Rioting: An American Tradition

Group of young white men turn a car on its side during Detroit riots of 1943Group of young white men turn a car on its side during Detroit riots of 1943. (Photo: Walter P. Reuther Library)

Some observers look aghast at the people rioting in Baltimore in protest of the police brutality that led to Freddie Gray’s horrific death in police custody. Pundits have bemoaned the actions of “thugs” who looted stores and burned cars, and politicians have pled for non-violence. Plenty of bewildered observers have wondered what good it does anyone to burn their own neighborhoods. But looking at the rioters in Baltimore, or any other place, in isolation misses the point. If Americans have one grand political tradition, it is rioting.

There was a little matter of some tea in Boston in 1773, when men dressed up as American Indians boarded three ships moored at Griffin’s Wharf, broke open their valuable cargoes of tea, and dumped the chests overboard. They destroyed about 90,000 pounds of tea, worth about $1.7 million today.

New York City exploded dramatically at least twice in the mid-nineteenth century. In May 1849 more than 25 people were killed and more than 120 injured in a struggle over which Shakespearean actor was better: American Edwin Forrest or Englishman William Charles Macready. The Astor Place Riot, as it was known, was so violent the authorities started to worry they had lost control of the city. They called out troops, who fired indiscriminately into the crowd.

Only fourteen years later, New York City blew up again when men furious at a new federal draft for Union soldiers turned against the men they blamed for the war itself. They killed Republican officials and soldiers, then turned on the city’s African American community. At least 120 people died and another 2000 were injured. Rioters destroyed between 1 and 5 million dollars in property, about fifty buildings, including two churches and an orphan asylum for African American children. In today’s dollars, that would be between $20 million and about $96 million in damage. This remains the most destructive riot in American history.

Cincinnati exploded in March 1884 when a mob set out to lynch a convicted murderer who had been sentenced to twenty years of prison rather than execution. Three days of rioting left more than 50 people dead (but not the prisoner, who had temporarily escaped) and more than 300 wounded.

In Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914, after company guards and the Colorado National Guard fell on a camp of striking coal miners and their families, killing between 20 and 26 of them, the strikers armed themselves and attacked coal mines and property over a forty-mile stretch of land. Between 69 and 199 people were killed.

Three days of race riots in Detroit, in 1943, broke out when 25,000 white workers walked off their war-related jobs at the Packard Motor Car Company rather than work next to three African Americans who had been promoted to their assembly lines. The rioting stopped only when President Roosevelt sent in federal troops. The fighting left 34 dead.

Another race riot tore Oxford, Mississippi apart on the night of September 29, 1962, after the federal government tried to enforce the enrollment of James Meredith, a black army veteran, at the University of Mississippi. Two civilians were killed and more than 300 wounded by white rioters before federal troops restored order.

For a week in August 1965, the African American residents of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles rioted. Thirty-four people died and more than $40 million worth of property was destroyed before 4,000 members of the California National Guard restored order. The Watts riots were the first of several years of race riots that burned across American cities in the late 1960s.

It was also Los Angeles that saw the Rodney King riots of 1992 after four white LAPD officers were acquitted of assault and use of excessive force in their beating of African American Rodney King after a high-speed chase. Rioters looted, burned, and attacked others, including, spectacularly, a white truck driver, Reginald Denny, who was stopped at a traffic light. In six days, 53 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured, and more than $1 billion in property was destroyed. The rioting ended when soldiers were deployed to calm the city.

If there is one constant in American history it is rioting.

There is a common theme to most American riots that is obscured if any one of them is seen only in isolation. What do Samuel Adams and his Tea Party protesters have to do with black rioters at Watts in 1965? What similarities are there between the Irish immigrants who fought over actors in the Astor Place Riot and the members of the white Cincinnati lynch mob?

American rioters take to the streets for a peculiarly American reason: They believe that the government is unduly privileging someone over them. The game, they think, has been rigged, and they are the losers.

The Boston Tea Partiers insisted that they were being taxed unfairly by the British Parliament to benefit the wealthy British East India Company to which Parliament had awarded an expensive monopoly on the tea trade. The Astor Place Riot was not about the actors’ talent – both were highly skilled – it was a struggle over who would control New York City politics: the elites who favored the British actor, or the workingmen who favored the American.

