Riots: An American Century

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As I slowly awoke from my slumber, feeling the warm safety of my man cave, I decided to take a look around and perk up my ears to any oncoming sounds. The United States, as well as the rest of the world, is being shown these images coming from Baltimore. Protests have sprung up due to a wrongful death, that has been echoed throughout the country and bolstered by other racial incidents involving black men and police officers. Social media has been boiling over where each side is blaming the other, and both the far right and far left are making these insanely outlandish claims on who’s to blame. I have also gotten into a few debates about the validity of the use of violence as a proper change agent. I am completely against violence for the sake of violence, but I do understand that certain communities have reached their boiling points. Incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, New York, and North Carolina (to name the few of the many cases) have spurned these protests across the country. However, like its historical precedent you will have a minority who take advantage of the situation by looting and destroying property, or you have the disillusioned who turn to violent outbursts. Unfortunately, all the American news coverage has been pathetic due to their formula of projecting pathologies while eschewing the root causes of the protests and/or riots. That’s my main concern as a historian and I think most Americans don’t know or care to understand that in this past American century most of the riots were stoked or perpetrated by the white communities. It wasn’t only the riots in the 1960’s that devastated black communities for the immediate future. These riots debilitated black neighborhoods for long spans of time, so don;t forget before we heap the entire blame on the residents. Let us now take a trip down memory lane for the most memorable riots of the 20th century. So big ups to Ego Trip for compiling some of this data, and let’s get our riot on!!!

unbeknownst to most Americans, and especially to the locals of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the end of World War I leading into the roaring twenties Tulsa had a vibrant black community. The main drag of black owned businesses in the district of Greenwood were so prosperous that the locals dubbed it the “Black Wall Street.” That would all change on the night of May 31st, 1921. On that night a crowd of angry whites (one of the scariest sites in American history!!!) converged onto the local court-house to view a lynching. In the previous days to the riots the local newspapers published a fabricated story about a black show-shine who allegedly attempted to rape a white woman. As the white crowd was about the lynch the man a group of blacks came to his defense trying to protect him from the angry mob. Unfortunately, as the skirmish ensued shots rang out ending in a white man’s death. This would unleash the fury of the white wrath in “a unprecendented bloodbath.”

The entire Greenwood district is torched by white rioters from land and from the air as small airplanes dropped bombs on the district, which is basically an act of Civil War. The riots lasted two days, but in those two days 1,400 black homes and businesses were destroyed including churches, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries, schools, law offices, a hospital, law offices, a bank, a post office, several private planes, and a bus system. The city’s official death toll stood at 30 black victims, but the Red Cross estimated the number to be close to 300.

Historians have recently wrote on the unearthing of mass graves in Tulsa and the surrounding areas, which could bring the death toll up to the thousands, but we’ll never really know.

 

California, for the most bizarre reasons, is such a contradiction of its man-made self. California is seen as the land of hippies and uber liberalism. However, it’s one of the most racist in its history and was the breeding ground for the American Nazis. In Los Angeles from June 3rd to June 7th, 1943 riots broke out, and was later labeled the “Zoot Suit Riots” by the media. It all began when 11 sailors on shore leave claimed to be attacked by a group of Mexican-American teens who donned the latest trend, being the baggy zoot suit look. The outfit, just like the current trend where baggy cloths, gold chains, and hoodies are signifiers for juvenile delinquency, was stereotyped as “hoodlum gear.” In order to get payback for their assault more than 200 sailors taxi-cabbed it to the Mexican-American barrio located in East Los Angeles. They then indiscriminately beat the living piss out of any teen who was rocking the zoot suit.

This lasted for the next four nights where you have crazed sailors, along with soldiers, wreaking havoc on that particular community. The entire time these events were transpiring the police ignored the pleas of the local citizens. Not only that they were willing participants. In the June 21st issue of Time magazine later reports that, “The Police practice was to accompany the caravans of soldiers and sailors in police cars, watch the beatings, and jail the victims.” Thankfully the military authorities stepped in on the night of June 7th calling the area off-limits to all servicemen.

Of course most of the victims were not wearing zoo suits, they were just wearing their non-white skin. Many of these teens were arrested while NO sailer or soldier was ever prosecuted.

Also, local and national media played it as a point of pride that the good ol’ boys taught these uncivilized wannabes a lesson.

 

Presently the fair city of Detroit is not doing so well, and hasn’t for quite some time. However, Detroit was the motor city where during the Second World War it was one of the most important industrial centers in the country. The great migration of blacks from the south brought them to the industrial hub of Detroit. Unfortunately, the city was ill-equipped to deal with the massive influx of newcomers. Most of the migrating blacks took the factory jobs that were vacated by the white population fighting abroad. This all came to heated and tense standoff between the whites and the blacks of the city. It all began in the heat and grime of the humid summer. On June 20th, 1943 at an amusement park called Belle Isle, multiple incidents violent incidents occurred between white and black teenagers. AT the same time tow vicious rumors, that were unfounded, circulated through the city of Detroit. One of the alleged rumors was that a group of whites tossed a black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle Bridge. The other alleged rumor, that was a common accusation across the Mid-West and American South, was that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on that same bridge. The rumor mill kept its maniacal churn as the they both spread like wild-fire across the fair city of Detroit. In response to the lighting of the powder keg, the city exploded with various violent incidents.

Black mobs looted and destroyed white-owned businesses while whites attacked streetcars carrying black passengers, while they also gathered outside a black patronized movie theater, the Roxy Theater, and proceeded to attack moviegoers. The following night the irate white mobs invaded the black ghetto, called Paradise Valley, and unleash their fury on the residents. This led to a military crackdown in the city eventually shutting it down.

