Why So Few Riots?

The website, Killed by Police, documents 2,660 “police lynchings” of civilians during the period of 2013 (768), 2014 (1,106) and 2015 (787, as of Aug. 29).  Yet, over the last few years, very few outright “riots” have occurred.  Why?

The term “riot” is now easily invoked to denote militant domestic protests, involving violence, and serves as the correlary to “terrorism” used to denote international nonstate conflicts.  The U.S. has witnessed two “great waves” of race-based riots: the first around the time of the World War I and the second amidst the Vietnam War.  In addition, innumerable mass distruburances, sometimed erupting into riots, have take place over the last century.

Since 2013, there have been four popular protests deemed “riots” – the March ’13, Brooklyn, NY, protests over the killing of Kimani Gray; the November ‘14, Ferguson, MO, killing of Michael Brown; the April ’15, Baltimore, MD, killing of Freddie Gray; and in August ’15, in Ferguson, on the one-year anniversary of Brown’s killing.

These protests do not come out of a vacuum, be it of contemporary conditions or history.  The 1st wave lasted from 1917 to 1921 and involved mostly whites attacking blacks; it reflected the social dislocation precipitated by industrialization, the Great Migration and the war.  The 2nd wave lasted from 1964 to 1968 and reflected mostly African-Americans venting their rage against local conditions – including private property and the police – much determined by mounting urban dislocation, institutional racism and the war.

Does the current upswing in popular protest against police lynchings and other racially motivated killings of people-of-color (e.g., Treyvon Martin) prefigure a new phase of African-American political organizing or a simmering outrage that could ignite into widespread violent protests?  This is the unanswered question.

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The 1st wave of riots included the following.

The May 1919 East St. Louis, IL, riot was precipitated by the hiring of some 500 African-Americans to break a strike by white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company.  The initial riot saw white mobs attack blacks throughout the city, including pulling them from trolley and beating them; the governor called in the National Guard to reestablish order.  A second outbreak followed in July when whites again attacked blacks, including women and children; the victims of the violence were beaten, shot and lynched, and black homes and businesses were burned.

In August ’17, a very different riot took place in Houston, TX.  Two white police entered the home of a black woman, seized, beat and arrested her for no apparent reason.  A black U.S. soldier who was passing by tried to determine what was happening and was similarly assaulted and arrested.  Later in the day, a fellow black soldier went to the police station to free his friend and he was also beaten and arrested.  The led to 156 black soldiers –from the all-black 3rd Battalion, 24th Infantry, stationed at nearby Camp Logan — to march on the city.  And they came armed to the teeth.  This precipitated a race riot in which 20 people were killed, including four soldiers and four policemen.  After the soldiers were disarmed, they were court marshaled and 13 were hung.

James Weldon Johnson, the Harlem Renaissance writer, dubbed the race riots of the summer of 1919, “Red Summer,” due to all the black blood that flowed.  Tensions mounted in the aftermath of WW-I as returning white soldiers confronted labor competition from recently arrived blacks from the South and riots took place in 26 cities.  Riots broke out throughout the country, from Washington, DC, and Chicago, IL, to Omaha, NB, Knoxville, TN to Longview, TX, and Phillips County, AK.

The Tulsa, OK, riot of 1921 was the worst civil disturbance of the 1st wave.  African-American residents, especially in the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, were set upon, their homes and businesses burned and looted.  The state National Guard was called in and an estimated 6,000 blacks were arrested and Greenwood was destroyed.  The first “official” inquiry claimed 26 blacks and 10 whites died in the riot; however, a Tulsa Race Riot Commission report of 2000 estimated that 300 people died.

The 2nd wave of riots saw African-Americans initiate fierce rebellions against urban racial injustice.

The era’s uprising began inauspiciously in New York City in July 1964 in a standoff between James Powell, African-American teenager, and Thomas Gilligan, a police lieutenant.  After a chase, the youth apparently pulled a knife and slashed the officer who, in tern, pulled his revolver, shot and killed Powell.  The incident took place on East 70th Street and fueled a riot that riot that six last days and saw rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and police firing more then 2,000 shots.  Remarkably, only one person died.

During the hot August 11-17, 1965, period, the Watts section of Los Angeles erupted in violent protest.  An initial confrontation between a black motorist and a white highway patrolman was followed by a scuffle that drew a crowd incensed by the mistreatment of the motorist and his fellow passengers.  An estimate 30,000 people filled area streets, throwing rocks at police, attacking white residents and setting building aflame.  Martial law was declared and a curfew implemented; 4,000 National Guards was called to assist some 1,600 local police.  The riot left 34 dead, more than 1,000 injured and about 4,000 arrested.


