Riots: An All-American Tradition

The most noteworthy aspect of the series of popular demonstrations in response to the “police lynchings” of African-Americans that have occured over the last few years may well be how few riots have taken place.

The term “riot” has been widely invoked to describe the protest movement that emerged in the wake of the Minneapolis police kliling of George Floyd. It is a term used to denote militant domestic protest involving violence and serves as the correlary to “terrorism” used to denote international nonstate conflicts.

The U.S. has witnessed repeated waves of race-based riots over the last two centuries. The first “great riot” of the modern era was the Draft Riot of 1863 that took place in New York. Lasting four days, July 13-16, it was a violent white reaction to the imposition of the Civil War draft – and was anti-black, anti-rich, anti-Republican. White rioters, mostly working-class Irish immigants, attacked draft headquaters, home of the wealthy and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum. African Americans were violently attacked, some shot, some hung and some thrown in the river to drown. An estimated 120 people were killed and 2,000 injured; 11 black men were lynched. Union troops who had fought in the Battle of Gettysburg were called in to quell the riot.

Riots during the 20th century cluster in two phases — during the first half and during the second half of the century. The riots of the first half of the 20th century follow the pattern of the Draft Riot in which whites (including many policemen) attacked African Americans. These riots peaked between 1917 to 1921, reflecting the social dislocation precipitated by industrialization, the Great Migration and World War I. The second wave started with the Harlem Riot of 1935 and persists to today; these riots peaked between 1964 and 1968. These riots are often labeled “urban rebellions” and involve mostly African Americans (and also Hispanics) venting their rage against racist conditions (e.g., ecomomic discrimination, mounting urban dislocation, police brutality). In addiition, there were numerous other riots that mark out the century.


In August 1900, New York was in the midst of a heat wave. At 2:00 am on August 13th, May Enoch, a 20-year-old African American woman, went to McBride’s Saloon, a bar at 41st Street and Eight Avenue, looking for her partner, Arthur Harris, a 22-year-old black man. The couple lived nearby, in a rented room at Annie Johnson’s place at 241 West 41st Street in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen.

At McBride’s, Enoch found Harris and said, “Kid come on up home.” Waiting outside the bar, a New York undercover policeman, Robert Thorpe, arrested her for “soliciting.” Leaving the bar, Harris saw a white man harassing his girlfriend, explaining, “I didn’t know who he was and thought he was a citizen like myself ….” A struggle broke out. Thorpe clubbed Harris, shouting, “Get up you black son-of-a-bitch”; Harris pulled a knife (some say razor) and cut Thorpe. Realizing Thorpe was a cop, they left him on the street corner and fled; Enoch ran home, and Harris took a train to Washington, DC, where his mother lived. Thorpe was taken to Roosevelt Hospital.

Thorpe died on August 14th and his body was brought to his sister, Lizzie Thorpe’s home at 481 Ninth Avenue at 37th Street, fueling tensions. Thorpe’s friends and colleagues gathered for a wake; they drank alcohol and some vowed revenge. On the 15th, a fight broke out between two men, Spencer Walters and Thomas Healy, one a black, the other white, near Ms. Thorpe’s home. As historian Gilbert Osofsky notes, “The entire white neighborhood went wild with rage,” with white residents engaged in what was called a “nigger chase.” Blacks were attacked on the street, in hotels and saloons, some pulled from streetcars and beaten. And policemen, often neighborhood residents, either led or joined in the attacks or looked the other way rather than defend the black victims.

Black residents did not acquiesce to white attacks. Some began to arm themselves, acquiring revolvers and other weapons from local pawnshops and hardware stores.” Osofsky reports that 145 revolvers and a substantial amount of ammunition was purchased. Clashes between whites and blacks persisted over the coming month. In addition, police report blacks threw bricks, bottles and garbage at them from rooftops and apartment windows.

Mayor Robert Van Wyck called in about 700 policemen who were part of the Reserves to quell the mounting the disturbances. An estimated 35 people were arrested 60 people injured, mostly black. At least two people were reported shot to death. (One report claims, “at least 106 blacks were lynched,” although this could not be confirmed.)

