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  • NYS Writers Institute

Riot, report, repeat, riot, report, repeat...

In 2005, we hosted an event with prize-winning historian Jill Lepore. She came to the University at Albany to discuss her (at the time) new book, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan, an illuminating early history of "a city that slavery built," and the story of a rarely recounted plot by black slaves to burn colonial New York City to the ground in 1741.

A few weeks ago, Lepore wrote an essay in The New Yorker -- "The History of the 'Riot' Report: How government commissions became alibis for inaction" -- that lays out in great detail how government continuously issues reports in reaction to racial protests and riots. And then... nothing happens.

"There’s a limit to the relevance of the so-called race riots of the nineteen-sixties to the protests of the moment," Lepore writes. "But the tragedy is: they’re not irrelevant. Nor is the history that came before. The language changes, from 'insurrection' to 'uprising' to the bureaucratic 'civil disorder,' terms used to describe everything from organized resistance to mayhem. But, nearly always, they leave a bloody trail in the historical record, in the form of government reports."

Will 2020 be different? We'll find out together. In the meantime, there is so much commentary being written, first drafts documenting this historic year.

Walter Ayres writes a blog titled "Faith in the Public Square" on the website. After reading Lepore's New Yorker essay, Ayres wrote a comtemplative piece titled Race, riots, and sin from his perspective as a Catholic deacon.

"It’s been said that non-violent protest brings about awareness and violent protest brings about urgency. Today, that sense of urgency is felt by many," Ayres wrote. "While most of those who participate in the demonstrations have been peaceful, there has been some destruction, which I do not endorse, but I try to understand.

This damage has led me to an uncomfortable question, i.e., 'Who has committed the greater sin: The angry person who burned down some buildings in a blinding rage, or me, who has rarely spoken out about the sin of racism from my comfortable pulpit?'"

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale in 1995. Her first book, The Name of War, won the Bancroft Prize; her 2005 book, New York Burning was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008 she published Blindspot, a mock eighteenth-century novel, jointly written with Jane Kamensky. Lepore's most recent book, The Whites of Their Eyes, is a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice.

Here's a link to her podcast:

Video from Jill Lepore's 2005 NYS Writers Institute event


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