On American Riot

Essays, Society and Culture
“The Soiling of Old Glory” Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Stanley Forman. Taken during Boston’s busing crisis of 1976

In moments of great turmoil historicity serves us all. Time, above all things, shows us our successes and failures, our seized and missed opportunities, to best elucidate the present state of our being, and yet we are so often woe to remember, or, if a collective amnesia is not at fault, fail to acknowledge what has led us to this very moment. As the streets of nearly every major US city and many more globally have become illuminated with the fires of revolt, it is paramount that we understand the long, grueling path that has led us to today as we begin to construct a future out of yesterday’s ashes.

The legacy of riot has a unique and influential place in American discourse. This nation was steeled in its language from its very conception, yet the racially and culturally pigmented dialects of that language have been translated quite differently. Six years before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, riots, which often included the looting of shops, throwing of stones and mass concentrations of disgruntled colonists, were commonplace as tensions between American colonists and British loyalists continued to manifest in small, decentralized skirmishes. As recently illustrated in an article from The Atlantic one of these very riots —coming only months after a 10 year old boy was shot and killed by a shop owner in an earlier riot—resulted in the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, an Afro-Native stevedore by the name of Crispus Attucks.

“Boston Massacre” Lithograph c.1850’s. This is the first portrayal of Crispus Attucks as a central figure in the Boston Massacre.

The parallels of the legal case which followed the death of Crispus Attucks and four others during what was to become known as The Boston Massacre are harrowingly similar to those we’ve seen in recent years. John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States, served as defense attorney for the British officers responsible for the shots which killed Attucks, all of whom were acquitted of murder charges and only two charged with the much lesser crime of manslaughter.

While the acquittal of officers charged with the death of a black and native man can be seen and felt with a mournful familiarity, it was the nature of Adams’ defense which most echoes the current shortcomings of our justice system and the depths of it’s institutionalized bigotries. The riots were initially lauded as valiantly patriotic resistance to British injustice by the likes of Paul Revere, Samual Adams and John Hancock, but John Adams constructed a defense narrative of vicious, belligerent black hostility from Attucks and his compatriots for an all white, non Bostonian jury. His description of the rioters as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” who were “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person,” played into a well established anti-black sentiment steeped in the transatlantic slave trade and shared by colonists and loyalists alike. Despite being the first man to fight and die for the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks was posthumously vilified by Adams, a man who would prosper greatly from the very actions he condemned, writing years later that “on that night the formation of American independence was laid… Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on March 5th 1770.”

In the 250 years since, this pattern has continued to re-emerge on the national stage. Through slave rebellions, westward expansion, labor struggles, the civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, stonewall, farm workers revolts and the most recent BLM uprisings we have seen these narratives replay themselves. The cumulative frustration, hope, rage and fundamental human longing which set the stage for protest, resistance and riot, no matter how warranted or legitimate, are demonized, neglected and villified when manifest and expressed in non-white bodies, while outright prejudicial violence is excused, tolerated or dismissed.

In 1834, 3 years after Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion, white anti-abolitionist rioters swarmed New York City and submerged it in violence for over a week, destroying seven black churches and over a dozen black homes in the process. The source of their anger and violence? The mere acknowledgement of black humanity. Despite this terror at the hands of over four thousand white people, the New York riots were largely understood as “…not only the denunciation of an insulted community, but the violence of an infuriated populace.”

The Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK in ruins after the massacre of 1921

In 1864, at the height of the civil war, a mixed race man named William Faulkner was falsely accused and arrested in Detroit for the molestation of a young white woman. Before this, Faulkner passed as white, voting in multiple elections years before the 15th amendment was ratified, but after his blackness was noted in the pages of local newspapers, white mobs gathered and began to attack black citizens in front of and surrounding the court house where his trial was taking place. This white ire spread throughout Detroit over the following days with assaults on black people and the arson and looting of black homes and businesses, resulting in two deaths, the complete burning of 35 buildings and over 200 black men, women and children left without shelter. In the end, Faulkner, though pardoned two years later, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Detroit City Council refused to offer any compensation for the 200 left homeless despite being encouraged by the Michigan Legislature to do so, and opted instead to implement the city’s first full time, all white, police force.

99 years ago almost to the day, 1,250 homes were destroyed and between 150-300 people are estimated to have died when white “rioters” leveled the black Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The court proceedings following the tragedy led to an all white jury attributing the violence and destruction to the very black community that had been devastated by it, though an official report by the Oklahoma State Legislature 80 years later found that the city of Tulsa has conspired with the white mob against the black community of Greenwood. Not a single conviction was brought for all the violence, and many black residents were left to live in tents among the ashes of their former homes and businesses. Within a year the City of Tulsa began redevelopment of the once thriving black economic center, pushing any remaining black businesses and residents further out of the city. It wasn’t until this year, 2020, that Oklahoma school districts were provided with an extensive curriculum on the riot, the largest of its kind in US history.

Aftermath of Harlem Riots

These incidents of excused terror come in sharp contrast, both in nature and response, to black led uprisings and riots. The Harlem Riot of 1935 which started in response to the reported severe beating of a black Puerto Rican child by employees of a white owned five and dime is seen to be the first “modern race riot” in the us. It’s claim to modernity? The targets of violence were almost entirely property and the black and brown rioters did not target other racial groups with physical violence as white mobs routinely did. The same can be said for the Birmingham Riots of 1963, which began as a peaceful protest in response to a bombing that targeted black leaders of the Birmingham Campaign for racial justice, and only resorted to property damage after violent police intervention. The demonstrators in Birmingham were met with the force of Federal troops for the first time in history as a result.

Police violence during the Birmingham riots of 1963.

Time and again white riotous violence is met with an exclusive understanding and little to no legal recourse while black resistance and calls for justice are met with violently suppressive force and swift, legal brutality. These aforementioned examples are only shards of our complex and distant past, but we can clearly see in their reflection the events of recent decades. And we can see how, after the pressure applied by multilateral black liberation movements and other movements for social, environmental and economic justice forces the world to reckon with it’s wrongs, these struggles are co opted and white-washed into something both placating and palatable. Like Adams, the very individuals and institutions who once discredit, dehumanize and vilify black rebellion inevitably come to champion it to their own benefit. Who but the most openly vile of racists will defame the legacy of Dr. King today, though he was one of the most hated men in the country the years before he died? They will quote him and reduce the vigor of his calls for justice to something they can use against those who rise in his spirit and those of countless black resistors before and after who have suffered, struggled and died at the hands of white violence and whose names are never spoken. Those who suppress, criticize and condemn the rage of a bleeding populace can only rightfully invoke his words asserting “riot is the language of the unheard” when they truly hear, and see their complicity in the words that follow: “…in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

What a long, white winter it has been.