America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s
Since the George Floyd rebellion, there has been extensive debate about the historical parallels between the present era and the late 1960s. Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire, packaged as “the untold story of police violence and Black rebellion since the 1960s,” is a timely meditation on these historical continuities and differences between previous cycles of urban rebellion and the present.1
Much has already been written about how racist police violence provoked massive Black rebellions in the 1960s. The rebellions exposed the limited gains achieved by the civil rights movement, as the racial economic order continued to confine Black people to the bottom rung of American society. Picking up this thread, Hinton emphasizes the continuity of struggle in places far removed from the familiar scenes of Watts, Detroit, and Newark. America on Fire focuses on rebellions that unfolded in mid-sized cities in the South and Midwest after 1968, continuing into the early 1970s and then picking up again in Miami in 1980, Los Angeles in 1992, Cincinnati in 2001 and most recently in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Between May 1968 and December 1972,” Hinton reflects, “some 960 segregated Black communities across the United States witnessed 1,949 separate uprisings—the vast majority in mid-sized and smaller cities that journalists at the time and scholars since have tended to overlook.” Some have argued that, since the 1960s, smaller cities have been neglected by leftists interested in revolutionary struggle.2 If this is true, it is unwarranted. Examining the summer of 2020, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) documented 11,000 protests in almost 3,000 different cities and towns. While a handful of the most contentious cities earned the vast majority of the press coverage, the George Floyd Rebellion popped up in cities and towns across the US. ACLED estimates that 94 percent of these played out without violence on the part of cops, demonstrators, or vigilantes. This means, however, that roughly 660 of these demonstrations were marked by violence of some kind, while the large numbers evince the remarkable geographical scope of a rebellion birthed in the flames of Minneapolis.3
In many ways, America on Fire is a continuation of the arguments outlined in Hinton’s first book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Harvard University Press, 2017), which traces the rise of mass incarceration to the punitive policies built into President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” In it, Hinton argues that the fear of urban disorder and unchecked racism among government officials prompted the Johnson administration to shift from social welfare provisions to crime control, adopting policies that expanded policing and the carceral net in Black communities. Hinton deftly chronicles how social welfare policies, especially delinquency prevention programs aimed at urban Black youth, became the main way in which the carceral state penetrated everyday life. The convergence of crime control and social welfare became a hallmark of federal policy aimed at addressing urban poverty and structural inequality. These policies most importantly helped to lay the foundation for a national turn toward “law and order” policing by the end of the 1960s. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime came at a time when Black Lives Matter and Black-led rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore were calling into question the ability of Black elites at the federal and local levels to address the structural conditions that made rebellion inevitable. It provided an important critique of liberals, and the Democratic Party in particular, for their role in building the carceral state.
In America on Fire, Hinton takes a closer look at the Black rebellions that took root in the political terrain of the post-civil rights era. The book’s central thesis is that the shift from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime resulted in an increase in police involvement in the day-to-day life of Black Americans. As a result, rebellions both large and small erupted—not in response to spectacular cases of police abuse, as today, but in reaction to the very presence of cops in Black communities. Hinton also provides an important historical rebuttal to the commonly held belief that urban rebellions largely subsided after 1968. America on Fire chronicles a general era of Black rebellion that unfolded well after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., commonly held to have been the apex of the urban rebellions of the 1960s. For example, the year 1970 saw a total of 632 rebellions compared to the 164 which occurred during the long, hot summer of 1967, evincing the continuity of mass street militancy even as Black Power organizations were defeated or declined.
America on Fire expends great narrative effort reconstructing a series of large-scale rebellions characterizing these years, providing a valuable historical record of the initiatives undertaken by largely anonymous people, across the United States, who took great risks to challenge its social order through extra-parliamentary and often violent means. It emphasizes the hyper-local nature of rebellions which nonetheless form part of national trends, including their origins within the everyday life of housing projects, schools, and of course, policing. Above all, however, America on Fire stands as a monument to the historical moment that produced it, as Hinton earnestly endeavors to transcend the limits of a liberal analysis of social crisis and rebellion, and ultimately fails to do so.
