Understanding the History of Black Rebellion

Historian Elizabeth Hinton discusses her new book, “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.”

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept, Getty Images

In the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass mobilization of protest that followed — the largest collective gesture against police violence in this country’s history — there’s been a constant and energized call to defund or outright abolish policing as we know it in the U.S. This week on Intercepted: The U.S. has been grappling with this same cycle of violence for more than nearly a century: A Black person is killed by police, and protests follow. In 1968, the U.S. tried to find out why this kept happening in cities and small towns across the country with an unprecedented frequency. President Lyndon B. Johnson assembled the Kerner Commission to study the extraordinary violence and destruction of uprisings in cities like Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit the year prior. Their findings should surprise no one. Systemic and institutionalized racism was to blame. Structural white supremacy maintained two societies: “One Black, one white. Separate and unequal.”

Historian Elizabeth Hinton, author of “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s,” argues that protestors were not rioters but rather political participants in rebellion against their own poverty, inequality, and constant surveillance and brutality by the police.


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Theme music.]

Jack D’Isidoro: I’m Jack D’Isidoro, lead producer for Intercepted. 

In the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in the mass mobilization of protests that followed — the largest collective gesture against police violence in this country’s history — there’s been a constant and energized call to defund or outright abolish policing as we know it in America.

Much of this sea change is due in large part to the tireless work of grassroots activists and organizers under the banner of Black Lives Matter, and the countless others who preceded the current iteration of the movement.

Over the past year, there have been actual legislative attempts at reimagining policing, some more ambitious or wider in scope than others.

More than half of U.S. states have passed some kind of police reform bill, and more than 20 of the largest cities in America have voted to reduce their police budgets in 2021. Then there is the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which promises, among other things, to ban racial profiling, the use of chokeholds, and eliminate qualified immunity. 

President Joseph R. Biden: We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system, and to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.

JD: The reality is, the bill barely passed the House in March and is currently stuck in the Senate where negotiations have not only delayed a symbolic vote this week on the anniversary of Floyd’s death, but have watered down many of its original promises.

As many people have pointed out, this act would not have prevented the killing of George Floyd. A police officer’s knee to his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds is what killed George Floyd, not a chokehold, which accounts for less than 1 percent of police killings.

And while many of America’s cities have worked to overhaul their own police departments, some have backtracked on reform. In Floyd’s city of Minneapolis, the same city council that promised to disband the police department entirely, has agreed to spend $6.4 million to recruit new police officers. In Los Angeles, a year after the city agreed to take $150 million away from the LAPD, they’ve since re-increased the budget to hire more police officers, essentially cancelling out any divestment.

America has been grappling with this same cycle of violence for more than a century. A Black person is killed by police, and protests follow.

Newscaster: The worst race riots since those two years ago in the Watts section of Los Angeles, rock New Jersey’s largest city north for five consecutive days and nights. At least 24 persons are killed, more than 1,800 wounded, some 1,400 arrested. Two days after its beginning, police are augmented by National Guardsmen; snipers make the streets a battlefield. Governor Hughes terms the rioting open rebellion, just like wartime.

JD: In 1968, America tried to find out why this kept happening in cities and small towns across the country with an unprecedented frequency.

President Johnson assembled the Kerner Commission to study the extraordinary violence and destruction of uprisings in cities like Newark and Detroit the year prior. Their findings should surprise no one: Systemic and institutionalized racism was to blame. Structural white supremacy maintained two societies: “one Black, one white, separate and unequal.”

Our guest today, historian Elizabeth Hinton argues protesters were not rioters, but rather political participants in rebellion against their own poverty, inequality, and constant surveillance and brutality by the police. 

Elizabeth has an incredible new book out tracing this history. It’s called “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.”

Elizabeth, welcome to Intercepted. 

Elizabeth Hinton: Thank you so much for having me, Jack. 

JD: In reading your book, I was really struck by not just the scope and ubiquity of these rebellions, but also the degree of violence involved. You write in the book that between 1968 and 1972, the United States endured internal violence on a scale not seen since the Civil War. Can you explain what you mean there?

