How solving police violence requires revisiting how history is told

November 16, 2021

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Historians explore the narratives of the Civils Rights movement and beyond in the John Hope Franklin Lecture series

By Sarah Steimer

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf digital item number, e.g., apf12345], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.
University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf digital item number, e.g., apf12345], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Moving the country forward — toward a greater actualization of equal rights and ending police violence — requires a reevaluation of history: Of the language used, policies enacted, players involved, and stories told.

The argument for reexamination of civil rights movements in the U.S. from the 1960s on was part of the John Hope Franklin Lecture series. The event, organized by the Department of History, honors the legacy of John Hope Franklin, a member of the U Chicago faculty from 1964 to 1982. This year’s event was held Oct. 27-29 and featured talks from ​​Elizabeth K. Hinton of Yale University and Pulitzer Prize- and Bancroft Prize-winning historian Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan.

The final day also included a panel discussion with Hinton, Thompson, and members of the U Chicago faculty: Adam Green, associate professor of American History; Brodwyn Fischer, professor of Latin American History; Reuben Miller, associate professor in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

Hinton’s lecture on the first day, titled “The Fire This Time: Police Violence and Urban Uprisings from the 1960s to George Floyd,” focused on the cycle of violent responses between law enforcement and Black Americans. She said the country has a tendency to look at so-called riots in historical vacuums without context.

Prior to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, white people were typically the rioters who took “justice” into their own hands by way of acting as anti-Black vigilantes. Police came to take over the job of the white mob, and rioting became associated with the civil rights movement. The established thinking was that the only cure for such unrest was more police funding.

This all came despite federal commissions’ warnings that the militarization of police would make things worse, not better. Many uprisings, Hinton noted, were because of police intervention in basic issues, such as rowdy parties, disputes, or simply being a “suspicious person” — reactions that didn’t happen in white communities. Black resistance would be found wherever ordinary life was policed, leading to a cycle of over-policing and urban rebellion.

An influx of money was pumped into law enforcement to battle the problems, and city officials took advantage of federal resources to control Black people, Hinton said. Most of the funds went toward larger police forces and their militarization — with a few police-community programs thrown in for good measure.

“With the war on crime came new forms of social control and new forms of resistance,” Hinton said, and many Black people saw fighting back to be their only option when government authorities didn’t protect them against police brutality. Violence, she explained, may be the only way to force local, state, and national politicians to answer Black demands.

This, Hinton said, is why it’s important to see the collective solidarity of violent and non-violent rebellion in the face of political inaction and suppression. The protests related to George Floyd’s death was yet another cycle of police violence and citizen reaction: Peaceful protests were met with tear gas and mass arrests, which led some — as they had in the 1960s and 1970s — to react by throwing objects and looting stores. Despite most protests being peaceful, governments responded by amping up law enforcement presence, and legislators have since introduced riot bills across the country that make it easier to crack down on rebellions.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, there are some lawmakers and the public sitting up to take note of police violence again. The challenge of the late 21st century, Hinton said, is to actually bring about change.

“We must begin with the past,” she said. “We are reckoning with the history of Black rebellion. Social justice and progress are the only guarantors of reduced rebellion.”

Thompson’s lecture on the second day, “The Burdens of History: Policing, Prisons, and the Dizzying Power of the Past on the Present,” also focused on the lens through which we view the past. She also urged for taking a closer look at how stories were told — and how historians need to question what’s often found in the archives.

She explored the topic through two particular moments in history: the 1971 Attica Prison Rebellion and the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. The story of both events have long been mistold and misrepresented, shaping the country’s future on false narratives.

At Attica Prison in New York, inmates took hostages in an effort to bring attention to poor living conditions and a lack of political rights. Despite public support of the prisoners, and progress on an agreement, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent in troops to take control of the prison.

Thompson said it took her 13 years to suss out the truth, because the way the story has been told — by newspapers at the time and in history books — was largely false. The narrative had been that the prisoners caused the chaos and deaths that ensued, but a closer look shows everyone killed was killed by law enforcement weapons, and that they entered the prison with their identifying badges concealed. The investigation into the incident was also carried out by the same government officials in charge of the assault, with photos doctored, evidence burned, and witnesses intimidated.

The story of the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia has also been mistold. MOVE, a communal organization that advocated for natural living, began in the city in the 1970s in an effort to check out of society. The members, who were predominantly Black, were hassled by law enforcement for a variety of infractions that grew over time and led to the eventual militarization of the group.

Another large conflict preceded the 1985 bombing, and it has since been learned that much of the plans for the bombing were at least two years in the making — not a reaction to an immediate threat.

The bombing of the rowhouse in the Black, working class neighborhood left 13 dead, including five children whom the city was aware were in the house and chose not to remove in advance. Sixty-one homes were ruined when two full city blocks were leveled by the blast, and the cost to taxpayers topped $42 million.

But the message was that this was horrific and traumatic, but unavoidable. MOVE forced their hand, had they cared about the children and neighbors, it never would have forced this confrontation.

“The American public comes out of those decades believing hippies are violent, Civil Rights protestors are violent, feminists are violent,” Thompson says. “(They thought) crime was out of control before it does get out of control. But why does it get out of control? What’s the cause and effect, the chicken and the egg?

“Historians have a responsibility to weigh in on these things as much as sociologists do and political scientists do.”