Black violence functioned as both a political challenge to racial domination and a political rationale for both the intensification and normalization of aggressive and pervasive policing in poor Black communities.
“Hinton exceptionalizes the U.S. in her study, ignoring the broader revolutionary internationalist -- and the dangerously reactionary anti-communist -- context of the Cold War.”
Yale historian Elizabeth Hinton’s new book America on Fire: The Untold History of Political Violence and Black Rebellions Since the 1960s is among the more celebrated recent accounts of the history of policing and urban unrest in the United States. Yet, as Black Studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly points out in this trenchant review, America on Fire is not without its flaws. In the first instance, Hinton misses the opportunity to mobilize the important theoretical categorizations and typologies of rebellion by radical theorists such as James and Grace Lee Boggs. In the second, an analysis of capitalism is almost entirely missing in Hinton’s account of Black rebellion. Third, Hinton exceptionalizes the U.S. in her study, ignoring the broader revolutionary internationalist -- and the dangerously reactionary anti-communist -- context of the Cold War. And, finally, there is a surprising dearth of attention to the obvious links between U.S. imperialism -- for example, the ongoing “global war on terror” -- and domestic policing. America on Fire is, in short, a liberal book with radical pretensions, but one that will surely appeal to a domestic, US audience seeking a limited analysis (and a redemptive narrative) of US national history.
Dr. Burden-Stelly is the 2020-2021 Visiting Scholar in the Race and Capitalism Project at the University of Chicago and an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. A scholar of critical Black studies, political theory, political economy, and intellectual history, Burden- Stelly is the co-author, with Gerald Horne, of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Life in American History. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Black Scare/Red Scare: Antiblackness, Anticommunism, and the Rise of Capitalism in the United States.
A Truncated Story of Black Rebellion
Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Political Violence and Black Rebellions Since the 1960s (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2021)
The 1033 program is largely responsible for providing the weapons of repression notoriously deployed by police against racial justice protesters in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; in Baltimore, Maryland in 2016; in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Louisville, Kentucky in 2020; and in Brooklyn City, Minnesota in 2021. The program, which ostensibly aids counter-drug and counter-terrorist activity, supplies federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies with surplus military weapons and technology from the Department of Defense (DoD). Initiated by the US government’s Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office and facilitated by federal grants, the 1033 program was authorized by the National Defense Authorization Acts of 1990 and 1997. Since that time, law enforcement agencies have acquired more than $6 billion in military equipment. Between 2006-2015, the DoD transferred $2.2 billion worth of weaponry to local police forces. Despite rhetoric otherwise, there has been an increase in the transfer of military grade weapons to local law enforcement agencies under Obama, Trump, and now Biden.
In many ways, Yale historian Elizabeth Hinton’s new book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Political Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, presents important historical context to understand the 1033 program and the intensification of police militarization that began in the late 1960s. America on Fire is divided into two parts. The first focuses on the Black rebellions between 1968-1972, the peak years of Black insurgency in the US. The second part examines the afterlives of these rebellions from 1980-2020. With ten thematic chapters, the central thesis of Hinton’s book is that Black rebellion—generally incited by the confluence of police violence and brutality, socioeconomic injustice, and structural racism—legitimized the militarization and expansion of the police in the name of “law and order.” America on Fire reveals that, instead of working to dismantle economic inequality rooted in racial domination, federal, state, and local authorities made a conscious decision to launch a “war on crime,” starting with the Safe Streets Act of 1968. This occurred despite the numerous other options policy-makers had available to them for resolving the racial antagonism that spurred Black rebellion. Consequently, Black violence functioned as both a political challenge to racial domination rooted in economic inequality and a political rationale for both the intensification and normalization of aggressive and pervasive policing in poor Black communities. Throughout America is on Fire, Hinton reiterates that this “solution” simply exacerbates the problem and produces “the cycle” in which over policing compels Black rebellion which, in turn, provokes an escalated police response and increased police militarization and presence. Here, “Police repression and Black rebellion—the latter seen as both inevitable and meaningless—became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“There has been an increase in the transfer of military grade weapons to local law enforcement agencies under Obama, Trump, and now Biden.”
