50 Years of Failure: America on Fire
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

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I started in January reading a book each month about some aspect of mass incarceration that first started 50 years ago, and then I am reflecting on it in this space. This month I read an excellent book I highly recommend: American on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellions Since the 1960s, by Elizabeth Hinton.

Hinton’s central claim, which is thoroughly researched, is that the Black “riots” that began in the 1960s should actually be labeled rebellions; that these events were not lawless, chaotic outbreaks, but were instead, political insurgencies against the poverty and marginalization urban residents were experiencing. Naming Black rebellions “riots” fits the narrative framework by law and order politicians who can easily dismiss the demands of Black and Brown people if their actions are simply wanton criminality. If Black rebellions are merely riots, then the state’s only response is to subdue them by force. There is no reason to ask what led to the riot for it is defined as such by the criminality of its participants.

On the other hand, if, as Hinton persuasively argues, the riots that occurred in the 60s and beyond, are indeed rebellions, then there is a political nature to them that has to be explained and understood; there is a point to the event. And to respond with only state-sponsored violence is to deny people of color their first amendment rights of free speech and to politically protest. Hinton claims that what undergirded the political nature of the rebellions – what differentiated them from riots – is that Blacks were responding to the socioeconomic causes of poverty and exclusion, and in rebelling against these forms of violence, efforts to subdue the rebellions were actually forms of police violence, which led only to more community violence.

Hinton is not suggesting that all community violence is or has been political in nature and therefore free from accountability. But she does rightfully point out that historically speaking, the majority of instances that were characterized by mass criminality were actually begun and perpetuated by white vigilantes. Think of how many pictures we have seen of large crowds of white faces surrounding the lifeless bodies of Black people who have been lynched by those crowds. Then there were the riots in places like Atlanta (1906), East St. Louis (1907), Omaha and Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Rosewood (1923), and this does not include the violence committed against indigenous people or migrants – all led by Whites.

What Hinton does in her book is recount some of the lesser known Black rebellions to make the case that violence flowed out of a hatred of poverty and lack of accessibility to resources and not out of naked lawlessness. Instead, these were insurgencies against what was rightly perceived as oppression by those in under-resourced communities. The ensuing response of overwhelming police force then creates the perfect storm for these same communities to respond in kind. Which then leads to federal troops being pulled in, which leads to more community violence. And on and on it goes.

Naming many of these events Black rebellions is not revisionist history. Hinton reminds us that there was actually an attempt in the 1960s to identify these events as she describes when they first began. In 1968, under President Lyndon Johnson, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, released a report stating unequivocally that unless there was a massive investment into poor Black communities, “rebellion and ‘white retaliation’ would entrench racial inequality as a permanent feature of American life.” (p. 9)

Federal legislators and the federal government did not heed the prophetic advice of the Kerner commission or listen to the voices of the constituents of the neighborhoods where the rebellions took place. Instead, Johnson initiated a “War on Crime” and passed the first of many bills to come unleashed enormous investments of money and expertise not into under-resourced communities, but rather, into police forces. The Safe Streets Act of 1968 allocated millions of dollars to local police forces that came in the form of AR 15s, M4 carbines, steel helmets, long batons, armored vehicles, tear gas, and training on how to forcefully subdue neighborhoods.

Thus began the transformation of local police into powerful occupying forces to be feared.

Dr. Hinton is not excusing blatant violence and neither would I. But when we accept the politically and oftentimes racist-driven narratives that Black and Brown people in urban centers are out of control criminals that can only be dealt with through violence, then we can be assured that the root causes of violence are never adequately addressed.

What we know for sure is that the Safe Streets Act, and the dozens of bills patterned after it that have poured enormous amounts of money into a violent form of policing instead of resourcing neighborhoods with greater access to jobs and education, has not worked. The narrative has taken over both parties. Neither party has been able to fully understand the root causes of rebellions, which means the law and order narrative will continue, as will more failure and suffering. 50 years of this kind of failure is enough.

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