Lately I’ve been writing about the Rochester rebellion of July 1964. For riots from this era the best primary sources come from the news media. They are not always reliable–sometimes they are plainly inaccurate–so you have to check them against reports and testimony from local organizations and prominent leaders, etc. Even these sources skew toward somewhat elite opinion. Although journalists have a good ear for quotable material from people in the street, they typically reported what fit the narrative. In the 1960s one dominant narrative about the riots was that they were civil rights demonstrations run amok. The most common quote from rioters therefore tended to be a variation on “We Want Freedom.” Another narrative was that the riots were anti-white, i.e. racist. So another popular quote was: “Get Whitey.” Continue reading
When I watched the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest, I saw in the actions of Texas state trooper Brian Encinia a familiar sequence of events in the history of American policing. Bland got “smart” and Encinia got “tough.” His intent from the start may have been to provoke Bland to establish cause to search her car. Setting that aside, I want to focus on the inter-personal nature of a retaliatory arrest, which, I’d argue, highlights how our heritage of white male dominance continues to stalk officers on the beat. I want to emphasize both “white” and “male.”
Once again, it appears, Americans are divided over whether the Baltimore uprising was a riot or rebellion. Were these criminal agitators or protesters in a just cause?
I sympathize with the argument that the events of late April were a political expression of grievances–an uprising. But I remain uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric of the “rebellion” crowd. When poor urban black residents fight the police en masse, torch and loot local stores (some of which are predatory), and defiantly posture in the streets, we should take their claims on the state seriously. We should consider their actions with a large dose of empathy. But I think it a mistake to downplay the violence and its costs, as I see some on the left doing. Aside from the obvious ethical issues, ignoring the violence misses the point of a riot–which is to strike back at perceived aggressors, to right a wrong. Continue reading
The recent police shooting deaths of African Americans and the protests they have inspired have started a conversation about racial justice and policing. To some degree, I think that conversation is richer and more promising than it was in the 1960s.
Partly I think it is a matter of information. We simply know more about what police do on the beat, how to train them in the use of force, and what sorts of tactics most offend and anger urban residents. Those were new facts in the 1960s, at least to the broader white public. Even among scholars, before 1960 it was virtually unknown what police did everyday, in what situations they used force, how they decided whether or not to make an arrest, etc. The riots drew attention to these issues. President Lyndon Johnson appointed commissions to study policing and police-community relations. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, established in 1957, and the Community Relations Service, established in 1964, also gathered data from cities across the country. Not coincidentally, the fields of rioting and policing came to prominence in the 1960s. Continue reading