When Claude McKay published the sonnet “White City” in the Liberator in October 1921, he sought to capture the complex and contradictory emotions Black Americans felt living in Harlem and other segregated neighborhoods of northern cities, a “heaven in white world’s hell.”4 Between 1910 and 1940, over three million Black people left the South for northern and midwestern cities to escape white violence, Jim Crow segregation, and unemployment wrought by the mechanization of agriculture. But these barriers extended to the North, dimming any expectation of a good life in the promised land. In the North, Black workers were relegated to the lowest tiers of an often shrinking industrial workforce and penned into teeming and highly exploitative segregated housing. McKay described “a dark passion” brewing inside the hearts and minds of ordinary Black people, as they confronted the white power political structure in northern cities at every turn. He was writing in the aftermath of the Red Summer of 1919, which saw spectacular white violence against Black Americans in cities and towns across America, and which made self-defense an indispensable strategy for Black liberation. By the 1960s, four decades of segregation in employment, housing, and education, in tandem with nascent deindustrialization, had only exacerbated these trends. In this setting, the structural racism ordering everyday life was most bluntly enforced by the cops.
Hinton makes a strong case for the relationship between policing and urban rebellions. She argues that, in contrast to today’s rebellions provoked by police murder and other spectacular injustices, these rebellions were largely produced by the everyday policing of Black people on the streets, in public housing, and in schools. Hinton emphasizes that the rebellions peaked between 1968 and 1972, just as the War on Crime “pumped resources in police departments and dramatically escalated surveillance, harassment and violence in American cities.” Police power was expanded, and housing projects and schools became saturated with police presence and surveillance. But residents did not passively accept police intrusion into their lives. Nor did they suffer white vigilantes without a fight. Hinton chronicles violent and often protracted battles between Black and Brown proletarians, cops, and white vigilantes in places like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Burlington, North Carolina; and Decatur, Cairo, and Peoria, Illinois.
In Peoria, Illinois, for instance, Black residents of the Taft Homes built barricades to prevent the cops from entering the housing project. In the San Fernando Gardens housing project in northern Los Angeles, teenagers pelted cops with rocks and bottles when they showed up to shut down a party. Rock throwing often quickly escalated into all-out war against the police. In Stockton, California, what began as a small rebellion in the segregated Sierra Vista housing project against the police who showed up to break up a party culminated with residents kidnapping police officers and locking them inside the project’s gym. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, cops arriving to break up a brawl ended up uniting its participants, who pelted the cops with rocks, precipitating hours of rioting against police and local businesses, and damaging housing project infrastructure. The tactical militancy of these rebellions is striking; not only did rebels routinely toss bottles, rocks, bricks, and molotov cocktails at police, and loot and burn (typically, white) businesses, but it was not uncommon for snipers to shoot at cops and others to target infrastructure with firebombs.
Hinton documents considerable struggle opposing white resistance to desegregation in housing and schools. In Gastonia, North Carolina; Aliquippa, Pennsylvania; and Burlington, North Carolina, white students resisted integration and even tried to prevent the inclusion of Black cheerleaders on local high school teams. This prompted protests by Black students, followed by police intervention, which escalated the situation into an all-out rebellion. In Burlington, North Carolina, fights between Black and white students over the rejection of a Black cheerleader spilled into a larger conflict between the Black community and police. As the Black student-led protest escalated to rock throwing and burning the school building, police reinforcements and even prison guards were called in to squash the incipient rebellion. The sight of cops, however, only fueled the rebellion, with Black area residents joining in to fight against the police. After a firebomb went off inside a white-owned business and more clashes unfolded between Black residents and police, the National Guard was called in to secure the streets; the police killed a Black student.
In several of the key cities Hinton examines, there was direct and at times open cooperation between the police and civilian emissaries from the local white power structure, including armed vigilantes. In Cairo, Illinois in particular, local cops helped arm and protect white vigilantes who engaged in nothing short of low-intensity combat lasting years on end, including regular exchanges of gunfire in the night. Sniping bore the unmistakable mark of the Vietnam War, as combatants on both sides shot out their own streetlights to improve their tactical position.
With clear reference to the summer of 2020, Hinton claims that these rebellions originated in the fact that the police and other authorities denied Black people the same treatment they afforded to whites. Echoing Dr. King’s oft-cited contention that riots are “the language of the unheard,” Hinton goes as far as to abjure the term “riot” altogether, which she argues connotes actions that are “purely criminal, and completely senseless.” By contrast, Hinton offers the term “rebellion,” by which she means militant, and even justifiably violent “appeals for inclusion” within civil society institutions. “Rebellion served as a message to the nation,” she writes, “that the civil rights reforms of the mid-1960s, the equal-opportunity and self-help programs of the War on Poverty, and ongoing nonviolent protests were inadequate to solving the problem of racial inequality and its countless manifestations and consequences.”
