Interview: Elizabeth Hinton On 'America On Fire' Book : The NPR Politics Podcast Elizabeth Hinton's book America On Fire explores how aggressive policing sparked thousands of incidents of mass violence in Black communities across the United States beginning in the 1960s. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben talks to the author about how the government's typical response to these "rebellions" — more policing — is both escalatory and inadequate.

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Black Rebellion: Mass Violence And The Civil Rights Movement

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Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture. And today, another installment in our regular book club series where we on the podcast and you listeners read a book together and discuss it in our podcast Facebook group. We are talking today to Elizabeth Hinton, author of "America On Fire: The Untold Story Of Police Violence And Black Rebellion Since The 1960s." We have a copy of it right here. It is a book that looks at the scores of clashes - and that's putting it modestly - between Black Americans and police that happened in cities across the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the legacy of those clashes. And it's a topic that is, sadly, repeatedly newly relevant with every new story of police violence and rebellion against police violence from across the country. So we are talking about all of that with Elizabeth today. Elizabeth, welcome.

ELIZABETH HINTON: Thank you so much for having me. I'm super pumped to be here.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, great. I'm pumped, too. I love doing these episodes. This is so exciting. This book was excellent. We should say Elizabeth is an associate professor of history and African American studies at Yale University and a professor at Yale Law School.

So, all right. Let's get started with this. And let's start really, really broadly. You talk about these clashes as rebellions and, quite pointedly, not as riots. It's a very meaningful choice that really kind of shapes how the reader perceives these clashes. Tell us more about how you made that choice, about the differentiation to you.

HINTON: So, so much of why we've been kind of stuck in this, you know - in this policy cycle is because of the response to these incidents of collective violence when they emerged in the mid-1960s. And language is really important in understanding the true kind of meaning and motivations behind this form of violence so that we might be able to respond to it more effectively. So beginning in Harlem in 1964, after a 15-year-old Black high school student was killed by a New York City police officer and residents took to the streets for several days and, you know, attacked police officers and looted stores and burned buildings. Lyndon Johnson said, you know, this violence is linked to crime and delinquency problems in our cities. It's lawless. It has nothing to do with the civil rights movement; it's crime - failing to recognize the socioeconomic causes of the rebellions and the shared set of grievances between protesters within the movement for racial justice at the time who were fighting for full political and economic inclusion in American society.

So like the mainstream civil rights movement, the demands of those who embraced these sets of violent tactics were rooted in a demand to end police violence, of course, protection from white supremacy, decent jobs, expanded educational opportunities and housing. And instead of recognizing these larger drivers, you know, Johnson and other officials said this is criminal. And therefore, the only response is more police, which is precisely the things that residents were protesting against. And we've been stuck in this policy cycle, as I mentioned, ever since. And so understanding the shared set of grievances between the two, the ways in which violent and nonviolent protests have been deeply intertwined historically, and recognizing, again, the kind of larger institutional causes is going to be key if we're ever going to stop - get out of this cycle in the future.

KURTZLEBEN: Policing led to more rebellion, led to more policing. And it just kind of went in a circle. Right?

HINTON: Right. Let's say, you know, Stockton, Calif., in the summer of 1968. Police officers come to break up a party in the segregated Black housing projects in the city called Sierra Vista. Residents responded to, you know, the - kind of what they experienced as arbitrary enforcement of their gathering by throwing rocks and bottles at police officers. More officers then came for backup because, of course, the several officers who broke up the party were outnumbered. And then the situation kind of escalated from there and ended up unfolding over several nights. Police officers were locked in a gymnasium at one point. More officers came and tear-gassed residents and began to arrest people en masse. Buildings were burned. And so, you know, here within this rebellion and many others that follow this pattern itself, the escalation of police force also escalates violence - you know, from a period of several hours - community violence - from a period of several hours to several days, depending.

KURTZLEBEN: Something that pops up in this book is that time and time again, there would be commissions or panels or reports or what have you. Groups of experts would get together, whether in a city or nationwide, and say, oh, well, yes, we could do more policing or we could try these other things, things we hear about today, investing more money in communities. You keep seeing people almost change things. And then, over and over those steps aren't taken. I'm curious, what is your take on why was more policing almost always - from my reading of your book - the path taken rather than the steps you argue and that the commission's argued would be more conducive to actually reducing violence?

HINTON: From the Kerner Commission, which Johnson called in the middle of the rebellion in Detroit in 1967 on down, these commissions have been missed opportunities for the different approach to public safety. And many other commissions that were convened to investigate the causes and solutions to rebellions in the late '60s and early 1970s also reached similar conclusions about the kind of structural drivers of the violence and the need for fundamental socioeconomic reforms. And yet, in the case of the Kerner Commission and many of the other commissions, you know, only pieces of the recommendations around policing were actually implemented. You know, those reforms could be more effective if the larger structural solutions and investments were also simultaneously made. But on their own, you know, absent those kind of investments in programs and services far beyond the police, that the problems leading to community violence cannot be meaningfully addressed.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to take a quick break and talk more with Elizabeth Hinton about her book, "America On Fire," when we get back.

