One hundred years ago, in 1917, angry white residents tore through the Black neighborhood of East St. Louis setting fire to homes and assaulting passersby. Black community members armed themselves against the racial pogrom.
Fifty years ago, in 1967, police raided a “blind pig” in Detroit where a group had gathered to fete two GIs home from the war. Local residents vandalized or looted over 2,000 stores the next five days, causing in excess of forty million dollars of damage. 159 additional American cities reacted similarly to their own municipal injustices that year.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, after a change of venue, a suburban Los Angeles jury acquitted the officers who brutalized Rodney King on videotape. South Central residents took to the streets to protest this injustice, the memory of the light sentence of fifteen-year-old LaTasha Harlins’ killer, still fresh in their minds.
Three years ago, the Ferguson police permitted Michael Brown to lay uncovered in the street for over four hours. Enraged residents set a QuikTrip ablaze.
One year ago, two Baton Rouge officers kneeled on Alton Sterling, shooting him multiple times.
One year ago, a Minnesota patrolman shot Philando Castille, while his girlfriend filmed the encounter on Facebook Live.
Violence is an unrelenting hallmark of the Black American experience. Kidnappings, savage beatings, summary executions, sexual assaults, massacres, and mass incarceration: the American state and its agents have continuously employed these corporal attacks as mechanisms for exerting social control over minority citizens. The year 2017 marks the gruesome anniversary of some of the most infamous events of anti-Black violence. And while the human toll in each of these incidents is immeasurable, so too is the suffocating omnipresence of structural violence in the everyday lives of those who occupy the lowest tiers of racial, classed, gendered, and sexual hierarchies.
Throughout American history this nation has collectively bought into the “myth of innocence.” Citizens hold their heads high as they engage in what is construed as constructive violence, including “opening” the frontier, the Revolutionary War, and agrarian uprisings. Simultaneously, those who employ corporal force beyond these sanctioned means are punished for engaging in destructive violence. This binary allows Americans to exonerate those who use bodily harm for agreed upon public benefit and discipline those who do not conform to normative ideals and hierarchies. This is the paradox of violence throughout American history. The public lauds force sanctioned by those in power. When the disenfranchised mobilize the same tactic, the public demonizes these actors for tearing apart the fabric of society; the lesson not to throw stones in glass houses, unheeded.
In 1969, appalled by the misinterpreted “explosion” of violence that occurred that decade, the United States government commissioned a study entitled The History of Violence in America. Although the nation had been wracked with on-going war in South Asia, numerous political assassinations, and urban uprisings, historian Richard Hofstadter remarked in his own study “what is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history.” Or, as black militant H. Rap Brown asserted more plainly, “violence is as American as cherry pie.” Yet when marginalized citizens violently press back against unjust structures, as they did in the above examples, the country recoils in shock and dismay.
Defining violence seems straightforward: bodily harm inflicted by one human being upon another. While this type of violence certainly predominates the Black experience, other more clandestine versions occur simultaneously. John Galtung’s framing of the term captures the constant shadow of violence that creeps over the Black community, ranging beyond corporal terror. Galtung broadens the definition of violence to include the “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs.” Central city divestment, environmental racism, stop-and-frisk policies, non-indictments, and political gerrymandering are high-profile examples, yet represent only a fraction of the structural violence that plagues the Black community. Taken as a whole, these unjust structures have often forced African Americans to pursue new, violent forms of redress that frame Blacks as both victims and agents of change. Through the strategic mobilization of violence, the oppressed amplify their demands after years of sanctioned agitation had borne no fruit.
This past week, sandwiched between the anniversaries of the Newark and Detroit uprisings, we reflect on the impact, legacy, and meaning of the 1967 urban revolts. We must challenge and redefine the ways in which these events are recollected. By not doing so, erasure inflicts yet another wound. Violence does not incubate in a sterile petri dish. It grows in the muck and filth of an imbalanced society. The pattern that emerges is that cultural, state, political, gendered, racial, legal, and structural violence always precedes instances of collective response. Yet the dominant narratives focus on the barbarity of popular violence. How is it that the specter of violence employed by the marginalized is scarier than the structural violence perpetrated by the State? Only a radical disruption of these narratives will allow our descendants to mark the passage of time not in the anniversaries of anti-Black violence but rather in the markers of our collective liberation.
 Ira M. Leonard and Christopher C. Leonard, “The Historiography of American Violence,” Homicide Studies 7: 2 (2003), 104.
Richard Maxwell Brown, “Historical Patterns of Violence in America,” in Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, The History of Violence in America (New Work: Bantam Books, 1969), 45.
 Richard Hofstadter, “Reflections on Violence in the United States,” Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace, eds., American Violence (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 7.
 W.S. Tkweme, “H. Rap Brown,” in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 107.
 Johan Galtung, “Kulturelle Gewalt” (1993) Vol. 43 Der Burger im Staat in Kathleen Ho “Structural Violence as a Human Rights Violation” (2007) Essex Human Rights Review 4: 2 (September 2007), 106.
Ashley M. Howard is a book reviews editor for TBS and an assistant professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.