Harris was arrested in Washington was returned to New York where he was tried, found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to a life term at Sing Sing prison; he died there.

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 the 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.


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. But admidst his capure, a scuffle broke out, the youth bit the owner’s thumb and other scratch wounds were inflicted, leading to the loss of blood. An ambulance was called and, when it departed, rumors circulated that Rivera had been beaten and gravely wounded. A local cop took the boy out through the store’s backdoor on 124th Street and, when a hearse parked nearby, rumors escalated, including that he had been killed.

The crowd quickly grew, 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 ….”

As Jervis Anderson observes in his informative study, This Was Harlem, 1900-1950, “It [1935] was the first major riot in the history of black Harlem, and it would not be the last.” However, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., offered a different interpretation: “It was not a riot; it was an open, unorganized protest against empty stomachs, overcrowded tenements, filthy sanitation, rotten foodstuffs, chiseling landlords and merchants, discrimination on relief, disfranchisement, and against a disinterested administration.” He insisted, “It was not caused by Communists.”

The Harlem Riots of 1943 was ignited by an equally innocuous incident. On August 1st, a white policeman, James Collins, attempt to arrest a black woman, Margie Polite, for disorderly conduct over her objection to an unsatisfactory room at the Hotel Braddock at 126th Street and Eighth Avenue. Amidst the exchange, another hotel guest, Robert Bandy, a U.S. Army private on leave, intervened and a fight broke out between him and Collins. Brady struck Collins with the cop’s baton and Collins shot and wounded the soldier.

The confrontation quickly escalated into a riot and some 16,100-armed law-enforcement officers — 6,600 police, 8,000 guardsman and other white “volunteers” — were deployed to quell the uprising. The city imposed a ban on liquor sales that stretched from the Hudson to the East River and from 100th to 170th Streets. According to the New York Police Department, 500 African American men and women were arrested, 400 people were injured, property damage was estimated at $5 million and the police killed five African Americans.

1943 also witnessed what’s come to be known as the “Zoot Suit Riot” in Los Angeles. Cab Calloway, the legendary bandleader, defined the zoot suit as: “The ultimate in clothes. The only totally and truly American civilian suit.” It was a distinct look: a narrow, knee-length dress-coat cut with wide shoulders; billowing, navel-high pants pegged at the ankle and held up by suspenders; a short tie accompanying a button up shirt; flashy shoes; and often either a fedora or a tando hat sporting a feature. It was popular with Malcolm X, among other 40s hipsters.

In 1941, clashes between Mexican American zoot suiters and white servicemen, many from the South, broke out in movie theatres, ballrooms and other venues. In the summer of 1942, the federal War Production Board effectively banned the zoot suit, claiming it used too much material. However, minority youth and workers ignored the ban. in June ’43, tensions came to a head when, over five days, white soldiers and sailors attacked zoot-suit-wearing Mexican Americans — called pachucos — and more than 110 civilians and servicemen were injured.

The riot broke out on the night of June 3rd when some 200 uniformed sailors aboard a caravan of taxis invaded East Los Angeles, a Mexican Americans stronghold, and went after any zoot suiter they could find. The white rioters broke into bars and theaters, beating whoever they could, even stripping some victims of their clothes. Time reported that, “The police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings and jail the victims.”

During the second half of the century, the character of “riots” changed, becoming fierce rebellions against urban racial injustice. The era’s uprising began inauspiciously in New York. In July 1964, a standoff took place between James Powell, an African American teenager, and Thomas Gilligan, a police lieutenant. After a chase, the youth reportedly pulled a knife and slashed the officer who, in turn, pulled his revolver, shot and killed Powell. The incident took place on East 70th Street and fueled a riot that last six days; it saw rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and police firing more than 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; 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.

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.

This 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 than 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.


