DP: Absolutely. The solutions don’t match the problems. And what’s also so insidious with all of these task forces is this notion that change takes time and the people in power are doing the best that they can. But you know what? Let a protest happen. We’ll find quick mobilization from the state. We’ll witness quick delegation of political leaders. We’ll see quick deployment of police from different jurisdictions. All of the work that it takes to oppress and to suppress rebellion happens very quickly, but they claim that work to end oppression takes time.

EH: One thing that I want to stress here too is that in all the communities that I write about in the book, and nearly 2,000 others that are in the timeline, and in the cities where uprisings have occurred in recent years, people have tried and have made sets of demands. People have filed lawsuits, people have protested. And authorities don’t listen. And then when no changes materialize, something usually breaks the nonviolent responses in the form of police violence. And you get a reaction. You get a crackdown. You get an ever more violent crackdown by state authorities and then officials actually want to listen to people and take people seriously in ways that they didn’t when they were protesting peacefully or filing lawsuits or signing petitions. There are all kinds of other things that people are always doing in the struggle that eventually explode in these moments of police violence.

DP: Yes. When Black Lives Matter entered the national consciousness in 2014, there were lots of people, from Barack Obama to Oprah, who said Black Lives Matters sort of doesn’t mean anything. You need to come up with policy proposals and demands. And so organizations did that. The Movement for Black Lives created a robust policy platform with demands for Black lives. They have recently drafted the BREATHE Act, the most comprehensive bill in recent memory to address the root causes of violence in our communities, including police violence. Yet Congress and the president are refusing these progressive demands.

EH: Right, so instead we get the proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which demonstrates how lawmakers and officials are always ten steps behind. Like now you want to talk about banning the use of chokeholds? That’s not going to do anything. The LAPD claimed that they beat Rodney King with their batons because they couldn’t use chokeholds. And even the George Floyd Act is spoken of as controversial and may not even pass, even though it’s just asking for more training for police and all the usual things.

DP: Some critics of police defunding and abolition point to surveys with Black respondents that reveal that they want these kinds of measures; they don’t want to defund the police, but just want better police or a better relationship with the police. Yet you argue that we should also consider rebellious protesters as serious political actors who are either left out of the mainstream conversation, are never surveyed, or are too young to vote. My favorite parts of the book are all of the informal cop watching, when kids are throwing rocks back at police, and even rescuing their friends and loved ones from being arrested. For the people who are forced out of the representative class of the Black community because they are young, or because they have criminal records, simply telling them “go vote” if they want change is usually not an option.

The book recognizes that people who perform acts of political violence are also political activists whose demands are worth considering.

EH: That was a really important driver for me in writing this book. In 2016 when I started researching it, people like Hilary Clinton were saying, in response to the critique about the 1994 Crime Bill during the presidential campaign: “Well, this is what Black Americans were asking for. They were asking for harsh sentences and they were asking for more police and we gave it to them.” That view is really infuriating to me.

But stories of kids who are out there throwing rocks—these stories, these voices, they’re not in the archive. They’re difficult to recover and so part of the aim of the book was to try to uncover these stories. Uncover the stories of the kids who didn’t vote. The kids who were too young to vote. The community members who responded to the War on Crime’s increased patrol and surveillance with rocks and bottles. And when the police came back with even more force, then with fires. And when the police started beating people, then with looting and the kind of continued escalation of violence that results from the way that policing is done.

The young people who threw rocks experienced the policing of their communities as a violent act and so their rock-throwing was a kind of self-defense, and I don’t think that’s something scholars have taken seriously. We need to begin to take that form of protest seriously. And privileging a different set of actors, especially when we’re thinking about Black protest outside of mainstream civil rights organizations, but also outside of Black Power organizations too. In the post–civil rights years, aggression against police was the most widely adopted form of protest in Black communities and we don’t acknowledge it. People don’t necessarily want to confront this history. It’s difficult to write about rebellion. It’s difficult to write about and understand acts that we categorize as crime. And so I hope that in uncovering these stories and these perspectives, the book can begin to open up new sets of questions, and offer a new set of actors we can take seriously as political agents.

DP: It’s so true. It’s why we learn more about Frederick Douglass in elementary school than we do about Nat Turner. But slavery didn’t end just because Douglass gave really good speeches. Slavery also ended because Douglass beat Mr. Covey back on the plantation and he said, I’m never going to get hit again. You’ll have to kill me first. Recognizing the diversity of tactics for our freedom is so important and it’s not typically what we’re taught as children. So how do we show a more robust, interesting, exciting, accurate history of what people did to get free?

EH: I love that example. The mainstream now celebrates Douglass’s resistance and him attacking a slave owner who inflicted violence on him. And you wonder if a hundred years from now, when we’re out of this police paradigm, when the police are no longer existing, they’re abolished, if people will go back and see that sister jumping on the officer’s back as a heroic act.

