The riots of the past week are depressingly familiar. “I read that report,” the world-renowned psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark noted in 1967 about President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders. “The report of the 1919 riot in Chicago,” Clark continued, “and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the (1965) Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this commission — it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland — with the same moving picture shown over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”
Clark knew that the explosions of violence in Detroit, Newark and more than 100 other American cities in the long, hot summer of 1967 reflected a pattern long ingrained in American history. Ever since post-Civil War Reconstruction entertained the possibility of African-American equality, white mobs and police forces were deployed to control black bodies. When that control turned lethal, African-Americans — who were always outnumbered and outgunned — responded through legal channels, nonviolent protest and civil rights advocacy.
White citizens dismissed claims of police violence as fabricated, exaggerated or as the rare example of a few “bad apples.” African-American pleas for racial justice would be met with inaction, token reform or rhetorical change. Years of denial and dithering about police brutality, combined with spatial, economic and political segregation left no legitimate outlets for black frustration. A single precipitating incident of police violence may have triggered the uprisings, but the tinderbox of suffering, disfranchisement and emasculation had been stocked for years.
I first started researching the history of the New York City Police Department in the mid-1990s, not long after the Los Angeles had exploded in violence when four policemen were acquitted of the savage beating of Rodney King. Dr. Clark’s observation that the replaying of this cycle of police brutality, nonviolent protest, followed by inaction, rioting and empty promises would be repeated many times in the years to come.
My research focused on the 1964 Harlem riot in which James Powell, a 15-year-old black boy, was shot and killed by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. As I dug into the archives to make sense of this episode and the reform coming out of it, there were several high-profile cases of police brutality during the “zero tolerance” campaign of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In 1997 two NYPD offices beat Abner Louima and then proceeded to rape him with a broomstick. In 1999 a Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times while holding up his wallet in a posture of self-defense. The following year Patrick Dorismond would be shot and killed by two undercover NYPD officers.
When I was asked about my research, someone would inevitably tell me of its value because “it was a really hot topic at the moment.” The idea that something as serious as racial violence was fashionable was repugnant, as was the erroneous assumption that it had been merely a contemporary problem. Yet the comments would continue over the years. The research eventually became my doctoral dissertation and would later become a book.
At every stage of the 15 years I researched and wrote the book, as well as the subsequent years since its publication, someone would tell me how relevant the history was because of some recent news story about police violence against black Americans: Patrick Dorismond, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, to name a few. The tragic deaths of these men have immortalized them as household names, but they are only a small sample of black men and boys killed by the police. We hear less about black women, girls and transgender victims, but thanks to #sayhername we are learning about people like Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, Alexia Christian and Megan Hockaday. The record of policing black bodies is extensive, consistent and dreadful.
As protests devolve into violence, rioting, arson, and destruction of property, let us remind ourselves of this deep and tragic history. Of course, not everyone who is rioting is doing so for political reasons. No doubt, interlopers have arrived to stoke the flames of legitimate fury. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking of the ire of protestors as misguided. Rage does not exist in a vacuum and human beings are intelligent enough to know when their peaceful advocacy is ignored.
At the very moment that these black lives have been extinguished, African-Americans face health and economic insecurity of epic proportions. All the while, legislatures gerrymander their districts and seek creative means to disenfranchise them at the polls. If legitimate means of self-advocacy is quashed, it will be Alice in Wonderland all over again.
Andrew Darien, PhD, is a professor of history at Salem State University and author of “Becoming New York’s Finest: Race, Gender, and the Integration of the NYPD, 1935-1980.”