EH: Yeah. And so even that ’64 to ’68 period, the number of civilians killed by police, the hundreds of millions, what amounts to billions of dollars in property damage, coming 100 years after the end of the Civil War this was, in many ways, the results of the unfinished and unfulfilled promises of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the legacy of that violence. The archive that I based the book on, which is the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence, these researchers, after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, sought out to document and understand American violence again, at this moment of domestic bloodshed we hadn’t seen for a century. And they began doing quantitative research, they interviewed people, and they went to every local newspaper they could get their hands on and started collecting articles not just covering Black rebellions, or violent clashes that erupted between police officers and residents of color, but also, you know, anti-war protests, labor struggles, the student movement in high schools during the 1960s. It’s just such a rich archive. 

And I was really interested in the ways in which residents responded — Black residents in particular — responded to the deployment of the programs of the war on crime as they unfolded in their communities.

Newscaster: Six days of rioting in a negro section of Los Angeles left behind scenes reminiscent of war-torn cities. More than 100 square feet —

Newscaster: — Newark, New Jersey became a city of race riots, violence, looting, and hate. For five days, it was a battleground and a looter’s paradise. 

Newscaster: — the sweltering Negro areas of the North, a new phase of racial relations. In Harlem, the funeral of a teenager who had been shot by a policeman set off demonstrations against alleged police brutality — 

Malcom X: — the day of the sit-in, the lie-in, the crawl-in, the cry-in, and the beg-in is outdated. 

Stokely Carmichael: — you can sit in front of your television set and listen to LBJ tell you the violence never conquers just anything, my fellow Americans. But you see, the real problem with violence is that we have never been violent. We have been too non-violent.

EH: But what this archive shows is that the rebellions didn’t peak after Martin Luther King’s assassination. But, in fact, that was just the beginning. The rebellions, in fact, peaked in for the remainder of ’68, ’69 and ’70 as the programs of the War on Crime were deployed in mid-size, smaller, and rural cities. 

JD: Right. I mean, you write that between that time period, ’68 and ’72, that some 960 segregated Black communities across the United States witnessed 1,949 separate uprisings. 

EH: Right, let me back up a little bit to kind of give a lay of the land for why this post-King, this May ’68, June ’68 date is so important. 

So Lyndon Johnson officially called the War on Crime in March 1965, one year after the first major incident of urban unrest in Harlem in 1964, after a New York police officer killed a Black 15 year old high school student. He calls [it] the War on Crime — of course, this is coming one year after the war on poverty — 

President Lyndon B. Johnson: And this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

EH: And, initially, the seed money that the federal government allocated for Johnson’s crime war funded experimental programs in usually big cities like Los Angeles and New York and St. Louis and Baltimore, big city police departments with communities that seemed prone to rebellion, that seemed like they might rebel. And the objective was to provide riot-control training, and professionalization techniques, and surplus army equipment to these big city departments so that when and if rebellion occurred, the local police forces would be ready for it. 

LBJ: The American people have had enough of rising crime and lawlessness in this country. [Cheers and applause.] But the people also recognize that the national government can and the national government should help the cities and the states in their war on crime to the full extent of its resources and its constitutional authority. And this we shall do! [Applause.]

EH: And, of course, the decision to invest in these measures, these punitive measures, these crime control programs at the direct expense of community action programs as part of the War on Poverty did not effectively prevent rebellions from continuing through every summer of Johnson’s presidency. And, in fact, the rebellions became more disruptive, causing more civilian deaths, the deployments of more National Guardsmen, and — in the case of Detroit and cities like Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and Baltimore during the Martin Luther King Rebellions — federal troops. 

LBJ: This does not mean a national police force. It does mean help and financial support to develop state and local master plans to combat crime, to provide better training and better pay for police, to bring the most advanced technology to the War on Crime in every city and every county in America. And there is no more urgent business before this Congress than to pass the Safe Streets Act this year that I proposed last year. [Applause.]

EH: A month after the King Rebellions had seemed to subside, Johnson, in what would be the last significant piece of domestic legislation he would pass, signed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act into law. And this basically expanded the earlier programs from ’65 to ’68, that had mostly benefited larger cities. 

And now with the enactment of the Safe Streets Act, which established a new grant-making agency within the Department of Justice called the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, now not just big cities, but mid-sized cities, smaller cities, and rural areas, received those surplus military weapons from Vietnam and interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, started getting tear gas and Riot helmets and baton sticks and bulletproof vests and helicopters. The elements of urban policing that have become ubiquitous today really begin in this period. 