Watts Riots, Los Angeles 1965.

In July of the following year, Newark, NJ, was the scene of next major riot.  The arrest and beating of a black taxi driver – combined with the local police’s refusal to address civil-rights activists’ demands — precipitated the riot.  Peaceful protests turned violent in the face of harsh police reactions, with residents throwing bottles, rocks and Molotov cocktails at the local police station were the driver was held.  Three days of rioting led the governor to call in the National Guard that engaged in a form of urban warfare to quell the civil disturbance.  Some 1,500 people were arrested, 725 injured and 26 killed; property damage was estimated at $10 million.

The 2nd wave of riots came to a head in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King.  In April, King had gone to Memphis, TN, to support striking African-American sanitation work and was shot while staying at the Lorraine Motel.  King’s killing precipitated riotous protests in more then 110 U.S. cities.  In Washington, DC, some 20,000 people participated in widespread looting, arson and attacks on police that reached two blocks of the White House.  Local police, the National Guard and Marines were required to put down to mass rage that left more than 1,200 buildings destroyed, 12 people dead and an estimated $27 million in damages.  In Baltimore, local police, state National Guard and some 5,000 federal troops were called in to put down the riot; some 4,500 people were arrested, 700 injured and seven killed.  A similar story played out in Chicago were the riot engulfed a 28-block area of the West Side, with stores and homes looted, buildings set on fire and violent confrontations between residents and police.  About 10,000 police officers and 6,500 National Guardsmen were deployed; 2,150 were arrests and 11 people killed.

Since the ‘60s, sporadic riots have taken place.  In August 1991, a riot broke out in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, NY, between Hasidic Jews and blacks (both African-American and Caribbean) following a car crash.  The car was driven by a Hasidic resident and resulted in the death of two black children.  In the three-day riot that followed, a black resident stabbed and killed a visiting Hasid while some 40 civilians and 150 officers were injured.

In ’92, an all-white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the violent assault on Rodney King, an incident that was videotaped and repeatedly aired on television.  The decision precipitated six days of mass protest in predominately African-American areas of Los Angeles, leading to widespread lootings and standoffs with police. Thousands were arrested and 50 died; property damage was estimated at $1 billion.

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The Harlem riot of 1935 marked the transition from 1st wave “race-war” riots to 2nd wave “urban-rebellion” riots.  On the afternoon of March 19, 1935, Lino Rivera, a 16-year-old black Puerto Rican youth, was caught stealing a 10-cent penknife from the Kress nickle-&-dime store on 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Harlem.  The store’s managers caught the youth, took back the knife and refused to press charges.

Nevertheless, a crowd quickly grew, rumors spread that Rivera had been severely injured, even killed, and the anger escalated.  Demonstrators demanded the police present the youth; the police refused to comply.  At 5:30 pm, as tensions mounted, the store closed and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia urged Harlem residents to remain calm.  During the evening, the Young Communist League and the Young Liberators, a black-activists group, mounted a protest demonstration that drew between 2,000 and 4,000 people.  The Daily News reported, “armed bands of [African-American] and white guerillas, swinging crowbars and clubs, roamed through barricaded Harlem from 110th to 145th St., assaulting every person of opposite color to cross their paths, setting fires and smashing shop windows after a night of fighting ….”  By the following day, after three demonstrators killed, the riot petered out.

It seems too early to fully understand why the level of mass violence remains relatively low amidst the escalating level of police violence taking place.  None of the recent riots compare to the nationwide uprisings that occurred in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination; it involved the killing of principle leader of the civil-rights movement and fueled outrage in more than a 100 cities.  Nor have they witnessed the same level of rebellion seen in Watts, Newark or following the Rodney King decision.

Still other factors way contribute to the relative low-level of urban violence.  The role of Pres. Obama, a mixed-race African-American, may surely be a calming factor.  The absence of a full-scale foreign war comparable to WW-I or Vietnam along with the relative economic recovery (e.g., low unemployment level) from the Great Recession may be playing a role.  Equally telling, the organizing efforts by peaceful activist groups (like Black Lives Matter) may be contributing to the rise of a new nonviolent, multiracial and multi-issue political movement.  Finally, and as revealed in the Occupy and other grassroots campaigns, the coordinated efforts of highly-militarized police forces coordinating with the FBI and DHS – including monitoring, undercover infiltration and agent provocateurs – is likely playing a role.

But does quantity at some point turn into quality?  Will the simmering racial cauldron of social outrage, fueled by repeated police killings as much as by institutionalized racism, explode into a nationwide crisis not dissimilar to the urban riots of the ‘60s and ‘90s?  Only time will tell.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.