And we're back. And I want to change gears a little bit here. I wanted to talk about how there were a couple of notable instances in this book. I'm thinking of the schools in Greensboro, N.C., where rebellions actually did result in positive change for the people who were part of the rebellions. And I'm wondering, how often did these rebellions succeed in that sense?

HINTON: Students did seem to have come from Greensboro to Harrisburg, Pa., another site where a major student revolt occurred, some success in getting the school systems to hire more Black teachers, some success in getting school systems to incorporate Black studies curriculums into their schools. I mean, in many ways, you know, this period of protests and fights over Black studies in general in both, you know, high schools and colleges laid the groundwork for, you know, my own presence in an African American studies department at Yale University.

So, you know, I think the big lesson here is that both nonviolent and violent protests for racial justice have always been entwined. And as Martin Luther King Jr. himself recognized that, you know, some of the success of his own branch of nonviolent direct action protest depended on the threat of violent action should those nonviolent demands not be met. I think, you know, part of the reason why we're even having the conversation about police reform that we are right now and systemic racism became a buzzword is the extent and scope of the violence and property destruction in the summer of 2020 during racial justice protests, even though the vast, vast, vast majority or about 95% of the protests themselves remained entirely peaceful.

KURTZLEBEN: I mean, that connection between the past and today is a really important part of your book I don't want to overlook here. And there's a point you made in your introduction that really stuck with me. And your words are these later rebellions, the ones more recently, like, starting in the '90s to today now occurred in reaction to exceptional instances of police violence, which is to say police killings. There are no longer rebellions against everyday policing practices, a sign that the status quo has become accepted, however bitterly.

And I hadn't really thought about that. And I'm wondering - you sort of get at it here a little bit. I want to hear more about why did that shift happen and when did that happen?

HINTON: Yeah. So, you know, rebellion by 1972, became far less frequent, I think, for a number of reasons. One, you know, this is a moment when you get the expansion or the rise of Black elected officials at all levels of government. I mean, the Congressional Black Caucus formed in 1971. And this is, in part, the outcome of the voting registration drives, the civil rights movement, but also that this younger generation, who had kind of sustained and participated in many of the rebellions, were now of voting age and elected Black officials, thousands of officials, at all levels of government.

The other, two, is just, you know, the impact of these policing measures themselves and mass incarceration. I mean, by '73, '74, the nation's prison population had transformed from being majority white for most of U.S. history to being majority Black and Latino. And of course, many of the people who were getting locked up and sent to prison on increasingly long terms were young Black people. So, you know, part of the population that had once rebelled were now - now found themselves in prison. And then, you know, today, you know, it's not - rebellions don't start in response to the policing of a house party; they happen in response to, you know - and more frequently documented by the cameras in our pockets on our cellphones - incidents of really exceptional police violence.

KURTZLEBEN: I have one more question for you, and it gets at - reading your book, on the one hand, it is a very thoroughly researched chronicling of a chapter of history and quite objectively so. But also, there's a very - there's very much a core of empathy in the book, is how I read it, in terms of, you know, for example, saying, hey, these are rebellions. They are - if you're thinking about people's motivations, they're rebellions, as opposed to riots.

And we had a listener who seemed to sort of get at that. Listener D.A. Erdman (ph) in our Facebook group. They asked the following - I wonder how cultivating empathy could blur the us-versus-them mentality and create a focus on the situational factors, instead of dispositional factors, escalating conflicts. What advice or suggestions would you give to policymakers to facilitate change for social justice? And what small changes could be made by each person? So sort of asking there - what's the connection between policy and empathy, particularly in terms of race relations in the U.S.?

HINTON: That's such an important question. And again, you know, I really appreciate you highlighting that aspect of the book, Danielle, because one of the things that I really wanted to do is to center the participants in this form of political violence in the story and not to demonize them, to actually try to take their grievances seriously and question, you know - and I think questions that should have been asked by Johnson immediately. You know, like, what's the problem - you know, what are some of the problems in our cities and country in general that would make people feel as though they have no other recourse but to take to this form of violence?

You know, in "America On Fire" and my first book, "From The War On Poverty To The War On Crime," if we can identify this as a process, if we can identify the proliferation of the prison system as part of the outcome of a set of decisions that were made and a set of bad policies that were pursued, then we can think about how to undo them. I think on a more personal level, if we're going to bring about the kinds of transformations that the Kerner Commission was talking about and that people - that tens of millions of people demanded when they took to the streets in the summer of 2020, in the context of white - you know, the mobilization of white supremacist forces and a real backlash by conservatives in power, it's going to be a hearts and minds battle. It's going to be a long-term hearts and minds and educational battle.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, on that somewhat hopeful note, thank you, Elizabeth. This has been such a great conversation. It's a great book - "America On Fire," again, by Elizabeth Hinton. You can get it at bookshops. You can get it anywhere you get books. Elizabeth, thank you so much.

HINTON: Thank you so much for having me. This has been a wonderful talk.

KURTZLEBEN: And I also want to thank justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, who is the one who first brought this book to our attention. Thank you, Carrie. And listeners, you can, of course, hear us on the radio, on your podcast app. Find us at, and join in the conversation with other listeners at We will be announcing our next book very soon. Until then, I am Danielle Kurtzleben, and thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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