The Police and Black Rebellion — A Review of America on Fire

Hinton, Elizabeth. America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s. New York: Liverlight, 2021.

Reviewed by Simon Balto

Few historians are defter at helping us make sense of our present than Elizabeth Hinton.

Her first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (2016), recalibrated how scholars and lay readers alike understood the history of mass incarceration in the United States, precisely at a moment when the emergence of Black Lives Matter was forcing many Americans to think anew about the nexus of racism and criminal punishment.

Hinton’s new book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, might be even more timely for the era in which it is released. Leaning on the previously unavailable records of the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, she offers an unparalleled analysis of the rebellions that rocked America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Largely pivoting away from the more well-known uprisings of the mid-1960s (Watts, Newark, those that exploded in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination), Hinton instead turns her attention to the nearly two thousand rebellions that took place in smaller and mid-size cities during the “crucible period of rebellion” from 1968 to 1972.

Why this focus? In part, it’s because this period of rebellion, when uprisings were occurring at the fastest clip in American history, has largely been lost from public memory. But “forgotten history” isn’t really the point. Rather, the particular dynamics of these rebellions matter because, in Hinton’s reading of them, they make so starkly legible several different historical facts and phenomenon.

The first of these is the nefarious cycle of governmental abuse and neglect that produced them. The rebellions were the direct product of constant, relentless violence and violation by state and non-state institutions: the violence of white vigilantism, the violence of infrastructural inequality, the violence of political exclusion, the violence of flagging and nonexistent economic opportunity.

But no violence was more important in propelling the rebellions than that of the police. Hinton convincingly argues that the rebellions of this crucible period must be understood within the context of the escalating War on Crime of the time. The declaration of the crime war and the funding that flowed from legislation like the 1968 Safe Streets Act further emboldened police and granted them more expansive resources and access to tools of violence and repression. The police presence in Black and brown communities, long intensive and long invasive, grew even more so. As a result, Hinton writes, the “rebellions usually started when law enforcement meddled, often violently, in ordinary, everyday activity (a group of kids doing what kids do),” and in ways almost literally unthinkable in white neighborhoods. When rebellions began and the police took action, their response was the third act—not the second—in what Hinton identifies as “the cycle” of rebellion: “the recurring pattern of over-policing and rebellion, of police violence and community violence, that helped define urban life in segregated, low-income, Black, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican communities.”

This points to the second reason why knowing this history is so important. Understanding the origins of the rebellions—rooted in governmental neglect, abuse, and violence—as well as their ubiquity clarifies what these events were. In a contention that will be familiar to most historians of African America especially, but one that most Americans still have not absorbed as truth, Hinton argues that understanding the genesis of these events shows why we must call them rebellions, not riots. Far from inchoate and politically unintelligible, they were deeply political—an extension and evolution of other forms of Black protest. “Collective action,” Hinton points out, “should be understood as political if it has a direct bearing on the interests of government. As much as nonviolent direct action, with its august lineage going back to Gandhi and others, violent rebellion offered a means for people of color to express collective solidarity in the face of exploitation, political exclusion, and criminalization.” 

Whereas America on Fire’s first section is devoted to a sweeping analysis of the crucible period, the second section explores the ways the rebellions of those years reverberated down to (and in some important ways differed from) those that took place in Miami in 1980, Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001, and those across the country in the past eleven months. Each chapter there centers a particular city and rebellion, studying a particular case but also telling a larger story through them: about how the ongoing injustices within the criminal legal system could provoke responses that would also be deadly for white Americans; how Black gang members worked outside the abusive punishment system to curb violence in their communities; on the unavoidable and fatal limitations of police reform.

Far from inchoate and politically unintelligible “riots,” rebellions are deeply political. They often coincide with political demands such as the ones written on this Hollywood Boulevard store, circa 1992. “Hollywood Blvd, Names of Police Brutality officers involved in Rodney King beating,” Ricky Bonilla, ca. 1992, Flickr.

What emerges most clearly across the whole of the book is an urgent history of today, and I here mean today quite literally, writing against the backdrop of the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd and a new wave of rebellion in the Minneapolis area less than a week after the police killing of twenty-year-old Daunte Wright. The rebellions of 2020 and now of 2021, of Ferguson and Baltimore and Milwaukee in the last decade—they all are products of this larger history. To be sure, the wave of rebellions that began last year and is cascading into this one began from their own provocation points and had some specific escalatory influences: the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the white supremacist vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the visibly friendly relationship between white supremacist vigilante groups in places like Kenosha, police departments’ reliance on violence to quell protests launched by their own violence. The specific contexts of 2020-2021 do matter in how we understand what’s happening right now.

At the same time, what we are witnessing is precisely what Hinton calls that “cycle”: police violence begetting community violence begetting police violence. The so-called reforms, the commissions, the committees—none of them come close to confronting the rotten core of this nation’s criminal punishment system, let alone addressing the larger systematic and racist inequities that structure the society and drive people to rebel. To anyone in disbelief over the American fires of 2020 and 2021, America on Fire demonstrates why last year’s rebellions were not unbelievable. They were an entirely believable—perhaps predictable, even—product of the failures by this country and its government to confront and eliminate the many forms of violence it has reaped upon Black America.

Simon Balto is assistant professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Featured image (at top): “Minneapolis Police Department 3rd Precinct,” which was set on fire during protests following the death of George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Fibonacci Blue, May 30, 2020, Flickr.

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