So what the persistence and escalation of rebellion shows after the enactment of this legislation is that the residents and the communities of color in which these new crime control measures were targeted, didn’t say, “Oh great, this is what we wanted. When we said we wanted jobs and expanded educational opportunities, thanks for bringing in the police.” No, when ordinary and everyday life became policed by a militarized force in new ways following this legislation, residents in these smaller cities began to fight back and so this is actually the moment that we get, as I said, a peak in rebellion. We had missed the peak years before. It was not ’67 and ’68. It was in fact, the second half of ’68 and into the early 1970s.

LBJ: A moment ago, I spoke of despair and frustrated hopes in the cities where the fires of disorder burned last summer. We can and, in time, we will change that despair into confidence and change those frustrations into achievements. But violence will never bring progress. We can make progress only by attacking the causes of violence and only where there is civil order founded on justice. [Applause.] And today, we are helping local officials improve their capacity to deal promptly with the disorder. And those who preach this order, and those who preach violence, must know that local authorities are able to resist them swiftly, to resist them sternly, and to resist them decisively. [Applause.]

JD: And during this time you write that spending on local police departments with federal funding increased 2,900 percent. And I do want to talk about Johnson. He described the Harlem uprising as a “riot,” right? And I think that language is very important. And the book itself is sort of centered on this use of the word “rebellion.” Why refer to them as rebellions? And how does this fit into the notion of what are acceptable forms of protest? 

EH: That’s a really excellent question. So I mean, first, I think the decision to use the word “rebellion” reflects the way that many — if not most — of the participants in this form of political protest chose to understand their own actions. So, in Detroit, in my home state of Michigan, the events of ’67 are not known as the Detroit Riot; they’re known as the Detroit Rebellion. And many residents understood themselves as rebelling against an oppressive, and exclusionary, and racist system, not as rioting against that system. So part of the use of the term is an attempt to honor how the people who participated in this form of protest understood their own actions.

In deciding to label this form of protest as riot, we then have been stuck in this place where we can’t effectively provide the kinds of programs and interventions that would be necessary to prevent it in the future. 

Detroit Protestor: This is going to happen all over America. It’s going to be a hot world, not a hot summer. It’s a hot world. But brother, America better wake up to this. If they don’t, we gonna burn down America. Or they gonna kill 22 million Negros. 

LBJ: The fact of the matter, however, is that law and order have broken down in Detroit, Michigan. I know that, with few exceptions, the people of Detroit, and the people of New York, and the people of Harlem, and of all of our American cities, however troubled they may be, deplore and condemn these criminal acts. Riots, looting, and public disorder will just not be tolerated.

EH: Beginning in Harlem in ’64, Johnson responds to collective violence that was precipitated by an incident of police violence, the killing again of a Black child. Harlem residents, just like their counterparts in thousands of other cities were rebelling against continued structural exclusion, mass unemployment, slum landlords and housing projects that were ill-kempt and decaying with roaches and rats and running through their beds at night. They were demanding equal educational opportunities and robust school systems in their communities, much of the same socio-economic demands that we’re hearing from people today. And instead of recognizing these root causes, and acknowledging that the people who participated in this form of violent protests shared many of the same grievances — shared all the same grievances — as mainstream civil rights organizations, Johnson said: What happened in Harlem is criminal, it’s senseless, it’s meaningless. “It has nothing to do with civil rights.” That’s a direct quote.

LBJ: It has nothing to do with civil rights. They are criminal conduct.

EH: And in labeling it criminal and meaningless instead of saying, OK, what are the larger conditions that drive people to feel like they have no other recourse but to throw a Molotov cocktail or throw a rock at a police officer? Instead of asking those questions and labeling this protest a riot, the only solution then is more police, which is the catalyst for the collective violence in the first place. 

So the term “riot” keeps us stuck in this cycle where, instead of recognizing the causes, we’re continuing to embrace a solution that is based on punitive programs, that is based on law enforcement and social control and surveillance in targeted communities. And in doing so, that policy approach ensures that both police violence and violent responses to that police violence on the part of the community will continue.

[Soft musical interlude.]