Though Black “rebellion” is the central focus of American on Fire, it is not explicitly defined. Rebellion is used interchangeably with “revolt,” “insurgency,” and “uprising.” The analytical distinctions between the terms are important and, one would think, critical to any text in which they are central. Usefully, in their 1974 survey Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, James and Grace Lee Boggs define each of these terms to distinguish them from revolution:
“A rebellion is an attack upon existing authority by members of an oppressed group with no intention on the part of the rebels to take state power. It is usually spontaneous.
“An insurrection is a concentrated attack upon existing authority by members of an oppressed group, usually with the intention of taking power, if only temporarily, during the course of revolutionary struggles or at the culmination of a process of revolutionary struggle.
“A revolt is an organized attempt to seize power, usually by a section of the armed forces, without prior organization of the masses in struggle and without any clear set of social objectives.”
Rebellion, as the Boggs explain, is a stage in the development of revolution in which the oppressed convey that their situation is no longer tolerable and that there is a crisis of social and political legitimacy. It interrupts the “inertia” of society. Rebellions are also a reaction to domination. They are thus issue-oriented and “tend to be negative, to denounce and expose the enemy without providing a positive vision of a new future.”
In America on Fire, Hinton would have benefited from the clarity the Boggs bring to the question of rebellion. The events examined throughout America on Fire are presented as reactions or responses to state, institutional, and structural white violence, with the result being more repression as opposed to empowerment. The episodes she analyzes in mid-sized cities between 1968-1972 including Cairo, Illinois, Carver Ranches, Florida, York, Pennsylvania; in Miami, Florida in 1980, Los Angeles, California in 1992, and Cincinnati, Ohio in 2001; and more recently in Ferguson Missouri in 2018 and Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020, were generally incited by Black individuals and communities being brutalized, harassed, surveilled, and/or murdered by white racist police forces. The failure of the state to convict the “bad apples” was also a catalyst. As such, if we follow the lead of the Boggs’ these “attacks upon existing authority” are best understood as rebellions as opposed to insurrections or revolts.
“Rebellion interrupts the ‘inertia’ of society and are also a reaction to domination.”
Importantly, Hinton argues that these forms of collective, communal, and mass Black violence should not be understood as rioting. “Rioting” is a mischaracterization predicated on the assumption that Black unrest is devoid of political meaning or intent. Such misnaming ultimately leads to the criminalization of Black rebellion. Hinton writes, “…[T]he term riot is a misnomer. Due to the rhetoric of politicians, media coverage, and much of the academic research on the subject, Americans have become accustomed to think of moments of mass violence—from Harlem in 1964 to Minneapolis in 2020—as misguided at best, and meaningless and irrational at worst. In either case, these incidents are often seen as being devoid of any political motivation or content.”
A central question that arises from American on Fire is: what makes the violence that animates Black rebellions “political”? For Hinton, “collective action should be understood as political if it has a direct bearing on the interest of government.” Interestingly, this position is supported on the right by William F. Buckley, for example, who argued that Black “riots” were political—and racist—in character and therefore demanded police repression. Relatedly, in the discussion of Black snipers in chapter 4, Hinton asserts that white cops and civilians alike feared that Black sniping at police was a political conspiracy to eliminate law enforcement (and by extension, the racial and economic order). As a violent political act, sniping required immediate punishment by government forces. Additionally, violent rebellions, not unlike nonviolent direct action, are political because they express “collective solidarity” against racialized exploitation, oppression, and institutional exclusion. In contradistinction to white folks, Black rebels saw sniping in this way, namely as a political act of community self-defense against attacks by racist law enforcement and vigilantes. Moreover, activists like Claude Barnes of Greensboro, Arkansas saw Black rebellion in all of its articulations as the only means of gaining political progress. In presenting violent rebellion as a political response to structural racism, America on Fire effectively negates the idea that these acts were a function of Black pathology, alienation, or maladjusted behavior, as the liberals argued, or inherent criminality, outside influence, or subversion, as the conservatives claimed. However, the question of whether violence makes rebellions political, or whether the rebellion gives violence its political content remains unresolved in America on Fire.
