America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s by Elizabeth Hinton - review by Michael Javen Fortner

Michael Javen Fortner

A Riot or a Revolution?

America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s


William Collins 240pp £20

His name was Martin Chambers. Around 6.30pm on 11 June 1967, James Calvert, a white Tampa patrolman, shot the black nineteen-year-old in the back as he was allegedly fleeing a burglary. Chambers’s death ignited four nights of riots. As Cleveland’s African-American newspaper Call and Post reported, ‘angry Negroes romped through four sections of Tampa throwing Molotov cocktails, engaged in sniper shooting and other forms of disturbances’.

In Atlanta, Georgia, later that month hundreds of African-Americans gathered at a ‘grievance meeting’ to discuss a different incident, ‘the wounding of a Negro youth … by a Negro policeman’. As the Chicago Daily Defender, another black newspaper, reported, ‘rioting’ had ‘flared’ after Stokely Carmichael, the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, told the crowd, ‘We are not concerned with peace. We are concerned with the liberation of black people. We have to build a revolution.’ Notwithstanding his often-quoted phrase that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’, Martin Luther King Jr and three other major civil rights leaders responded to these incidents by calling for more investment in urban communities while emphasising that ‘killing, arson, looting are criminal acts and should be dealt with as such’. How should we interpret these events? Were they acts of criminality or of liberation?

Elizabeth Hinton’s America on Fire attempts an explanation. This lively if slapdash survey of urban disturbances in the United States dissects their origins and reinterprets their meanings. For Hinton, there’s nothing peculiar about these explosions of rage. Federal investment in local policing generates an ominous ‘cycle’: ‘multiple occasions of seemingly

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