In the end about 9 whites and 25 blacks were killed, and allegedly 17 of the blacks were killed by police. Nearly 700 people were injured and the estimate of the damage ranged at around 2 million dollars worth. Unfortunately this won’t be the last time where Detroit will feel the wrath of the riot.

 

Let’s tread back to our favorite dark utopia, California circa 1965. The country has moved forward as the Civil Rights Movement reached its critical mass. However, all was not good in the hood, of Watts that is. As I wrote above California is a perplexing place. Blacks moved to the area during the great migration and were provided with jobs and homes. However, they still had to suffer under racism and racist policies with regards to residence, but more importantly their rights to assemble were non-existent. Whites in California were allowed to join groups like the boy scouts, and other teen groups, while blacks were barred. Also, whites could assemble, but when blacks assembled it was considered gang activity by the police. That is why in the history of the state gangs are disproportionately black, while fraternal societies were all white. They were also scrutinized far more by the police, and not just physically, but mentally and even spiritually. This led to a rise in solidarity amongst blacks and hence you have the gang situations. The festering boil of stress was even more projected because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. However, none of the policies changed police infractions, and the riot or uprising as some call it, began with the police.

It all began on the night of August 11th when Marquette Frye, a black man, was stopped and arrested by white police in his neighborhood in South Central L.A., which is a part of Watts. This happened in his neighborhood so the neighbors and onlookers were taking in all the actions. As he was being put into the cop car his brother and mother ran out pleading for his release. The police refused and after a scuffle they attempt to arrest his brother and mother as well, but the locals were not havin’ it. The crowd surrounded the police and began to spit on them, and pelt them and their car with bottles and rocks. The crowd proceeded to set small fires until the situation becomes dire, and hence you have one of the most notorious outbursts of violence in the good ol’ U.S. of A. For the next six days African-Americans and Latino loot and fire bomb the local white, and mostly Jewish, owned stores in the neighborhoods. As the city burned snipers sat perched on top of roofs in order to attempt to pick off firefighters who attempted to extinguish the many fires.

In the end the National Guard was called in to establish order by instituting a city-wide curfew, sound familiar, until the dust and smoke settles. In the end around 34 people die, around 4,000 are arrested and the damage estimates approach 40 million dollars.

 

The long hot summer of 1967 saw a melee all across the United States with a series of riots/uprisings. The northern urban cities of New York, Washington, DC, Chicago and Newark were all reeling from rioting in the streets. However, it was Detroit rock city that got the most attention, and the worst of the riots, which explains why it’s still in its disheveled state. It all began on July 23rd where the police raided a black-owned business while proceeding to smash in some skulls. Rumours spread following the raid of police brutality, which made blacks take to the streets in protest. Unfortunately, the current trend had some precedents, some of the protesters began to loot and burn down white-owned businesses. Because of the horrid precedent of 1943 the police and state officials feared that they might overreact so they left it alone. They even imposed a news blackout hoping that the violence and strife would blow over. However, that didn’t help as the rioters began burning down black-owned businesses as well.

In the end 43 died, 7,000 were arrested, and the total price tag to the damage exceeded 22 million dollars. The following year was a low-point as well due to the reaction to Martin Luther King’s assassination.

 

Boston is such a melting pot, unless you don’t mix well with the ingredients. On June 21st, 1974 a federal judge decreed that in order to bring racial balance to the school systems they instituted the busing method. Black children would be bused into white schools in white neighborhoods and visa versa. The decision escalates the tension between the black ghetto of Roxbury and the white Irish-Catholic counterpart in South Boston and immediately makes Judge W. Arthur Garrity the most hated man in the state. For the next three years the black children, who along with a police escort, were treated to a daily barrage of rocks, bottles and epithets by the local whites.

Even with the police protection, and overt security apparatus in the schools, racial fighting breaks out daily. The wrath was so pronounced that the photograph above, taken by Stanley Norman outside the Boston City Hall, shows the tension in the city.

 

12 years before the chase, arrest and subsequent beat down of Rodney King, we had the beauty of Miami and the murder trial of a black insurance salesman by the name of Arthur McDuffie. In December of 1979 McDuffie was arrested after a high-speed chase, and was later beaten to death by the police officers who benevolently beat him with their flashlights. The police claimed that he accidentally killed himself during the chase. The case was taken to court and presented in front of an all white jury, who would eventually acquit the four officers. The subsequent riots in the black ghetto of Liberty City, big ups to GTA: Vice City!!, claimed 18 lives and caused about 100 million dollars in damage.

The frustration is two-fold for African-Americans because they are being barred by whites, while the incoming Latino population are seen as taking their economic opportunities.

 

Rodney King has recently passed away, but his scars (physical, emotional, and mental) probably exhausted his soul. We all know the story, and thankfully it was recorded for the world to see over, and over, and over again. King was chased by police, stopped and subsequently brutally beaten by the police officers. The action was so blatant, and the proof as well, that most of the world thought the cops did wrong. However, the jury disagreed as they acquitted the officers. This caused one of the most chaotic riots on the closing of the twentieth century.

These are the prime examples of learning from past events. The last century saw plenty of violence and rioting, but we have to put it into context. All these riots/uprisings were perpetrated by whites against blacks in the earlier part of the century. By the 1960’s African-Americans began to voice their growing historical frustration through their actions. Gone were the days of non-violent protests. So, what can we make of the actions in Baltimore? It’s all a vicious cycle that must be broken. If we continue with the status quo then the actions will get far more dire, and then the system will either fall or react in a violent way. Raise your fists in protest, but all sides should know their American history.

 

Peace and respect to all who want to be free!!!

 

Note: Most of my research is public domain, and I urge you all to investigate for yourselves. Also, mad props for Ego Trip’s Book of Racism, don’t sleep on the sordid scholars.

 

 

 

 

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