With its unprecedented investment in local law enforcement, Johnson’s Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 offered a short-term solution that became a long-term reality. As the United States waged the Vietnam War abroad, federal policymakers built a pipeline to deliver riot control training, surplus army weapons and technological innovations to police in order to put down domestic political radicalism and Black rebellion. With its initial $400 million outlay (about $3 billion today) for crime control, the legislation enabled cities to flood police into areas that seemed prone to violence.
Black, Puerto Rican and Mexican-American communities had long been subject to targeted surveillance, frequent encounters with police, mass arrests, illegal searches and outright brutality. But after the Safe Streets Act, residents in big cities like New York, midsize cities like Phoenix, and smaller cities like Waterloo, Iowa, would be patrolled by police departments with arsenals at their disposal: new AR15s and M4 carbines, steel helmets, three-foot batons, masks, armored vehicles, two-way radios, tear gas — these and other techniques, weapons and tools flowed into thousands of cities across the United States.
The collective violence that this federal law inadvertently fueled was a consequence of the all too predictable presence of the police. The rebellions usually started when law enforcement meddled, often violently, in everyday activity. They happened when police seemed to be there for no reason or when the police intervened in matters that could be resolved internally (in disputes among friends and family, for example). Rebellions often began when the police enforced laws that would almost never be applied in white neighborhoods (laws against gathering in groups of a certain size or acting like a “suspicious person”). Likewise, they erupted when police failed to extend to residents the common courtesies afforded to whites (allowing white teenagers to drink in a park but arresting Mexican-American teens for the same behavior).
“If they would just leave us along there would be no trouble,” said a Black teenage boy who threw rocks in Decatur, Ill., during an uprising in August 1969. His common sense solution was a straightforward reaction to an obvious problem. Rebellion was always possible when ordinary life was policed, and often the mere sight of police was enough to prompt a violent response. During a five-day battle between police and Black residents in York, Pa., in July 1968, a reporter asked a male participant, “Why are young black Yorkers throwing rocks and bottles at policemen?” To which the young man replied, “Why do police hit people on the heads with their clubs?”
This was “the cycle” that entrenched racial inequality and put this nation on a path to mass incarceration: the recurring pattern of overpolicing and rebellion, of police violence and community violence, that helped define urban life in segregated low-income communities of color back then and persists today. The cycle began with the police, who moved through the ghettos of America “like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country,” as James Baldwin famously observed in 1960, so that their very presence — their perceived callousness to the inequality around them — felt violent in itself.
As the cycle played out in cities large and small across the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it set in motion dynamics between residents and police for decades to come, laying the foundation for “zero tolerance” and “broken windows” policing characterized by the aggressive enforcement of misdemeanors in order to prevent future disorder. As rebellions persisted through the 1970s and beyond (although not with the frequency of those in the immediate post-civil rights era), the cycle remained unbroken, further demonstrating that aggressive policing tends to incite violence, especially when residents are protesting the very thing that they are then subjected to.
The cycle’s consequences have, at times, taken the form of mass violence to which all Americans have been witness: in Miami in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1992, in Cincinnati in 2001, and in more recent years in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, and in Minneapolis last summer. Each was set off by an instance of police violence. Each drew calls for more “law and order.” Each involved heavily militarized police confronting residents who were fighting against a larger system of oppression.