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Streets of Fire

Demonstrators marched in Los Angeles following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
Demonstrators marched in Los Angeles following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

New Books Include Historian’s Narrative of Brutality, Anger, and Revolt

Author By Madeleine Schwartz Published 05.20.2021 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

Elizabeth Hinton’s expansive, impressive new book aims to change the meaning of the word “riot”—and thereby alter the American understanding of violent uprising. “Due to the rhetoric of politicians, media coverage, and much of the academic research on the subject, Americans have become accustomed to think of these moments of mass violence—from Harlem in 1964 to Minneapolis in 2020—as misguided at best, and meaningless or irrational at worst,” writes Hinton, a Yale historian and a member of Radcliffe’s Faculty Advisory Council. Even liberals sympathetic to these moments of violence “often concluded that rioting was a pathological impulse, rooted in spontaneous, uncontrollable emotion.” Yet, as she argues in America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s (Liveright, 2001), Black Americans have long fought against socioeconomic conditions that go beyond police brutality. “Rebellion served as a message to the nation that the civil rights reforms of the mid-1960s, the equal-opportunity and self-help programs of the War on Poverty, and ongoing nonviolent protest were inadequate to solving the problem of racial inequality and its countless manifestations and consequences. Something else was needed.” 

Hinton’s study looks at uprisings from the 1960s to the present to argue that these were not moments of senseless violence but, rather, responses to a lack of resources. In late-1960s Carver Ranches, Florida, for example, police filled the streets, while the city lacked “sidewalks, fire hydrants, or a sewer system.” Around that same time in Alexandria, Virginia, a policeman named Claiborne Callahan harassed and brutalized Black minors. In one instance, he beat a young man so severely that he could see his skull open. “These people are afraid of him, not because he might hurt them, but because they are afraid he is going to lock them up if they break the law,” his superior said in his defense. A group of white residents in Alexandria threw a gala in Callahan’s honor. 

Hinton attempts to show that although violent uprisings are often thought of as moments of senseless tumult, these events are grounded in a deep understanding of inequality. She supports her argument with voices from the archives. As the Reverend Charles Koen, an activist who argued for armed self-defense in Cairo, Illinois, in the 1960s and 1970s, later wrote: “Voting rights could not be eaten or made into clothing and shelter.” He was hardly alone in his anger. “The way we see it from where we stand, is that every time that we strive to do something to help ourselves, that there are more policemen armed with guns, more ammunition is bought to put a stop to the drive to better the condition of the Negro,” said the Reverend J. J. Cobb, the first Black person appointed to any official position in Cairo. The government’s answer to these concerns was to increase funding for the police. Hinton writes: “The federal allocation for local police forces went from nothing in 1964 to $10 million in 1965, $20.6 million in 1966, $63 million in 1968, $100 million in 1969, and $300 million in 1970—a 2,900 percent increase in five years.”

Hinton’s work developed from years of archival research. Yet, as she notes, the story she tells is an ongoing one. Last summer, Robbie Koen, the daughter of Charles Koen, spoke to a crowd at a Juneteenth celebration. “The question I ask you today is, ‘What are you going to do?’” she said. “And the question I ask myself is, ‘What am I going to do?’”

Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, by Lucas Bessire (Princeton University Press, 2021)

“Around eleven thousand irrigation wells have transformed this corner of the former Great American Desert into the so-called breadbasket of the world,” writes Lucas Bessire, an anthropologist, about his native Kansas. But, as he documents in Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains, the wells are drying up. No water means no agriculture—a development that could have troubling implications for farmers, the people they feed, and climate change. “So much groundwater is pumped to the surface and drained into the oceans,” Bessire writes, “that it is now a major contributor to sea level rise, roughly on par with melting glaciers.”

Bessire comes from a line of Kansas agriculturists, many of whom actively tapped the water that is now running dry. This legacy forms the central thrust of his book. He reads through his grandmother Fern’s diaries to understand how she saw the climate change she and her family inflicted. At the same time, he is dependent on a father he once barely spoke to for introductions to Kansas farmers, many of whom are uneasy about his reporting project. “Like an aquifer, the account is composed of many sediments,” he writes. “Groundwater runs through my family lines like blood.”

