Opinion | Will We Ever Get Beyond ‘The Fire Next Time’?

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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 and 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 under-resourced public schools, to give just a few examples.

These policing strategies remain in place today, 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.

Even as officials today face the enormous challenge of battling a violent crime wave in many American cities alongside growing calls to defund or abolish the police, the history of Black rebellion demonstrates a fundamental reality: Police violence precipitates community violence in a vicious cycle.

Patrolling low-income neighborhoods with outside forces does not effectively promote public safety in our most vulnerable communities. On the contrary, it establishes a dynamic in which residents and officers view each other as the enemy, rendering both sides less safe. This dynamic escaped policymakers and many of the scholars they consulted back in the 1960s and continues to be ignored by them now.

  • William Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove believe that “the Trayvon Martin generation has come of age and is pushing the nation toward a Third Reconstruction.”
  • David W. McIvor, a political theorist, recalls the “wild swings between hope and anguish, possibility and anxiety” of last summer’s protests.
  • Elizabeth Hinton, a historian, writes that “the history of Black rebellion demonstrates a fundamental reality: Police violence precipitates community violence.”
  • Six young Americans reflect on how the past year has changed them: “I’ve been a lot louder these days.”

Authorities have funneled billions of dollars into the War on Crime, the War on Drugs and the prison system. Rather than contend with the underlying causes of these problems, this nation’s leaders further criminalized entire communities, guaranteeing that rebellions would only continue. By dismissing the idea that those underlying causes had anything to do with the violence as it unfolded, the punitive programs embraced by elected officials at all levels of government also failed to stem the homicides and crime that pervade the very same neighborhoods that are energetically policed.

The 1960s produced an image of “riots” as essentially Black. Yet historically speaking, most instances of collective violence have been perpetrated by white vigilantes hostile to integration who joined together in roving mobs taking “justice” into their own hands, often with the support of local police. The Jim Crow era was defined by bloody riots: the lynch mobs in East St. Louis in 1917 who forced Black wartime factory workers and their families to choose between being burned alive or shot to death; the massacres of Black people that characterized the Red Summer of 1919; the two thousand white men who committed various atrocities against the thriving Black community in Tulsa in 1921; and the “race riots” that resulted in violent confrontations on the streets of Detroit, Chicago and other major cities during the Second World War.

It was only when white people no longer appeared to be the driving force behind rioting in the nation’s cities, and when Black collective violence against exploitative and repressive institutions surfaced every summer of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency (and on into Richard Nixon’s), that riots came to be largely seen as criminal and senseless.

A call for “law and order” became the main response from the white establishment. Convinced that Black rebellion was an attack on existing American institutions rather than an appeal for inclusion within them, officials dismissed the possibility that the “hoodlums” who “rioted,” as Johnson called them, shared most if not all of the same grievances as mainstream civil rights organizations.

Like the students who participated in the sit-in movement and the roughly 250,000 people who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the people who resorted to violent protest tactics sought full political and economic inclusion in American society. But in the view of Johnson and others, rioting and crime were two strains of the same pathology in Black communities that could only be cured by more cops on the streets. As local police began to assume many of the previous functions of the white mob, the terms of urban violence were set.

With its unprecedented investment in local law enforcement, Johnson’s Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 offered a short-term solution that became a long-term reality. As the United States waged the Vietnam War abroad, federal policymakers built a pipeline to deliver riot control training, surplus army weapons and technological innovations to police in order to put down domestic political radicalism and Black rebellion. With its initial $400 million outlay (about $3 billion today) for crime control, the legislation enabled cities to flood police into areas that seemed prone to violence.

Black, Puerto Rican and Mexican-American communities had long been subject to targeted surveillance, frequent encounters with police, mass arrests, illegal searches and outright brutality. But after the Safe Streets Act, residents in big cities like New York, midsize cities like Phoenix, and smaller cities like Waterloo, Iowa, would be patrolled by police departments with arsenals at their disposal: new AR15s and M4 carbines, steel helmets, three-foot batons, masks, armored vehicles, two-way radios, tear gas — these and other techniques, weapons and tools flowed into thousands of cities across the United States.