JD: It’s a very intentional use of the word riot. And it’s never applied to white vigilantism. 

EH: For most of the 20th century, the kind of mob violence or collective violence had been white mobs who terrorized and massacred Black communities in bloody riots — throughout the 20th century. We have Springfield in 1908, when white mobs terrorized Black wartime factory workers and lynched a number of community members in Springfield, Ohio. We’re coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the complete destruction of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 when white men were deputized by the county government to murder and destroy the Greenwood community, and it was only you know, when Black collective violence against exploitative and exclusionary institutions surfaced that riots became seen as something that was criminal and senseless. 

JD: And the word also is used to pathologize people to say they’re inherently prone to violent outbreaks. 

EH: Those ideas about Black pathology that both steered liberal social welfare programs during the ’60s and the crime control programs are very much seeped into how policymakers understood, again, the root causes of so-called rioting. One of the big responses, or the reactions, to Watts, which was at its time and its moment was the most destructive rebellion that the nation had encountered, causing far more poverty damage than the rebellions of the previous summer. And this was, of course, a few months after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family” was released.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: … In central Harlem, the area which the great American sociologist Kenneth Clark described in his report as having undergone a massive deterioration of the fabric of society and its institutions — and right under our prosperous noses that happened. That hasn’t existed for 50 years. That’s happened in the last 15 years with America. And we’ve been sitting around thinking things have been getting better, and they haven’t been getting better for those children. And I think I, for one, if you think, see what people can face for the civil rights movement, in the way of sheriffs, in the way of howling mobs, in the way of the disapproval of their entire society, I would certainly am willing to face the disapproval of a few white liberals from Boston who think I shouldn’t raise the subject because it’s impolite. 

EH: Moynihan’s report and the idea that somehow Black, female-headed households were breeding, again, using policymakers’ language — criminals, and hoodlums, and rioters — became this really important, for the American public, way to understand what caused people to rebel in Los Angeles instead of issues of employment, and continued discrimination, and political and economic exclusion that were the true precipitating causes or root causes of the violence that summer.

[Soft musical interlude.]

JD: And I feel like the Kerner Commission is attempting to identify those root causes, yet the response is: Let’s arm police officers with surplus military weapons from the war in Vietnam.

EH: Exactly. The Kerner Commission’s report is such a missed opportunity and, in many ways, casts a shadow over a lot of the book. Johnson called the Kerner commission during the Detroit Rebellion in 1967, in this televised address to the nation, in part as a way to appear as if he was taking concrete action and what was happening.

LBJ: My fellow Americans, we have endured a week such as no nation should live through, a time of violence and tragedy. For a few minutes tonight, I want to talk about that tragedy. And I want to talk about the deeper questions that it raises for us all. I’m tonight appointing a special advisory commission on several disorders. Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois has agreed to serve as chairman.

EH: The Kerner Commission released its report and drew policymakers and the American public’s attention to the underlying socioeconomic causes of the Rebellion, but also to the impact of white racism that the commission members famously warned: This nation is moving towards two societies, one Black, one white, separate and unequal.

Newscaster: Chairman Otto Kerner reads from the report. 

Gov. Otto Kerner: This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies — one Black, one white — separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life. They now threaten the future of every American. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community, and ultimately the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative will require a commitment to national action, compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and richest nation on the Earth. From every American, it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and above all, new will.

EH: And the Kerner Commission said, OK, if we really want to prevent rebellion in the future and address its causes, then the federal government must go way beyond the War on Poverty programs, because — another sidebar here — of the pathological assumptions about Black poverty and crime, that really went into Johnson and other officials’ conceptions of the War on Poverty, and following Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s arguments, they believed that the root cause of Black poverty was Black behavior, that is that it was a pathological issue. And therefore, the War on Black Poverty could be solved relatively cheaply, because of the kinds of programs that were needed. And this is in the words of Johnson’s Attorney General Ramsey Clark, but were programs that would, “help the disadvantaged help themselves.” So job training programs, remedial education programs, these were at the center of the War on Poverty. 

And the Kerner Commission recognized that the War on Poverty sounded good, but it didn’t really create the structural transformation that was necessary. So they recommended to the Johnson administration essentially a Marshall Plan for American cities, that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more, in the long term, into job creation programs for low-income Americans of color, into improved housing facilities, health care, expanded educational opportunities, scholarship programs, basically said if we want to prevent violent protests in our cities, we have to invest in our cities.

