Reclaiming the Power of RebellionHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Police, urban history, Elizabeth Hinton, rebellion
Protests are filled with symbolic figures. Four-minute die-ins on warm pavements to represent each hour that Michael Brown’s lifeless body lay in the August sun. “Sixteen shots and a cover up!” as a chant to expose the Chicago mayor, prosecutor, and police department for hiding the police murder of LaQuan McDonald. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds during moments of silence and reflection for each minute that George Floyd fought to live underneath the pressure of a cop’s knee to his neck. The cumulative killings by police etch these measurements onto our memories, tongues, and notepads.
Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s recounts resistance. Not solely to police killings that go viral, but everyday Black resistance and rebellion to the fact of police. Hinton’s book details the rock throwers; the families who surround cop cars until they free someone in cuffs from the backseat; and the spectacular acts of Black community defense and retaliation in the wake of racial violence against them. In response, local and federal governments circulate the same tired reforms that seek to build public trust in police without removing any power from police. This ineffective cycle equates to more rebellions and subsequently more police repression. America on Fire offers a fresh account of why Black people have historically continued to fight back against all odds. I spoke with Hinton about this history, and how it might inform the future of resistance.
Derecka Purnell: America on Fire is going to be such a gift to organizers and activists. It is more than just a historical book. It is political education.
Elizabeth Hinton: I’m bursting right now. That’s what I hoped for. I wanted the book to be a tool for activists and organizers. Ultimately, I wanted it to be in the hands of everybody who was out in the streets this summer, from the babies to the elders. That’s who I wrote it for. So to hear you, of all people, a thinker and a force whom I respect so much, say that is a little overwhelming.
DP: The book offers a deeper history to the activism going on in recent years, and in particular pushes back on how such moments of Black uprising historically have been called riots, but they were actually rebellions. Could you talk about why you felt it was important to push back on the mainstream conception of those events?
EH: Most people who participated in so-called riots during the 1960s and ’70s did not see themselves as “rioters” or “rioting.” In Detroit the 1967 rebellion is called the Great Rebellion. That’s how Detroiters refer to it, that’s how they remember it. So part of it is just trying to honor how the people who are involved in these events understood their own actions, rather than the labels other people placed onto them.
I use the word “rebellion” to emphasize the deep socioeconomic demands that were behind all of the incidents I describe, especially in what I call the Crucible Period of the late 1960s and early ’70s. They’re in response to incidents of police violence and the way that police themselves represent a system of oppression. But they’re also about decent housing. They’re about jobs. They’re about educational opportunities. They’re about resources. They’re about community control. They’re about not being treated like second-class citizens and they’re a call to fulfill the promises of the freedom struggle and the civil rights movement.
The term “riot” itself and the ways in which it has been used to describe these events, from Harlem in 1964 onward, ensures that the cycle of police violence will continue. Because in making the distinctions that Lyndon Johnson and others did—between civil rights activists as protesters and people who burned and threw rocks at police officers and looted as rioters—they labeled the latter and their actions as criminal and senseless. And if this political violence is criminal, then the only solution to that violence is more police.
So if we continue to use the terminology of riots to describe this political violence, we’re stuck in embracing policing as the only response to inequality.
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