61 pages 2 hours read

Elizabeth Hinton

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


America on Fire (2021) by Elizabeth Hinton is a nonfiction book which provides a broad overview of the history of Black rebellion in the United States, starting in the “crucible period” of the late 1960s following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and continuing into the present with the George Floyd protests of the summer of 2020. Hinton highlights several violent encounters between Black Americans and law enforcement, many of which are not commonly remembered by the general public, tracing patterns of suppression and uprising that give new context to the current situation of racial tension and distrust of police in America. Hinton argues that, far from mindless “riots,” these rebellions have always been a politically driven response from Black Americans to systemic racism, draconian policing practices, and unaddressed community needs. America on Fire was a co-winner of the 2022 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

This guide uses the 2021 Liveright edition.

Content Warning: America on Fire contains detailed discussions of violence, both state-sanctioned and community-led. It discusses themes of racial injustice and oppression, and examines systemic issues in policing and the criminal justice system.


America on Fire is divided into two sections. The book’s first section (Introduction-Chapter 7) gives a detailed overview of the “crucible period” of Black rebellion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The second section (Chapter 8-Conclusion) explores the aftermath of the crucible period from the 1980s up to the George Floyd protests of 2020. Through both sections, Hinton provides detailed accounts of protests and the events leading up to them, focusing on multiple cities across America. By connecting individual events, she illustrates a pattern of suppression and violence, showing how failures to address the root causes of Black rebellion have led to ongoing problems.

In the Introduction, Hinton gives a broad overview of the Civil Rights movement and the years immediately following it. She argues that both historians and politicians have not taken the politics of Black rebellion as seriously as the subject deserves.

Chapter 1 explains “the cycle,” a pattern of escalating violence between Black Americans and law enforcement. Police officers patrolled Black communities much more aggressively than they did white communities, and their invasive presence was seen by the residents as inherently threatening. Black people inevitably would lash out at police officers in small acts of defiance. This made the officers much more mistrustful and likely to overreact, which inspired more rebellion, which then led to an even more draconian police response. This cycle is what caused violent rebellions—often sparked by a single tense encounter with an officer—to set fire to cities all across America.

In Chapter 2, Hinton discusses the way this cycle played out in Black housing projects around the country. She focuses on the Pyramids Courts project in Cairo, Illinois, where segregation, poverty and white supremacy had forced the Black residents into a nearly intolerable state of living. Eventually these conditions caused a violent rebellion. Rather than addressing the underlying issues of poverty and racism, city officials preferred to quell the rebellion with an increasingly militarized police force.

Chapter 3 explores the role that white supremacist vigilantes played in the rebellions of the crucible period. In Cairo, the white residents formed a vigilante group called the White Hats, who routinely harassed Black residents with the endorsement of the police. Meanwhile in York, Pennsylvania, the police went so far as to supply white supremacist gangs with weapons and chanted racist slogans alongside them. White supremacists infiltrated all levels of government, using their power to reinforce racial inequality. In response, many Black people began training to defend themselves.

Chapter 4 covers the partially fabricated figure of the “Black sniper,” who became a popular media trope during this time period. Despite being greatly exaggerated, stories of snipers exacerbated the hostility between officers and Black citizens, who both saw themselves as acting in self-defense. The increased tension and lack of trust led to several tragic deaths of both police and Black people, including an innocent 14-year-old boy. As usual, the boy’s murderers faced few consequences for his death.

Chapter 5 discusses the systemic racism that pervaded police departments across America. Arguing against the idea of abusive cops as individual “bad apples,” Hinton asserts that these bad apples were growing from a “poisoned tree”—a culture of systemic racism. She focuses on the story of one “bad apple” cop in particular, Claiborne T. Callahan, whose overreaction to a disrespectful teenage boy sparked widespread rebellions in the city of Alexandria, Virginia.

Chapter 6 focuses on rebellions which began at public schools. In multiple cities, Black students pushed for changes to address issues of racism in their schools, but the administrations called in law enforcement rather than hear the students’ demands. The presence of law enforcement caused initially peaceful student protests to escalate into citywide rebellions, leading to multiple deaths.

In Chapter 7, Hinton critiques various commissions that were established to investigate the causes of Black rebellion. While these commissions were good at identifying systemic racism and poverty as the underlying causes, they also “pathologized” Black people as being overly sensitive and paranoid. This, Hinton argues, is why the commissions were ultimately ineffective at addressing the problems they identified.

In Chapters 8 through 10, Hinton turns her attention to various rebellions that occurred in more recent decades—the Miami Uprising of 1980, the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of Rodney King’s murderers, and the 2001 Cincinnati riots—exploring how each of these cases evolved out of patterns established during the crucible period. She discusses the effects of mass incarceration, gang warfare, and wealth inequality on the Black community.

In the Conclusion, Hinton examines how the George Floyd protests of 2020 followed similar patterns as previous rebellions, yet were also much more diverse and took inspiration from both the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the systemic critiques of the Black Power movement. She closes the book by arguing that if America cannot make fundamental changes to address poverty and police brutality, these same patterns will inevitably continue into the future.