Sen. Edward Brooke: As the vice chairman of that commission, we spent seven long months analyzing last summer’s riots, and drawing up solid proposals to stop them at the source. I’m severely disappointed by the failure of the federal government to implement the Commission’s bipartisan recommendations. We are not moving fast enough, or far enough. We are not convincing the people in the slums that our government truly wants to help them. We have not adopted an affirmative national policy of interest and concern.

EH: So basically, the recommendations of the commission that were adopted, were the ones that reinforce the police recommendations that the Crime Commission had put forth, and all of the kind of larger points that the Kerner Commission made about the kind of transformation that was necessary in American society were completely ignored. Johnson, when the report was released, refused to comment on it because he felt the Commission’s recommendations were far too radical. And, of course, the federal government never got behind supporting the kind of transformation that the Kerner commission knew. And, of course, this is a vision of community empowerment and public safety that really went beyond the police as the only and ultimate solution to combating the material consequences of poverty and inequality. 

The Kerner Commission is flawed in many respects. It’s not a perfect report, it wasn’t a perfect commission, and it suffers from many of the same racist assumptions that other task forces and officials did within the Johnson administration. But we do have to ask ourselves: What would the United States look like today if policymakers had been willing to invest the kind of resources into low-income communities of color in the form of social welfare programs and vital community institutions that the Kerner Commission called for? Instead, the federal government did make those investments but in the form of police and surveillance and incarceration.

[Sober musical interlude.]

JD: Talk about how Miami is kind of a turning point in these rebellions, and their reaction to blatant exceptions of police violence — as was in Los Angeles in ’92, and Cincinnati in 2001.

EH: The omnipresent patrol and surveillance by law enforcement in targeted communities by 1980 had become bitterly accepted by many residents as just part of everyday life. And the rebellions during the peak era, during the crucible years, as I call it, that ’68 to ’72 period, most of them began in response to the policing of ordinary, everyday activities. 

So, Miami in 1980 kind of signals this era that we’re still very much in, and that is that only kind of exceptional incidents of police violence or miscarriages of justice, lead to rebellions. Of course these incidents of brutality and injustices reflect the build up of a series of violences and arbitrary illegal enforcements over time. But the catalyzing events of the rebellions themselves really begin to change in this period. So in Miami in 1980, there had been a number of police killings and just the year before the killing of Black motorist Arthur McDuffie in the city. A group of police officers beat McDuffie to death and attempted to make it look like he had gotten into a car accident. 

Reporter: What did he die from?

Dr. Ronald Wright: He died as a result of blunt head injuries with destruction of his underlying brain. He was beaten to death.

Reporter: How hard would someone have to hit someone to inflict such an injury?

RW: Amazingly hard.

EH: When the officers were tried and that trial was moved from Miami to Tampa, Florida, they were acquitted by an all-male, white jury. Hours after the acquittal was announced, Miami erupted in a particularly devastating and violent several days of rebellion. And it wasn’t the killing of McDuffie itself; when justice failed to be realized. And when the jury acquitted them, despite one of the officers admitting that they had tried to cover up the murder, the city erupted. 

Newscaster: What are you guilty of?

Mark Meier: I witnessed the incident. I helped cover it up. I lied to the internal review investigators investigating the incident.

Jury member: We the jury at Tampa, Hillsborough County, the 17th day of May 1980 find the defendant Alex Marrero, as to second-degree murder and charged the account one of the information, not guilty.

Newscaster: Good evening. With a curfew now in effect, the only persons on the streets of Miami’s riot-torn areas are police, National Guardsmen, and numerous snipers, looters, and torchmen setting dozens of fires that are now burning out of control. Some persons in the affected areas have had enough — 

EH: Of course, we see a very similar dynamic unfolding in Los Angeles 12 years later. It wasn’t Rodney King’s videotaped beating itself, but it was the acquittal of the four officers who were charged with King’s beating. 

And then, in Cincinnati in 2001, a 20-year-old Black man named Timothy Thomas was killed by the police. And Timothy Thomas was the 15th Black man who the Cincinnati police department had killed in a five-year period. And at that point, especially when the city officials refused to be transparent about the circumstances of his death, the community quickly erupted.