During the 1970s, Latino riots occurred and continued into the early-90s. Over two-thirds of them were in Puerto Rican communities. The riots occurred in major cities in the northeast, especially New Jersey had the most with 17 incidents; they also occurred in small communities like Coachella, CA. In June 13, 1971, a riot broke out in Roosevelt Park, Albuquerque, NM,

Following an attempt by police to arrest a young man standing in a crowd of several hundred rowdy youth. A small scuffle escalated into a brawl leading officers to fire upon the crowd, wounding at least nine people. Outraged, nearly 500 youth moved into the downtown area where they overturned cars, shattered windows, looted, and severely damaged and destroyed buildings.

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 Hasid male 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.

In the quarter-century following the LA riots, there have been a series of incidents, if not riots, resulting from police actions (often killings) of unarmed African Americas. They include

Amadou Diallo — shot and killed by four NYPD plain-clothed officers, the Bronx, 1999.

Sean Bell – shot and killed by NYPD plainclothes and undercover, Queens, 2006.

Oscar Grant – shot and killed by BART transit policeman, Oakland, CA, 2009; peaceful protest turns into riot.

Ramarley Graham — shot and killed by NYPD, the Bronx, 2012.

Kimani Gray – 16-year-old killed by NYPD, Brooklyn, 2013

Michael Brown — shot and killed by Ferguson, MO, police, 2014 – led to popular “riot” and police respond with riot gear, tear gas, sound canons, police dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, pepper balls, wooden bullets, beanbag rounds, tasers, pepper spray, and armored vehicles.

Tamir Rice – a 12-year-old boy shot and killed while carrying a toy gun in Cleveland, OH, in 2014.

Eric Garner – killed by NYPD while in chokehold calling out, “I can’t breathe,” in Statin Island, 2014.

Freddie Grey — spine was 80 percent severed at the neck when he exited a police van in a coma an died in police custody, Baltimore, 2015.

Sandra Bland – found hanged in a jail cell in after being arrested during a pretextual traffic stop, Waller County, TX, 2015.

Philando Castile – shot and killed during traffic stop in St. Paul, MN, 2016.

Alton Sterling – shot and killed by two white cops in Baton Rouge, LA, in 2016.

Breonna Taylor — fatally shot by police executing a no-knock search warrant entered her apartment in Louisville, KY, 2020.

Rayshard Brooks – shot and killed by Atlanta, GA, police, 2020.

Compounded this steady stream of provocative police killings has been the emergence of a series of parallel developments that only add to the dynamics of traditional riots. One strand is expressed by a conservative, if not racist, reaction and includes the following incidents:

Bundy standoff – over grazing fees for federally-owned land adjacent to Clive Bundy’s ranch in southeastern Nevada in 2014.

Trayvon Martin – shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, 2012.

Unite the Right rally — a white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA, that led to the killing of a bystander in 2017.

Ahmaud Arbery – stalked and fatal shot while jogging by two white racists in Brunswick, GA, in 2020.

A second strand of quasi-political, but often racially motivated, mass killings are represented by the following:

Oak Creek, WI – six members of the Sikh Temple were shot and killed by a white supremacist, 2015.

Kansas City, KS – three Jewish member of community group were killed by a new-Nazi, 2014.

Charleston, SC — nine black worshippers (including a pastor) were shot and killed by a white racist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015.

Orlando, FL — 49 people were killed and 53 wounded by a Muslim gunman at the popular gay Pulse Nightclub in 2016.

Sutherland Springs, TX – a former member of the U.S. Air Force shot and killed 26 people and wounded 20 others during a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in 2017.

Finally, there is the increasing number of civil engagements that are not unlike labor protests of the Great Depression. These include, in 1999, “the Battle in Seattle” that targeted the World Trade Organization. A decade later, in 2011, Occupy Wall Street saw more than 700 people arrested in confrontations that brought the issue of class or “inequality” into the mainstream of public dialogue.

The twin development of riots in reaction to police killings of unarmed African Americans and popular political protest fused into the widescale mobilization in protest of the death of George Floyd. However, Floyd’s killing occurred amidst the Covid-19 pandemic in which people of color suffered the most, thus compounding the crisis. Demonstrations have taken place across the country, culminating in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that formed CHAZ, the Autonomous Zone, and more to come.

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; check out