The Deep Downward Spiral of Police Violence and Rebellion, ExplainedHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, urban history, riots, Kerner Commission, Elizabeth Hinton, policing, McCone Commission
No scholar in America understands the roots of the past year’s anti-police protests better than Yale professor and historian Elizabeth Hinton. Her first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, explored the political and policy roots that led to our era of mass incarceration. Her new book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, examines the underlying causes of police brutality and the rebellions against it by Black Americans over the past 50 years.
In These Times spoke to Hinton about racist power structures, government indifference, and how to break out of cycles that our nation has been trapped in for decades.
Your book discusses a fundamental cycle that drives rebellions against police violence. Tell our readers what that cycle is.
Elizabeth Hinton: It is the cycle of police violence and community responses to that violence. We see a recurring pattern of these political protests, which are of course rooted in socioeconomic conditions, but which are nearly always precipitated by police contact or exceptional moments of police violence. In the ’60s and ’70s in particular, as police forces are expanding and militarizing, officers would frequently interact with residents and interrupt people as they went about their daily lives. From the perspective of many residents, these kind of frequent incursions over time, and arrests for minor things that would never be enforced in middle class or white communities, were experienced as violence.
There’s the cycle of rebellion itself, and then there’s the larger cycle of how, in response to this community violence or political violence, the solution for prevention becomes not investing in other institutions in the community, but continuing to support and expand the policing and surveillance of the community. It’s a cycle of interaction, but it’s also a policy cycle that we’ve been stuck in since the civil rights period and its immediate aftermath.
The time frame of this book overlaps with the time frame of your first book, which detailed the roots of America’s “War on Crime,” beginning during Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Are the two things related?
Hinton: Yes. This moment during the Johnson administration and during the mid to late 1960s is really important. Initially, the “Great Society” carrot and the stick approach of liberal social policy to dealing with the impact of racial discrimination and inequality was the War on Poverty — that was the carrot — and then the stick, the policing and surveillance programs that were part of the War on Crime. The war on poverty, importantly, did not represent a major structural transformation in American society, because of the pathological understanding that policymakers had about Black poverty and crime, deeply influenced by social scientists like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who recognized the socioeconomic factors that led to disparate rates of Black poverty, but ultimately argued that Black poverty was a problem of Black behavior. So this pathological understanding gave policy makers a kind of out, to fight poverty on the cheap. Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers said, “if poverty is a pathological problem and not a structural problem, then what we need to do is help the disadvantaged help themselves,” in their words.
In the absence of the necessary socioeconomic changes that both the mainstream civil rights movement, radical militant organizations, and people that participated in the rebellions were calling for, the problems of poverty, inequality, and crime worsened. And increasingly, police became the only solution.
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