DP: Oh, we already do. The image of Edward Crawford, Jr., throwing that tear gas canister back toward the Ferguson police is one of those acts of resistance—you know, rest in peace because he’s no longer with us, but it was one of those moments. And I think your book gives us so many of those moments where we can say, Look at this resistance!

To that point, the condemnation of our resistance today is so ahistorical. All the recent protests that presidents and other officials have condemned as “so violent” are really remarkably tame compared to the history you write about. Reading about some of these acts of armed resistance, fighting, shootouts in the projects—I was just like wow. Yet today, the protests are calmer, and we have the same amount of police violence in the streets, with just as many people being killed by police. And the only side being sieged with violence is the protesters. We’re becoming more safe, and the police are becoming more violent. Your book helped me see how the line of acceptable resistance is being eroded further and further because we don’t know this longer history of rebellion.

EH: That is such a brilliant insight and it’s so true. That’s one of the things that I try to chart through the book. In the ’60s, rebellions occurred in response to the policing of the ordinary and the everyday. And then, in the ’80s, ’90s, ’00s, it’s in response to grave miscarriages of justice. So, 1980 in Miami and 1992 in Los Angeles, it’s in response not to the incident of police violence itself—in Miami the killing of a Black motorist named Arthur McDuffie, and in L.A. the beating of Rodney King—but in response to the acquittal of the officers involved in that violence. Same in Cincinnati in 2001. Timothy Thomas was the fifteenth Black man killed by Cincinnati police in a six-year period and the police department was not transparent at all about the circumstances of his death, and the community didn’t believe that they would get justice.

I think that the Cincinnati rebellion is a real transition point to what we saw in Ferguson and Baltimore and then 2020. One of the things that I think is really important about the Obama-era uprisings onward is that they are unlike the kind of violence we see in places like Miami in 1980. Miami was hard for me to write about because people started attacking and killing white people randomly from jump. Miami was a particularly devastating incident of violence in response to the buildup of all these unanswered grievances and all of these incidents of police violence of which McDuffie was only one part. But from Ferguson onward, all of the protests start completely peacefully. And then the police respond with violence. And it just escalates into this cycle. So it’s exactly as you said, Derecka. As protests have kind of gone back to some of the earlier forms of nonviolent direct action, the police violence and the police response has stayed the same or escalated, and that’s where you get the violence. That’s where you get the violent clashes between protesters and police, in self-defense. Because when somebody shoots a rubber bullet at you, or tear gas, what are you supposed to do? That’s what people said to me again and again. It was about dignity.

DP: At the start of the book, you write: “Here is the foundational logic of American policemen. Maintain a social order through the surveillance and social control of people of color.” If that’s the foundation of just regular policing in our present social order, then what constitutes over-policing? Hyper-policing? What are the purposes and functions of these gradations? This is a way of asking how we move toward a solution, and if there is anything short of abolition that would work. How do we organize toward something more beautiful than what we have now?

EH: In talking about the foundational logic of American policing as being about the surveillance and social control of people of color, I was situating present-day policing within the history of slave patrols. In the post-emancipation period, we see a continued and sustained escalation of surveillance by both law enforcement and social welfare institutions in the lives of poor people and people of color, and that continues to escalate alongside the demographic changes wrought by the Great Migration and immigration. And so, in the post-war period, or even as more Black people throughout the early mid-twentieth century are moving into cities, you begin to get the professionalization of police forces and you get disproportionate patrol and targeting and surveillance in segregated communities.

But I do think that after the nationalization of the War on Crime and after the federal government begins to invest in police and militarizes local police, there’s a real turn. The embrace of policing and surveillance and incarceration as a solution to racial inequality in the late twentieth century and beyond is really occurring at a time when the federal government is divesting from social welfare programs as we talked about. As resources are being pulled out of schools, as benefits are being reduced, as deindustrialization is happening, as unemployment is rising. And unemployment we know is always double for people of color and Black Americans in particular.

This cocktail results in a situation that a lot of people describe as over-policing and under-protection. Really by the late ’70s and ’80s, the police become the only state institutions standing in low-income, under-resourced communities of color. That’s part of the dynamic that I’m trying to describe in the book and the ways in which the people responded to these transformations.

So where do we go from here? The police as they exist today need to be abolished. There’s no question. That’s the lesson I hope everybody takes from this book. Reforming the police is not going to solve any of these problems. The only thing we can do moving forward is to invest in communities and is to invest resources into job creation, into robust and vibrant school systems, into decent housing for people. And for communities to be controlling resources on their own terms.

It’s going to take a major redistribution of resources and wealth. This is something that was floated during the 1960s and we saw it for a brief moment during the War on Poverty, but this is again where I think the federal government has a really important role. The community organizations that are doing the most exciting work—caring for people in their communities, addressing the harms of the legal system, responding to the impact of mass criminalization—need to be funded.

The solution moving forward is giving power and resources to the people. And I hope that the book helps us move toward a society based on that premise of care and equality, and love for one another. And I have to hope that we get there.

[Derecka Purnell is a lawyer, writer, organizer, and author of forthcoming Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom. She is also a Guardian columnist.]

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