Recent reviews of America on Fire have lauded Hinton’s choice of the term “rebellion” instead of “riot,” which speaks to the political and organized dimensions of popular uprisings. But in her use of the term Hinton frames the rebellions as expressing a desire for greater inclusion in the American project, not a challenge to its existence. Perhaps she is correct that one goal of the 1968–1972 wave of rebellions was a more inclusive social democracy. But Hinton’s own examples cast doubt on whether this can be achieved any other way than direct revolutionary confrontation with the state. This is further supported by the course many of these struggles took. While rebellions inside housing projects and schools often began as protests against everyday racial injustices, they usually escalated into a generalized revolt against the entire white power structure, capitalist businesses, and of course the cops themselves. This was not a period defined only by the demand for Black and brown inclusion within the white supremacist social order, but also by the direct attack upon it, as part of an international movement against white supremacy and imperialism.
To say this is not to downplay the significance of the fact that a well-pedigreed US historian has come out in spirited defense of violent protest. America on Fire indicates that its author has been radicalized by the last year of struggle, as the book argues passionately for the legitimately political nature of the George Floyd rebellion, against those who dismiss riots as apolitical or downright bad. It can only be hoped that Hinton represents a broader leftward shift among academics who could otherwise be won over to denounce looters, “outside agitators,” and all the rest of the reactionary tropes deployed in times of crisis by the state and its apologists. Hinton also rejects the “bad apple” hypothesis of American policing, arguing instead that police violence is part and parcel of a social order, “violent to the core” that “devalues black lives.” Unfortunately, it is never clear how Hinton understands the system to which she is so opposed.
Further, America on Fire expresses frustrations with “the not intentionally malicious but mealymouthed and noncommittal” outcomes of various liberal civil rights commissions, who can pinpoint the structural problems facing Black America but are too slow to “solve inequality.” Citing the Kerner Commission, Hinton favors a redistribution of social resources at the national level. But Hinton offers no clear analysis of how this can be achieved within the present social order. Elsewhere, Hinton calls for the abolition of “the forces of inequality,” with no comment on what these forces are. She recognizes that the era of rebellion she is alluding to also represents a growing class divide between Black middle class and working class but does not take it up any further. She refers at times to the “logic” of American policing, a piece of jargon that suggests an intuition of deep causal necessity but falls short of saying what it is. Ultimately, unsure of what exactly her book is against, Hinton defaults to familiar territory: the need for racial equality in US liberal democracy, to be achieved through the lawmaking organs of the capitalist state.
This is nothing new from Hinton. In From the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs, Hinton argued that it was the ideological racism of politicians like Lyndon Johnson that blocked the otherwise viable project of attaining racial equality in US capitalist democracy in the 1960s. Hinton does not take seriously the profound economic transformation of the United States, including the end of the postwar boom and the “deindustrialization” inherent in continued mechanization of production, that backgrounded the rise of police and prisons in the social life of Black and brown communities. In America on Fire, Hinton at times argues that the US racial order is working exactly as it should—for those in power. But she repeatedly forgets this conviction, falling back on the shopworn liberal trope that racism in the US, and ultimately all forms of social conflict, are all one big mistake. “The belief that sniping, or simply Black self-defense, was part of a larger revolutionary conspiracy or an expression of community pathology,” Hinton writes, “prevented those in power from imagining alternatives to the further escalation of the crime war.” Faced with social antagonism, Hinton argues time and again that this is all the product of people with the wrong ideas.
“The violent and non-violent expressions of Black protest are entwined forces,” Hinton writes, “and rebellion must be understood on its own terms, as a type of political action that has been integral to the history of the freedom movement in America.” This is a welcome intervention, especially given how much damage the binary of “good” and “bad,” or “peaceful” and “violent” protesters caused in the 2020 rebellion, sowing distrust and ultimately deputizing protesters to do the work of cops. Ultimately, however, in order to sustain a defense of violent rebellion, Hinton must make it liberal. Riots, Hinton argues, are a valid form of action because they are simply liberalism continued by other means. Hinton endeavors to defend the rebellions she chronicles, violence and all. But this comes at the expense of denying the existence of Black revolutionary politics.
In particular, Hinton argues that Black “self defense” was undertaken in riots in pursuit of equitable inclusion within US liberal democracy. While the term has a longer history, to which Hinton alludes in her introduction, going back to the Red Summer of 1919, it was popularized by the Black Panther Party (BPP), Marxist-Leninist-Maoists who fought, and even died, as avowed revolutionaries. In keeping with BPP’s present-day liberal makeover, Hinton reinvents the Panthers as service providers akin to contemporary non-profits, omitting the fact that their community health, breakfast, and political education programs were part of an explicit strategy to lead the violent overthrow of the United States government by building a base of support for revolution within working-class Black communities and thereby developing Black power outside—and against—the capitalist state.
