#ICantBreathe: 13 Books to Help You Better Understand What's Going On In America

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: Demonstraters storm the Macy's on 34th Street protesting the Staten Island, New York grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July on December 5, 2014 in New York City. The grand jury declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner's death. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Source: Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Protests against police brutality from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City are erupting across the nation. Thousands of Americans are gathering to demand action against the officers who caused the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, New York; John Crawford in Dayton, Ohio; Kendrec McDade in Pasadena, California; and Armand Bennett in New Orleans, Louisiana and the legal systems which have not afforded their families, loved ones, and communities justice. Each protest — whether it shuts down highways in Los Angeles or the Brooklyn Bridge — seeks to reform the way police interact with suspects, and the way that justice is served for those who find themselves on the receiving end of police brutality. 

Regardless of your take on these shootings, if you're following the stories, you probably still wish you knew more. You know how important the hard facts are: You want to know what exactly was on Eric Garner’s criminal record, how Michael Brown spent his last hour alive, and what protocols Cleveland police ignored when they shot Tamir Rice — a boy with a toy gun. But the small facts can't answer the bigger question: What the hell is going on?

I’m not going to any marches. And I’m not confessing my crimes on Twitter. I’m reading. I want to learn more before I pick up a sign and begin to march; I want answers to the many questions I find myself wondering about in each case of police brutality being protested nationwide. Here are books that address the complex questions of criminal justice, institutional racism, and the socioeconomic factors behind racial profiling. These books supply answers that aren't easy or quick, but might tell us what comes next after a man looks up at his arresting officers and says, #ICantBreathe.

Books About the Criminal Justice System

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander believes we still live in a Jim Crow society, one that has changed from projecting outward discrimination toward blacks, but creates societal repression through a variety of forms — most notably, through mass incarceration. Alexander's theory is backed through a wealth of criminal justice and prison data, historical linkages, and anecdotal evidence that builds a very strong case against the prison-industrial complex as it disproportionately incarcerates blacks for longer sentences on lesser crimes. Read from The New Jim Crow here.

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

You know how you were taught the Supreme Court was the great leveler? Erwin Chemerinsky, former dean of the UC Irvine Law School, wants you to forget that. In fact, Chemerinsky goes as far as to say he regrets giving his students "a generally favorable picture" of the institution during his tenure as a professor. Within the book, Chemerinsky reminds readers of the Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson cases, among others which have been castigated as "bad law" in the eyes of legal scholars. The court has a long history of supporting the majority against the minority, and this book, Chemerinsky chronicles the tradition. 

Books That Examine American Protests  

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 by Taylor Branch

Journalist, historian, and academic Taylor Branch provides painstaking detail as the tension of his narrative mounts within his trilogy of texts, America in the King Years. The books follow Martin Luther King, Jr. (alongside those who followed him) all the way from his boyhood to his assassination in 1968. Activists love this book because Branch focuses on the ways in which King's movement found success when others before him had yet to galvanize a nation behind the importance of civil rights. Read from Parting the Waters here

Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street by Todd Gitlin

Gitlin's book is both a history and a manifesto, chronicling the most successful — and polarizing — mass movement in contemporary American political history. Gitlin sheds lights on the origins of Occupy Wall Street, examining its roots in the 19760s countercultural movement, the media and public response to Occupy, and just how it managed to wake up Millennials and inspire them to protest as their forbears did generations ago. Read from Occupy Nation here.

Citizens Rising: Independent Journalism and the Spread of Democracy by David Hoffman

This book is more than an in-depth study of the progression of digital journalism and activism, it’s a call to step up to the microphone and speak up. Hoffman details how the Arab Spring and the spread of democracy led to — and was caused by — new methods of communication and citizen journalism. Read from Citizens Rising here.

Books About Police and Police Brutality

Police Brutality: An Anthology by Jill Nelson

Washington Post reporter Jill Nelson was furious when the NYPD officers who shot Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man entering his apartment building in 1999, were acquitted. This book was her response. Nelson collects essays from people who have experienced police brutality, experts on police brutality in the fields of journalism, academia, and law, and even police officers to chronicle their stories of and opinions on police brutality.

American Police, A History: 1945-2012: The Blue Parade, Vol. IIby Thomas A. Reppetto

Reppetto creates a narrative out of what might seem like disparate events — the kidnapping of a young boy in Kansas City, the anti-war protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, the War on Drugs, the attacks of 9/11, and the War on Terror — weaving a narrative that helps examine how police train and conduct their work. Reppetto examines how policing in the 1970s and 80s gave way to the "zero tolerance" policies of former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, which in turn gave way to a policing philosophy focused on thwarting terrorism and clamping down on civil liberties in the post-9/11 landscape.

Memoirs From Key Players in Past Conflicts 

The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption by Rodney King

Rodney King was a haunted man. Watching a city on fire after the acquittal of the LAPD cops who had beaten him (famously demonstrated in the video release of the incident during the advent of the 24/7 news cycle), King asked, “Can we all just get along?” instead of feeding the flames. The beating haunted him. His response haunted him. And his addictions haunted him, too. King died four years after this memoir’s release, found after drowning in a pool with drugs in his system. You can find an interview and an excerpt from The Riot Within here

Vice: One Cop’s Story of Patrolling America’s Most Dangerous City by John R. Baker

Compton, California was the most crime-ridden city in America in the 1950s when John R. Baker was a cop with the local police department. Some might say that little has changed since Baker's days on patrol. Vice is his account of trying to maintain order in a city that was one a battleground of the civil rights movement, and has since been ravaged by violence. 

The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership by Al Sharpton

Our Al Sharpton is not our parent’s Al Sharpton. We know him as the man who speaks for and stands beside families who are pleading their cases of injustice before the public. Our parents, however, know Sharpton as a leader within Dr. Martin Luther King's inner circle, and most notably as an instigator of questions (and sometimes, divisions) within the civil rights movement after King's assassination, who, ultimately, was tarnished by rape allegations made by Tawana Brawley, claims which were ultimately deemed as a hoax despite receiving full support from Sharpton and others. This is the story of Sharpton's evolution from rabble-rouser to public figure. Read from The Rejected Stone here

Fiction and Poetry About Race in America

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Citizen is a book-length poem that explores being black in modern America — the frustrations, the hypocrisies, and the dangers it can entail. On its cover there is a lone black hoodie, echoing the Trayvon Martin shooting incident while being published during protests in Ferguson. You can read from Citizen here.  

Two Trains Running by August Wilson

The year is 1969 and the place is Pittsburgh. The play is the seventh in August Wilson's Century Cycle, a series that chronicles the various black experiences of 10 decades in 10 dramas. This one is about the optimism of the black power movement and the despair of everyday injustice.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

This novel is an American classic. It's Notes from the Underground set in 1940s Harlem ,and the corrupting force isn't coming from within the nameless protagonist. It's the hatred of black people that lies underneath the surface of American society. 


Must Reads