A BRIEF HISTORY OF RIOTING IN THE UNITED STATES
There is a common theme in America that rioting is a result of a group of people responding to an economic, social or criminal injustice that they perceive cannot be resolved by the power structure that is supposed to protect them from these events. I feel that this is most likely the reason and often times, but always it is justified. American history and prehistory is littered with these events. In good conscience, I can’t write about those types of riots without pointing out there have been riots in America that were sparked by that power structure as a response to a perceived threat to their unearned privilege.
Now I know the conservative readers of this blog will find fault in two things I have written and will write here. They will point to the fact that the vast majority of these riots took place in the 18th, and 19th century. Also, conservatives will point to the fact that they don’t believe in the existence of unearned privilege no matter how many times it is pointed out to them. I get it. I’m not trying to do anything here other than to inform about Human Nature. Being in the business of changing minds is a set up for failure because no one’s mind is going to be changed by what I write, but if I can make one person think with better information I’ve done my job. Okay, let’s talk about rioting in America for a bit.
First let’s have a definition of what a riot is:
A public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual.18 U.S.C. § 2102
That’s a pretty clear definition and I think any reasonable person can agree that this constitutes what a riot is. These sorts of events destroy property and cause a clear and present danger to lives. There are riots where no people are killed or injured and then there are riots where there is great loss of life and injury. Property damage is also a major component of rioting and this is generally always the case. I haven’t heard of a riot where at least one shop window wasn’t broken and some desired item stolen; this is commonly referred to as looting. And for clarity looting didn’t start in America. History can point to looting going back as far as 455 CE, but I am sure there has been looting for as long as there has been civilization.
The first recorded riot in what would become the United States took place in Boston, Massachusetts in 1713 and is referred to as the Boston Bread Riots. Food shortages were the driving force for these riots which saw British merchants trying to ship grain needed by hungry colonists abroad for profit. Hunger is a powerful motivator and this was what lead to three riot events between 1710 and 1713.
While those events in Boston were the first event of riot in the English speaking New World it was far from the last. In the next fifty years riots would take place in virtually every colony from New England to Florida. The most famous of these Colonial America riots is pointed to by the far Right today as their political call to arms– The Boston Tea Party in 1773. There was an economic driving force behind this riot which made the colonists feel oppressed. That draconian taxation thing now is now expressed in white people in their 50s 60s and 70s protesting in Washington DC wearing tricorner hats with tea bags dangling from them. They feel oppressed by the current government thus The TEA Party–taxed enough already. So the current wedge in the GOP is hearkening back to a riot that took place in the late 18th Century. And those people are fine with that riot, they celebrate it as an expression of taking their freedom and liberty back from an oppressive power structure. What they were doing in 1773 was fighting physically against the unearned privilege of the British Crown.
The first major riot in the virtually newborn United States was the Whiskey Rebellion. Taxation [ man people don’t like taxes at all do they?– D.V.] of whiskey and other spirits was the cause of this riot which took place in 1791. In a nutshell, this long smoldering series of insurrections ended when President Washington, riding in front of 13,000 militiamen dispersed a crowd of whiskey tax protesters who had attacked the home of a tax inspector named General John Neville. Seven years later the tax was repealed.
Curiously, the city of Cincinnati, Ohio is the early years of America had far more than its fair share of riots. Since 1792, Cincinnati has been the center of no fewer than eleven riots. John Bartle’s beating which resulted in a day of riots and fighting in 1792 might be seen as an early response to police brutality. The Cincinnati riots of 1829 were about the unearned privilege of the majority in the city. By that year slightly more than 10% of the population was made up of free blacks and fugitive slaves. The local white population of Irish immigrants, fearing their job opportunities would be diminished by the large available black labor pool set upon the black sections of the city forcing more than 1,000 of them to flee to Canada where they formed the Wilberforce Colony in the province of Ontario. So fear of immigration leading to whites having fewer jobs, and thereby less money, was the motivation for this riot.
Seven years later, in 1836 there was another riot in Cincinnati. This riot too was about anti-black movement into the region and competition for jobs. But an added element was the abolitionist in the city who had been kicked out of the Lane Theological Seminary for their views, were also attacked. This event was an inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Cincinnati native to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was published in 1852.
And yes, five years later, it happened again. The Cincinnati riots of 1841 saw a band of armed white men march into a section of the city called “Little Africa” near the Ohio riverfront where many blacks lived, some, allegedly, with white wives or lovers. This riot was different, however, because the blacks were well armed and had somehow procured a cannon, which they used to positive effect. Of course, the white power structure in the city couldn’t live with a victorious black defense of their persons and property so the National Guard was called out to arrest the black defenders so that their homes could be burnt to the ground by the rioters.
With the immigration of Europeans to America on the rise by the 1850s, Cincinnati’s rioting took a different turn by 1853. Five hundred male and one hundred female German citizens of the city, angered by a visit by a Papal delegation lead by Cardinal Gaetano Bedini, marched on the home of John Baptist Purcell, the Archbishop of Cincinnati. The Germans were protesting the papal visit and were met by police and shots were fired leaving one man dead. This riot took place on Christmas Night.
Immigration and politics were the cause of the Cincinnati Riots of 1855. The Know Nothing candidate for mayor of the city J.D. Taylor, was supported by a group of English speaking white citizens who assaulted German American immigrants. Yes the same people who were rioting over the Papal delegation visit less than two years earlier were now being beset upon by the people who stood by and watched the cops try to control the riot.
The point I’m making here is that the more things change the more they stay the same. Rioting always has some root cause that is generally some perception by a group that they are being threatened or oppressed. The next post, later today will deal with a riot in a major California city and how it has been misrepresented by the media.
Fredrick Schwartz, D.S.V.J., CS, O.Q.H [Journ.]
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