“In presenting violent rebellion as a political response to structural racism, America on Fire effectively negates the idea that these acts were a function of Black pathology, alienation, or maladjusted behavior, as the liberals argued.”
Hinton contends that “community-based” rebellions were predicated on a “different kind of political violence” than that offered up by radical organizations like the Black Panther Party. Consequently, she does not analyze important connections between Black urban rebellions and broader realities of capitalism and imperialism both domestically and abroad. Curiously, “capitalism” appears only twice in the body of the text -- even though for many Black scholars, capitalism’s economic deprivations were clearly an incitement to Black insurrection. Robert L. Allen, for instance, writes in Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969) that stagnating and deteriorating economic conditions in urban areas, despite the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, incited rebellion. “It is in these [economic] figures that one sees clearly the genesis of urban rebellion,” he explains. “For poor Blacks North and South, the civil rights movement accomplished virtually nothing besides raising false hopes. The promised salvation was not forthcoming. An explosion was inevitable.”
It is for this reason that looting was a big part of these rebellions: poor Black were “reclaiming” merchandise that had been stolen from them through low wages and price gouging. Although, according to Allen, these rebellions were largely unorganized and spontaneous, their political nature was in the challenge to white capitalist domination of the Black community. What James E. Jackson called“superexploitation” impacted the majority of Black people in ghettos not least because this group was “the most proletarian of all peoples or ethnic groups” and their racialized class position robbed them of “their just share of social services, educational, and cultural opportunities.” For Jackson, police terrorism was not only a function of racism, but also of their role as “defenders of property and the privileges” of the white ruling class. While Hinton does mention instances of looting throughout the narrative, these pale in comparison to her emphasis on rock throwing, for example, and the exceptionally aggressive reaction of police to this action. Rock throwing is discussed as a means of damaging property, but it is primarily situated as a challenge to police racism rather than as a challenge to a racially rooted economic system violently protected by heavily armed police.
“Although rebellions were largely unorganized and spontaneous, their political nature was in the challenge to white capitalist domination of the Black community.”
Like Allen, Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) recognized the anticapitalist underpinnings of Black rebellion while also linking them to U.S. imperialism. In a 1967 address to the Organization of Latin American Solidarity in Havana, Cuba, he argued that these rebellions brought together the “real revolutionary proletariat ready to fight by any means necessary” for Black self-determination by exposing and rejecting not only racism, but also economic exploitation and the control of Black communities by “imperialist powers.” Ture also emphasized that the politics underlying urban rebellions were international in scope. By contrast, for Hinton, Black rebellion was firmly rooted in the racist refusal of cities and states to implement policies that would assure equal education, employment, housing, and public access; the endurance of segregation; and the increasing role of professionalized police and mass incarceration in maintaining these. On this reading, Black rebellions sought “redress from authorities… as well as a reordering of the status quo so that Black people would no longer be treated as second-class citizens in their cities and in their country.” America on Fire thus pays little attention to the ways that U.S. capitalist imperialism, state hostility to Black internationalist and Third World consciousness in the context of decolonization, and anticommunism in the midst of the Cold War influenced the militarization of police and the criminalization of Black rebellion.