Responding to critics who argued that the BPP was a reformist organization seeking black political and economic control of the “Black community,” scholar Delio Vásquez argues that the structural position of Black people made it imperative that the organization focus on social reproduction “as a primary terrain of political struggle.”5 Vásquez brings to light the various political transformations that were occurring within the BPP, including the move from revolutionary nationalism to internationalism and intercommunalism, the latter concept grappling with the effects of global capitalism, and automation on racialized surplus populations. While the question is too large to be settled here, on the most basic level we are inclined to believe somebody when they call themselves a revolutionary and take up arms to act accordingly.
Hinton affords similar treatment to Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) organizer Robert F. Williams, who promoted Black gun culture as part of an explicitly revolutionary program of building Black Power into an armed revolutionary movement. Hinton’s Williams, by contrast, “believed armed self-defense was the best available means to prevent the escalation of violence.” The real-life Williams linked self-defense to revolution, not keeping the peace in US liberal democracy. Inspired by the Cuban revolution, Williams spread his revolutionary ideas through Radio Free Dixie, broadcast from Cuba following Williams’s exile from the US. Far from seeking to avoid violence, Williams believed insurrection against the capitalist state was necessary, as part of a global movement against US imperialism. “Social change in something as fundamental as racist oppression involves violence and upheaval,” he argued, “because it’s a struggle for survival for one and struggle for liberation for the other.”6
Similarly, Hinton suggests it was a paranoid white fantasy that Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers (1966) was influential, politically and tactically, on Black revolutionaries and other anti-imperialist cadre, including the Panthers and the Irish Republican Army.7 These are but a few examples, as Charisse Burden-Stelly recently argued, of how Hinton misses opportunities to connect anti-imperialism of Black revolutionaries to the political context that also gave rise to the “war on crime”: anti-communism and the fear that Black rebellions would bring Third World revolutions at home.8 The global zeitgeist of revolution was not a figment of the white imagination in the United States. It was a formidable political force, and Black and brown revolutionaries understood themselves as part of it.
There was of course no singular conception of revolution among those who rebelled in this period. But instead of alluding to the tensions and contradictions which existed within the Black Power movement, Hinton further reduces the militancy of that movement to the singular demand for “basic protections” under the law. If this was true of the previous generation of Black rebels, it can hardly be said of the late 1960s. As James Baldwin wrote to an imprisoned Angela Davis, “you … do not appear to be your father’s daughter in the same way that I am my father’s son.” Baldwin continued: “But when Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali and refused to put on that uniform (and sacrificed all that money!) a very different impact was made on the people and a very different kind of instruction had begun.” Accordingly, the Panthers did not fight to realize the ideal of formal equality demanded by the civil rights movement but adopted an explicitly revolutionary politics in response to the impossibility of equality in capitalist democracy. Present-day illusions about the viability of such equality should not be projected onto the past.9
The nightmare of structural violence against Black people in the US today, Hinton argues, is among “the violent legacies of America, and of the paths not chosen,” the result of “transformational change” not occurring. But what were these paths, and what would this change have looked like? The closest the book comes to an answer comes when Hinton argues that the LA gang truce of 1992, which unified warring street families in the aftermath of the LA riots, involved organizations that formulated a kind of social-democratic outlook demanding public and private investment to mitigate structural racism. Hinton chronicles how this auspicious project was used by politicians and corporations for public relations, before they promptly abandoned commitments to funding peace, and allowed gang warfare to resume. Hinton’s analysis is that the politicians and corporations were insufficiently dedicated to the common goal of peace and equality.
While draping itself in the rhetoric of righteous rebellion, America on Fire thus falls short of considering that the US ruling class has no interest in mitigating poverty among large swaths of workers redundant to the labor force, much less in stopping urban violence and unifying gangs to create Black and brown power blocs that could challenge US class relations. America on Fire hardly mentions class relations at all; politics is instead cast in terms of individual people acting on their ideas. In the case of Los Angeles, Hinton does not take seriously the threat that the gang truce posed to the local ruling class, and thus is left chalking up its demise to a mere case of failure of imagination or dedication to racial justice among the politicians and business owners who refused to fund it once the news cameras went away. Hinton is incapable of conceptualizing the fundamental antagonism between the power expressed in rebellions—and gangs—and the powers that rule society. Instead, we are left with maudlin appeals to national solidarity: we are all in this together, don’t you see?
