Will We Ever Get Beyond "The Fire Next Time"?Roundup
tags: racism, African American history, Police, urban history, riots, Kerner Commission, Protest
Elizabeth Hinton (@elizabhinton) is a professor of history, law and African-American studies at Yale and the author of America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, from which this essay is adapted.
The fires that engulfed dozens of cities over the past year seem tame by comparison to the extreme protests that defined American life roughly a half-century ago, when the nation endured domestic violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War.
From 1964 to 1972, in the North and the South, the East and the West, in the Rust Belt and the Sunbelt — in nearly every city, small or large, where Black people lived in segregated, unequal conditions — residents threw rocks and bottles at police, shot at them with rifles, smashed the windows of businesses and institutions, hurled firebombs and plundered stores. These events caused hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage. Most immediately, they shaped the lives of the store owners whose businesses were destroyed. They haunted the parents who lost their teenage sons to police violence. And they resulted in deaths and serious injuries to scores of firefighters and cops.
To many observers, last summer’s nonviolent and violent protests strongly resembled the America of the civil rights era. What we witnessed in 2020 was the latest manifestation of an ongoing crisis that could have been solved if elected officials had properly understood the root causes the first time around. Americans have instead been living in a nation created in part by the extreme violence of the 1960s.
The enduring aftershocks have been felt more regularly, and more acutely, by Black people in American cities. Alongside the rollout of civil rights legislation and the programs of the war on poverty, Black Americans faced new policing practices that emerged under the banner of the so-called war on crime: the routine stop and frisks that attacked people’s dignity, the breaking up of community gatherings, the presence of armed, uniformed officers in the hallways of otherwise underresourced public schools, to give just a few examples.
These policing strategies remain in place, illuminated by the tens of millions of people around the world who took to the streets demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
Protests and rebellions will continue until the nation reverses its original, misguided response to the civil rights era, and no longer empowers police officers to patrol communities of color with force. The logic of American policing — searching for potential criminals in low-income communities and protecting property in middle-class and wealthy white areas — increases the likelihood of contact in targeted areas and, with it, police violence.
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