America on Fire might have connected the domestic and international implications of U.S. imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and Black rebellion by focusing on anticommunism and the way it shaped the Cold War and Third World liberation era in which the “war on crime” was emplaced. In other words, the “war on crime” as a means of crushing Black unrest was as much an enunciation of the Cold War as the Vietnam War. For example, in 1968, Kathleen Cleaver compared Black American rebellion in the service of wresting their communities from the control of the white capitalist power structure to the Vietnamese fight to protect their country from “racist American government control.” Police occupation, attacks, and repression, Cleaver argued, were attempts to destroy Black leaders who were seeking to organize the Black masses to build power and to ultimately control their communities. “Just as the US Army is attempting to settle a political question of self-determination through force and violence in Vietnam,” Cleaver analyzes, “the city, state, and federal governments across the country are meeting political dissent with political violence.”
“Kwame Ture argued that these rebellions brought together the ‘real revolutionary proletariat ready to fight by any means necessary’ for Black self-determination.”
Certainly, Hinton does draw a direct link between the Vietnam War and the militarization of the police. She points out that surplus military equipment, including tear gas, batons, two-way radios, and tanks, was funneled to local police departments so they could forcefully put down Black rebellion. These weapons, along with special tactical and technological training were instrumental in empowering law enforcement to manage “race relations,” which translated to the surveillance, occupation, and criminalization of Black spaces. But in offering a different framing, Cleaver contended that because US imperial power was under assault in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, state power in the form of militarized police was being deployed domestically against Blacks, radical, and oppressed people who challenged the economic and political power of the white ruling class.
Anticommunist discourse and concomitant narratives of “outside agitation” and “radial influence” were instrumental in legitimating the use of extraordinary police violence to crush Black rebellion. As Gerald Horne explains in his tour-de-force Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising in the 1960s:
“The hysteria that accompanied the Watts Uprisings was generated not only by the fire but by the specter of Red advance among blacks… The shooting at planes and helicopters, the rhetorical comparisons, the question of color all led many conservatives and ultrarightists to conclude that just as the opposition in Vietnam was led by Communists, the opposition in South LA was too.”
While Hinton makes passing references to these discourses in her discussions of the rebellions in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (1968), Greensboro, North Carolina (1969), and Alexandria, Virginia (1969), she essentially construes anticommunism as a position taken by conservative organizations or individuals instead of as a powerful tool used by the state to construe Black rebellion, and any demands emanating therefrom, as criminal, dangerous, and subversive. In the Internal Security Subcommittee Hearings on “Assaults on Law Enforcement Officers” that, according to Hinton, “profoundly” influenced the strategies of federal policing policy, there are several references to the rebellions being “Communist inspired,” parties like the Black Panthers being “Uncle Toms” to white Communists, Communist agitators infiltrating racial disturbances, connections between Communists and campus uprisings, and the identification of rebels with “the third world type communist effort.” Authorities directly linked these imagined communist machinations to ostensible Black plots to foment revolution in the United States. Even those who testified that Black rebellions were not “solely” a matter of communism and suggested they may stem from issues other than “communistic motivation, inspiration, guidance, control” or manipulation, nonetheless took pains not to “minimize the extent to which Communists would like to bring about the downfall of this country.”
“Hinton essentially construes anticommunism as a position taken by conservative organizations or individuals instead of as a powerful tool used by the state to construe Black rebellion.”
Hinton notes that these debates in Congress illuminated “broad support among legislators for aggressive law enforcement strategies and for the money already flowing from the federal government to urban police forces.” However, she misses the broader point that such support was based on the linking up of the communist threat abroad—especially in the “third world”—to the latest dimension of the communist threat at home: Black political violence that mirrored the guerilla tactics, clashes with authority, and fundamental challenge to the racial and economic hierarchy. That by 1972, nearly 500 local “Red Squads” that positioned themselves as the most effective political force in blocking “radicalism, student demonstrations and black power” were gathering “political intelligence” about these dissident groups attests to the continued influence of anticommunism in creating policy aimed at neutralizing Black rebellion.