Hinton also misses opportunities to offer a meaningful analysis about the relationship of the Black urban rebellions to the wider capitalist social structure. Writing about urban in 1969, Robert Allen argued that integration failed not due to “bad intentions or even failure of will, but because the social structure of US civil society simply cannot accommodate those at the bottom of the economic ladder.”10 Subsequent employment trends, including a large and disproportionately Black and brown surplus population cast outside of regular employment, bolster Allen’s prescient claim. Yet while Hinton recognizes the rebellions as expressing the limits of civil rights, she sees the persistent social inequality experienced by Black Americans as the fault of governing elites and policymakers and not structurally connected to transformations in capitalism. For example, she discusses cities’ “failure to attract industry”—neoliberal jargon that translates to the unwillingness or inability of municipalities to hand over their zoning, taxation, labor law, and environmental regulation to any corporation willing to set up shop there. Ultimately, it was not so much failure to attract industry that precipitated urban crisis in the period Hinton considers, but a profound global transformation of production, in which capital had begun to automate out of existence the jobs of the great concentrations of workers it had earlier created in cities like Detroit.
Five decades later, the George Floyd rebellion signaled that the crisis had only deepened. In the summer of 2020, the unemployment rate for Black Americans climbed to 16.8 percent, or 10.1 percent higher than in 1968 (6.7 percent).11 However, as Hinton herself acknowledges but cannot explain, unlike the 1968–1972 wave of rebellions, the George Floyd rebellion saw significant participation by white Americans, including in sometimes mostly white cities and towns. How do we make sense of their participation? What does it point to about the changing terrain of class struggle? These are important questions that the George Floyd rebellion has put on the table.
What the late 1960s share with our era is the dramatic upsurge of militancy and political consciousness among ordinary Black people, especially Black youth. America on Fire remains useful as a historical document but falls short of providing revolutionary lessons for a new generation politicized by last summer’s rebellion. Understanding the real significance of rebellion requires foregrounding not so much the effort to speak truth to power but its potential to constitute new social powers capable of overtaking and destroying the old. America on Fire offers nothing in the way of political orientation of direction forward. It does not instruct today’s young people that they are part of a long history of rebellion against the US social order that ensures Black lives do not matter. Instead, the book returns to the last era of rebellion and struggles to reassert the need for more inclusive social democracy that can redistribute wealth to Black communities, while maintaining intact the structures and institutions that reproduce inequality. By affirming the political value of the George Floyd Rebellion, but recasting its meaning as liberalism continued by other means, America on Fire stands as a document to the double consciousness of many challenged by the summer of 2020, who are attempting to escape the bounds of the liberal worldview but can’t quite bring themselves to accept the necessity of anti-capitalist revolution.
Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence (New York: Liveright, 2021).
Shemon, Arturo, Atticus, “The Fire on Main: Small Cities and the George Floyd Rebellion,” It’s Going Down, January 4, 2021, https://itsgoingdown.org/fire-on-main-street-small-cities-in-the-george-floyd-uprising.
Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, “A Year of Racial Justice Protests: Key Trends in Demonstrations Supporting the BLM Movement,” May 25, 2021, https://acleddata.com/2020/09/03/demonstrations-political-violence-in-america-new-data-for-summer-2020.
Claude McKay, “The White City,” The Liberator, October, 1921.
For an overview of BPP’s revolutionary theorizing see, Delio Vásquez, “Intercommunalism: The Late Theorizations of Huey P. Newton, ‘Chief Theoretician’ of the Black Panther Party,” Viewpoint Magazine. https://viewpointmag.com/2018/06/11/intercommunalism-the-late-theorizations-of-huey-p-newton-chief-theoretician-of-the-black-panther-party.
As quoted in Walter Rucker’s “Crusader in Exile: Robert F. Williams and the International Struggle for Black Freedom in America” The Black Scholar, 36: 2/3, Black International Issues: 2006 (Summer/Fall 2006), pp. 19-34.
Peter Matthews, “The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs,” The Criterion Collection, August 9, 2011, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/342-the-battle-of-algiers-bombs-and-boomerangs.
Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Review Essay: A Truncated Story of Black Rebellion,” Black Agenda Report, June 23, 2021 https://blackagendareport.com/review-essay-truncated-story-black-rebellion-charisse-burden-stelly
James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Davis,” New York Review of Books, January 7, 1971.
Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (New York: Doubleday, 1969) p. 3.
Janelle Jones, John Schmidtt, and Valerie Wilson, “50 Years After the Kerner Commission,” Economic Policy Institute, February 26, 2018, https://www.epi.org/publication/50-years-after-the-kerner-commission/ For how Covid affected Black unemployment rates see Charisse Jones, “Black unemployment 2020: African Americans bear brunt of economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus,” USA Today, June 4, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/06/04/black-unemployment-2020-joblessness-compounds-anguish-over-brutality/3138521001.