Among his biggest discoveries is how many incentives, both legal and financial, encourage farmers to use up groundwater rather than conserve it. He goes to several groundwater management meetings, where he notes that the board is made up of representatives who benefit from water use. “It is in the interest of a prodepletion GMD board to mute or to discredit the voices of proconservation farmers, to amplify the voices of those in favor of eradication, and to make the opinion of one local faction appear as a district-wide democratic consensus,” he writes. By contrast, nearly everyone else with a stake in the livelihood of Kansas farms—from workers to the millions who depend upon them for food—have no say in how the groundwater is treated. Those who speak up invite the scorn of their neighbors. One farmer launches a lawsuit and is attacked by his peers; he ends up quitting the corn-farming business to cultivate hemp instead. Others simply believe that if there were a problem with water, “authorities would act.” 

Today’s groundwater inequities go to the heart of Kansas history. Looking back at the arid fields that contributed to famine in the early 20th century, Bessire notes that a program to help struggling farmers based its payouts on the number of crops produced. This meant that those most responsible for the Dust Bowl received more “than those who had voluntarily conserved.”

Bessire stresses that tools to solve the Kansas water crisis already exist. State policy could set a cap, or farmers could organize to create one themselves, as has happened in northwest Kansas. “Regardless, citizens should be empowered to vote on water management decisions.”

Blizzard: Poems, by Henri Cole (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)

The opening pages of Henri Cole’s poetry collection contain a bee, a bat, a snail; poems about peeling potatoes and eating jam. But do not mistake this book for an elegy to the countryside. The work is gentle but with a hard edge.

Cole’s poems are fresh and minute, with simple, elegant language—dewdrops that reflect the landscape around them. Helping a bat escape from his home, he wonders what the blind creature can see of the “crammed,/ corrupt, infuriating/ shallow, sanctimonious,/ and insincere” world he is flying into.

As the book unspools, the poems take on more political subjects. Several are addressed to a certain recent US president. Cole opens one section with the dissenting opinion in the 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the majority ruled that the constitutional right to privacy did not extend to homosexual sex. This, the reference reminds us, took place less than 40 years ago.

Pleasure here must yield to rules and laws. Even the easiest joys have a threatening undertone. Men who arrive to set up a party tent wield “sledgehammers” and administer “blow after blow.” Lingonberry jam “pierces right/through into some deep, essential place,/where I am my own master and no sodomy/laws exist.” Elsewhere, there are meditations on the deaths caused by AIDS. Peeling potatoes, Cole writes:

I feel a connection across

time to others putting their heads down

in fatigued thought, as if this most natural

act signified living the way I wanted to,

with the bad spots cut out, and eluding

my maker.

Yet throughout Cole keeps his eye on the tiny: the bee he shoos away, the lonely snail whose “gelid body” inspires his pity. Could it be that such elegy of the minor is a way of thwarting power? As he writes in a later poem:

Look at the flock of pigeons

flying into a thunderhead! I always feel an elevation

when small things overmaster the great.

The Souvenir Museum: Stories, by Elizabeth McCracken (Ecco, 2021)

The stories of Elizabeth McCracken remind us that reading fiction can be fun. She’s witty and comic; she doesn’t miss an opportunity to complement her observations about family and loss with sharp turns of phrase that veer from sentimental to humorous. One woman in The Souvenir Museum has a braid that was “black...then silvery, then silver, an instrument to measure time, an atomic clock.” Two lifeguards “wearing pointless sunglasses” watch over swimmers. One of my favorite stories in the collection, “It’s Not You,” features a young woman who checks into a hotel after a recent breakup. She meets a radio host named Dr. Benjamin who has been stood up by one of his callers (he had hoped for an illicit rendezvous). He invites her to his room. You expect that they will go to bed together, but instead she falls asleep in the bath.

The closer the relationship, the more potent its dissolution. McCracken’s characters are all nursing some kind of grief—over death, breakups, and even the loss of one conception of someone for another. Several stories discuss the distance between where one imagines one’s life and where it ends up. In “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark,” a man named Bruno thinks about the independence he lost when he coupled with his partner and they had a son. “That was the distressing thing about some people, how their love was the beaded rope across the pool: the substance was continuous, but it was only the beads that kept it afloat.”

Glimpses of the life of a couple named Jack and Sadie recur throughout the book, like visits from old friends. When we first encounter them, Sadie is meeting Jack’s parents, seeing her adult boyfriend as a son. By the final page, Jack and Sadie have been together for nearly 20 years. Their relationship is no longer “the lean-to of young love” but a feeling that has created the structure for their entire lives, even as it sways with their fights.

This book is cluttered with objects: a doll called “Baby Alive” that can be fed, ventriloquist dummies, balloon animals. (There is also an unusual number of references to clowns.) Reading McCracken’s collection is a bit like wandering through a shop and hearing the tale behind each tchotchke: a life, a longing, a loss, contained in something you can hold in your hand.

Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. 

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