Cold War anticommunism also structured liberal understandings of Black rebellion as reflections of “alienation” and pathology. Hinton argues that civil rights commissions formed in response to urban unrest “cast racial inequality as a consequence of behavior.” This view, along with the concept of alienation—that Black people, especially youth, were withdrawing from society as a consequence of perceivedracism—“united the progressive idea that society treated Black people unfairly with the regressive notion that Black people suffered from a pathology that left them unwilling (as the liberal side of the debate argued) or unfit (as many conservatives suggested) to participate in the society.” She rightfully notes that the result of this understanding was an evasion of the extent and intensity of structural racism and thus an inadequate effort to eradicate it. “In a sense, the responsibility lies with liberalism itself,” Hinton asserts, “in the premise that goodwill, educational opportunities, markets, and limited anti-discrimination laws will solve inequality ‘in due time.’ The consequences are still with us today.”
However, it was not only liberal racism that led to behavioral explanations of Black rebellion, but also the rise of psychoanalysis in the context of the Cold War to skirt critiques of capitalism that could be deemed Marxist and therefore subversive. As one scholar explainsusing the case of Paul Robeson, the emphasis on behavior was “part of an ideology that encouraged the translation of political and social problems into individual, personal ones, and emphasized coping and adjusting, rather than social and political transformation.” This approach served “the interests of the state by encouraging adjustment and accommodation in opposition to activism” and “undermined the potential for political activism and reinforced the chilling effects of anticommunism and the Cold War consensus.” By this logic, the political nature and structural focus of Black rebellion was not only pathological, but also posed an imminent threat to law and order that could only be contained by omnipotent and omnipresent police and policing.
“The emphasis on behavior was “part of an ideology that encouraged the translation of political and social problems into individual, personal ones.”
Equally important here is how the conflation of the threat of communism and the threat of Black revolution manifested in widespread rebellion resulted in the characterization of Black violence against the police and other officials, especially “sniping,” as urban terrorism. Hinton writes: “Whether real or imagined, policymakers and law enforcement officials responded to the figure of the Black sniper as a terrorist threatening to destroy America or bring the nation to the ring of civil war (if it had not already).” This “terrorism” was born out of the entangling of the “Red Scare,” or the threat of anti-capitalist takeover, infiltration, and disruption of the American way of life, and the “Black Scare,” defined as the specter of racial, social, and political economic domination of and violence against superior whites by inferior Black populations. Claims by the Trump administration and various state and local officials that the racial justice rebellions that rocked the country in 2020 turned violent because of “outside agitators” like “Antifa” and “Anarchists” are the latest enunciations of this discourse that facilitates the militarization and proliferation of policing.
Though lacking in substantive engagement with capitalism, U.S. imperialism, and anticommunism, America on Fire nonetheless offers important insights into the influence of Black rebellion and political violence—or more accurately, the draconian response of local, state, and national governments to it—on the militarization of the police. Focusing on rebellions in smaller municipalities between 1968-1972 and linking them to their later counterparts between 1980-2020, Hinton aptly demonstrates that the combination of white supremacy, violent policing, socioeconomic inequality, and racial injustice is a powder keg that, when sparked by any one incident, explodes into an episode of Black political violence. Superficial attempts at remediation after Black rebellions, from the formation of commissions to the lackluster funding of a social program or initiative, are, by design, superseded by the resources poured into arming and expanding police forces.
The cycle of police brutality, Black rebellion, and violent police repression will surely continue, Hinton suggests, unless communities are put at the helm of their own public safety, and there is significant and transformative investment in eradicating the social ills in poor and racialized communities, and repair rather than retribution becomes the basis of a society truly dedicated to justice. Unfortunately, if the Biden administration’s continued funding of the 1033 program is any indication, as U.S. imperialism and warmongering reach their asymptote abroad, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies will continue to absorb weapons of war to terrorize, brutalize, criminalize, and incarcerate the very communities that would benefit most from the defunding, and ultimately abolishing, police and prisons.
Editors, The Black Agenda Review
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