And so it went through almost every American riot: the issue at stake was that government appeared to be favoring one group over another. The New York City Draft Riots turned poor white Democrats against the wealthier white Republicans whose war policies they believed were killing them to benefit African Americans. In Cincinnati in 1884 the mob insisted that criminal voters were keeping a corrupt political machine in power, and that, in turn, those corrupt politicians were cutting criminals slack in the courts (this argument is still advanced on Wikipedia today). In Ludlow, the fact that the National Guard murdered more than 20 civilians, including women and children, camped in tents gave pretty strong evidence that the government favored employers.

The white plant workers in Detroit in 1943 recoiled from the influx of southern African Americans to their neighborhoods. Those southern workers had been recruited by the government to move north to work in war industries. Government officials built housing for the black migrants in a white neighborhood, and after white supremacists burned a cross, racial violence erupted. While both sides complained that government policies favored the other, it is notable that 75% percent of the injuries in the riot were suffered by African-Americans, but black people made up 85% of the arrests.

This same racial dynamic lay behind the riots in Oxford and Los Angeles. Whites at Ole Miss were explicit that they had no intention of bowing to a government that favored African Americans. At Watts and in the Rodney King riots, both sparked by white police brutality, African Americans reacted to the American systems of power that were stacked against the black community.

As long as America is a democracy, we will have riots. But they will not all be viewed in the same historical light. Riots bring popular attention to a perceived inequality. Once people start paying attention, the unfairness of the underlying situations in places like Ludlow or Watts or even colonial Boston, make them sit up and work to fix those inequalities. But as often, popular attention to the rage of rioters makes it clear that the rioters are the ones trying to maintain inequalities. Popular disgust for the mobs in the New York City Draft Riots or at Ole Miss moved society forward too, but not in the way those rioters anticipated. Far from achieving their ends, the rioters in New York City in 1863 or the ones a century later at Ole Miss created a backlash that advanced the very policies they opposed.

The people who are burning Baltimore are not thugs. They are Americans, acting in a grand American political tradition. Calling them thugs and demanding non-violence prejudges them as those who are out of step with modern America. It says that, like the New York City Draft Rioters or the segregationists at Ole Miss, the wrongs they are protesting are in their own heads. That the city of Baltimore has paid damages to more than 100 victims of police brutality in the past three years, and that Freddie Gray’s spine was mysteriously severed and his larynx crushed in police custody, makes it seem unlikely that today’s protesters are imagining injustice.

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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  1. Wonderful analysis and context here. I’ve been turning my high school students’ attention to the Stamp Act riots as well, as a counter to the ‘destroying own neighborhoods’ narrative – a riot now largely seen in the US as a heroic response to tyranny but in retrospect held over somewhat less life and death issues than Baltimore or Ferguson.

  2. I am just now reading about the looting and destruction in Boston to protest the Stamp Act. American indeed.

  3. Thank you for your astute analysis. I am sick of the name calling and dehumanizations. Rioting is nothing new. It has its place as a “necessary evil” just as war has its place. We may not agree but it is a tactic used to bring change.

  4. I’m not sure about those 18th century riots. As such scholars as John Phillip Reid and Peter Shaw have shown, 18th-century demonstrations tended to operate according to well-understood though unwritten rules that channeled and limited public violence and protest. Things however did go wrong in the 1765 riots, and the violence got out of hand, including the full-scale assault on Thomas Hutchinson’s house. By contrast, the Boston destruction of the tea — the phrase “tea party” was a dismissive label coined sixty years later, in the 1830s, by those who would minimize the part played by ordinary people in Revolutionary actions and tumult (according to the great book THE SHOEMAKER AND THE TEA PARTY: MEMORY AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION by the late Alfred Young) — again took place according to set rules. The only property destroyed was the tea, which, as it bore an unconstitutional tax, the revolutionaries deemed to be contraband (unawful property). They took pains to destroy the tea while not destroying any other property — indeed, one of the rioters was a locksmith who carefully broke open the locked tea-holds and then repaired the locks once the holds had been emptied of contraband.

  5. Heather, good to see context, but “American rioters take to the streets for a peculiarly American reason: They believe that the government is unduly privileging someone over them. The game, they think, has been rigged, and they are the losers.”? Not sure I like the American exceptionalism! Note E.P. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd. :-)

  6. ALL rioters are thugs – white, black, male, female, adult, child, sports fan, oppressed person. I find your argument that mere precedent makes mob animal violence acceptable to be morally bankrupt and excuses hurting or killing innocent people. Nothing will convince me that mob violence (often directed against the innocent, as that’s far easier to do than to attack your real oppressor) is humane or works in the interest of mankind as a species or community.

  7. It is interesting that the riots occurring after important sporting contests are covered more sympathetically than the riots occurring after a community feels that justice has been denied.

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