The collective violence that this federal law inadvertently fueled was a consequence of the all too predictable presence of the police. The rebellions usually started when law enforcement meddled, often violently, in everyday activity. They happened when police seemed to be there for no reason or when the police intervened in matters that could be resolved internally (in disputes among friends and family, for example). Rebellions often began when the police enforced laws that would almost never be applied in white neighborhoods (laws against gathering in groups of a certain size or acting like a “suspicious person”). Likewise, they erupted when police failed to extend to residents the common courtesies afforded to whites (allowing white teenagers to drink in a park but arresting Mexican-American teens for the same behavior).

“If they would just leave us along there would be no trouble,” said a Black teenage boy who threw rocks in Decatur, Ill., during an uprising in August 1969. His common sense solution was a straightforward reaction to an obvious problem. Rebellion was always possible when ordinary life was policed, and often the mere sight of police was enough to prompt a violent response. During a five-day battle between police and Black residents in York, Pa., in July 1968, a reporter asked a male participant, “Why are young black Yorkers throwing rocks and bottles at policemen?” To which the young man replied, “Why do police hit people on the heads with their clubs?”

This was “the cycle” that entrenched racial inequality and put this nation on a path to mass incarceration: the recurring pattern of overpolicing and rebellion, of police violence and community violence, that helped define urban life in segregated low-income communities of color back then and persists today. The cycle began with the police, who moved through the ghettos of America “like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country,” as James Baldwin famously observed in 1960, so that their very presence — their perceived callousness to the inequality around them — felt violent in itself.

As the cycle played out in cities large and small across the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it set in motion dynamics between residents and police for decades to come, laying the foundation for “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing characterized by the aggressive enforcement of misdemeanors in order to prevent future disorder. As rebellions persisted through the 1970s and beyond (although not with the frequency of those in the immediate post-civil rights era), the cycle remained unbroken, further demonstrating that aggressive policing tends to incite violence, especially when residents are protesting the very thing that they are then subjected to.

The cycle’s consequences have, at times, taken the form of mass violence to which all Americans have been witness: in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, in Cincinnati in 2001, and in more recent years in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, and in Minneapolis last summer. Each was set off by an instance of police violence. Each drew calls for more “law and order.” Each involved heavily militarized police confronting residents who were fighting against a larger system of oppression.

These are examples of historical trends that began in the late 1960s. There are no longer rebellions against everyday policing practices, but instead against exceptional incidents of brutality and miscarriages of justice. Perhaps the status quo of omnipresent patrol and surveillance has become accepted, however bitterly. In this sense, at least, national and local authorities won the War on Crime.

Yet, if anything, embracing policing and incarceration as a policy response to racial and economic inequality appears to function as a crime-promotion program. Young Black people continue to live at greater risk of harm or death with police lingering in their community — either from each other or from an officer whose job is ostensibly to protect them. George Floyd’s murder is a legacy of this policy path, sustained over five decades. So too is the death of 9-year-old Janari Ricks, who was killed in late July 2020 when a person began firing gunshots in a parking lot in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood.

Instead of building policies around the needs of the community, this nation has built them around controlling communities and, at the same time, has erected the largest prison system on the planet. Public safety mechanisms are essential to promote community vitality, but these mechanisms cannot and should not take the form of a uniformed officer, an outsider to the community armed with a gun. This is the lesson all of us can draw from the rebellions of the post-civil rights period, and it remains just as salient today.

As the tens of millions of people knew when they took to the streets last summer, justice is often not forthcoming for Black Americans — and reforming the police, though a rare and difficult accomplishment, is never enough. From the police-community relations programs championed by liberal commissions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the federal interventions that introduced sensitivity training and accountability for officers in more recent decades, to the use of body cameras that are meant to keep misconduct in check today, reforms have not stopped the policing strategies that have led to discriminatory enforcement and the killings of people of color in the past, and they won’t stop more killings from happening in the future.

Until this nation imagines a different approach to public safety, beyond police reforms, it is not a question of whether the cycle will be unleashed, whether another person of color will die at the hands of sworn, even well-trained officers, or whether another city will catch fire, but when.

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.

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