On police riots

I have a lot of odd hobbies. One of them, inspired by my mother’s baton scars, involves researching police riots, as well as the history more generally of uprisings in the U.S. and elsewhere. Typically this means that I have a lot of horrifying information on hand that most of my white friends don’t want to hear, or don’t believe, and that my friends of color—particularly my Black friends—really, really don’t need to hear, since they already know it. Right now, it means that I have historical context and understanding of the police riots engulfing the United States (and elsewhere). I’m not writing this, perforce, for my friends or readers of color: you already know, better than I do. But maybe it will help some of my white readers and friends, who have always been told that the cops are their friends, and who are, for the first time, seeing what police riots look and feel like, in real time.

There is a long history, in the United States and elsewhere, of protest and uprising met with violence by law enforcement. This is not, in short, the first time. None of this is the first time: it’s all happened before. I have to wonder, in fact, if the simple fact that most of my fellow white folks seem to have forgotten that it’s happened before is part of what enables it to keep happening, over and over, police riots meeting protesters time and again across the world. I’ve seen so many stunned posts on social media, all variants on a theme: they’re shooting or tear-gassing people on their own porches! (No kidding.) They’re attacking people walking from the store! (Happened before.) They’re covering their badges! (It’s like they have a playbook for police riots!) And, the thing is, as stunned as the collective we of white America might be, none of this is new. It’s happened so often that we have documentation of it, from studies to oral histories, from reports and newspaper articles to statistics. We’ve just chosen to turn away.

I’ve written about uprisings and police riots before. 1776 was no party: it was a violent revolt, one in which multiple ancestors of mine fought, including one from 1776 until 1783, and England’s final surrender, and one of the events that tipped it off was a police riot, where a Black and Indigenous man—the one and only Crispus Attucks—died first. (England didn’t listen to people asking to be let loose.) I’ve written about the Chicago police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, one which I have endlessly researched. And, though I’ve not really written about it, I’ve grown up seeing the scars of police batons on my mother; I heard her stories of police beatings and police riots the way other kids might have heard about prom, or past glory days. It meant that, as the police riots began this time around, I wasn’t surprised. Horrified, of course: one is always horrified by such things. Furious, yes, because if one is not furious, one isn’t paying attention. Sleepless, grieving, angry, sickened. But not surprised. It’s hard to be surprised when one has grown up looking at those baton scars.

I’ve heard shock, that the cops would attack people sitting on their porches, or even inside their homes. One of the times my mother thought she’d die, she was, indeed, sitting on a porch with some friends, nary a demonstration in sight—but the cops knew they were demonstrators, and they went in for the kill. (The National Guard stood against the police, saving lives that night.) There is shock that rioting police would attack the press—but they’ve done that before, too. Shock that cops are covering their badges, and questions of the legality—and no memory that, every time they get ready to riot, cops cover their badges. The minute the bridges went up in Chicago I knew what was coming: herd people into small spaces, lock them away, prevent them from going home—then arrest them for being there, or for being pressed into small spaces, or for wandering into neighborhoods not their own, in their quest to find a passable bridge. (I could say never cross the river to the north, because they’ll trap you and you might die up north, but there are times when the metaphor and the urgency demand crossing that bridge—and really, it’s the police who need to change, and the bridges that should be left down.)

Part of the unbearable hellscape of these police riots is not that they are new. They’re most decidedly not, no matter what some folks might think. They’ve happened yesterday, and yesterday, and yesterday, and unless we change the entire paradigm, they’re going to happen tomorrow, too. On the other hand, they’ve happened yesterday, and yesterday, and yesterday—and, honest to God, they really haven’t changed. Police tactics might include even more technology—and even more firepower—than before, but at their heart, they’re the exact same moves that were used at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, or by police gangs roving Madison in the ’60s and ’70s, and, indeed, across the country, for years and years. All those yesterdays can infuse our todays, if we learn from them. They can, I hope, help us become the Rahuls we want to see in the world, and help keep everyone out there holding this country to account and demanding that it become a more equitable place safe.

The Suggested Readings Part

Because there are actual experts out there.

Selected Readings: Structural Racism & American History

This is an incredibly partial list, and I’ve done so many other variants of it, and will likely do even more in the days to come. But it’s a partial list, and a place to start.

Selected Readings: Antiracism

Again, this is a pretty partial list—and a lot of other folks have done excellent lists as well. My former professor and mentor Dr. Cooke compiled this set of resources for all ages; it’s an amazing resource. Ibram Kendi put together this one for The New York Times. And the books below are worth a look.

Selected Reading: Police, Protests, & Police Riots

On acquiring books

Amazon sucks, as we all know, though of course it’s fast and easy (and sometimes cheaper). Bookshop is available online, whenever, wherever. Bookshop isn’t Amazon! IndieBound can be a bit clunky, but it’s another great resource. Your local indie is always a great idea! (I tend to use the Seminary Co-Op and 57th Street Books, both of which have had a workout from me this quarantine.) And there are Black-owned bookstores to check out as well! Semicolon lives here in Chicago. LitHub has a lengthy list of Black-owned bookstores. Elle lists 16. Refinery, like LitHub, has a massive list.

Finally, I choose to link to Goodreads not because I think they’re the greatest tracker of all time (they have way too much of my personal information, probably), but because they also link out to your local library. And your local library is always a great source of books, both physical materials (if they’re circulating yet in your area) and ebooks.

Related Booklists I Have Compiled