Newscaster: Mostly young crowds were on the streets for a second time in 12 hours today, protesting the latest shooting death of a Black man by police. [Sounds of people yelling and protesting.] The riots today and overnight erupted in the wake of the shooting on Saturday of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas, who was unarmed, had 15 misdemeanor reports [trails off]. 

EH: We see this from Michael Brown to George Floyd — again, instead of the policing of the everyday, instead of just the kind of strategies of policing itself that inflicted violence in targeted communities of color, people tend to rise up now when there appears to be no other recourse to achieve justice in the face of really, really blatant examples or incidents of state-sanctioned violence inflicted on people of color.

JD: One thing I notice is just how increasingly asymmetrical the dynamic of violence has become between protesters and the police as police become more and more militarized. In the crucible period that you described, there’s armed resistance to the police, like actual shootouts with guns.

EH: Right. 

JD: If anything, it feels like protesting has become more peaceful, while policing has gotten increasingly violent. How do you explain this disparity?

EH: This is something that’s a really important distinction between what we’ve seen from Ferguson in 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown onward. In the rebellions that I describe, from Harlem in ’64 to Cincinnati in 2001, these all began with forms of violent protests, they all began with rock-throwing, or maybe Molotov cocktail igniting, they all began with community violence. 

What we saw in Ferguson, and in Minneapolis last summer, the rebellions that did emerge, and let me just also make clear that the vast majority of the protests were entirely peaceful, but when they did involve violent tactics, this was only after the police disrupted nonviolent protests and peaceful vigils with tear gas and riot batons and arresting protesters who were exercising their first amendment rights. When the police came in violently — again this is part of the cycle I describe in the book — some protesters responded with violence.

I mean, certainly, the rebellions of the ’60s and ’70s have occurred far less frequently. It’s not an indication that the militarized police force is an effective deterrent. But that police — with bulletproof vests, and SWAT teams, and the helmets that they wear, and the military weapons, and the armored tanks — has become just part of American policing and accepted as part of the way policing is done. I wish that more people, especially those who are quick to continue to label violent political protests as riots, would heed that very important insight, which is that as protests have on the whole have gotten more peaceful, police have gotten more violent.

JD: So this week is the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. Democrats in the Senate were planning to hold a symbolic vote on the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. But that’s been delayed. There was also an enormous amount of attention paid to the conviction of Floyd’s killer, Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, which itself brings up a lot of questions about justice and accountability. I think a lot of people put emotional weight and hope into these symbolic gestures, as well as our justice system, and I was wondering if you could talk about the paradigm of reform and its limits when it comes to policing.

EH: One of the things that I really hope people walk away with when they read “America on Fire” is that we have to move beyond reform. Reform is not enough. 

These reforms are not going to solve the fundamental root problems of policing. We cannot train our way out of the circumstances that eventually led to George Floyd’s killing, we can’t continue to invest in technologies and body cams. We have to move beyond reform and, again, think back to ways that we can re-envision public safety or create new standards for public safety completely outside of the police. 

We don’t need another commission to tell us what we needed to do, because the Kerner Commission told federal policymakers more than 50 years ago. We have to invest in a structural transformation and a redistribution of resources that will benefit, and that will lead to, vibrant and healthy communities. And we have to target those resources in under-resourced communities, in low-income communities of color. 

That’s what’s needed now. It’s a different set of investments. Because the decision to invest in police and in prisons at the expense of schools and jobs and housing for people has not effectively worked to keep people safe, especially in the most vulnerable communities. When we think about the outlays for incarcerating people in this country, the wars on crime and drugs have been arguably the most severe domestic policy failures in the history of the United States. And so now this is what the protests are really about. This is what defund is about. This is what conversations [about] abolish the police are about. We have to think about getting beyond the police and investing in a different set of policy responses to address the issues and the root causes of racial inequality in this country. And now is the time to do it.

JD: Elizabeth Hinton, thank you so much. 

EH: Thank you so much for having me. 

JD: Elizabeth Hinton is an associate professor of history in African American Studies at Yale University and professor of law at Yale Law School. She’s the author of “America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.”

[Credits music.]

JD: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. 

’Til next time, I’m Jack D’Isidoro.


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