Above: Detroit Race Riot, 1967
On the one hand, this is a simple question that can be answered with a simple response. On the other hand, this is a complex question that requires a great degree of explanation. I have opted to give what I see as a simple response to a very complicated question: Why do Black Folk Riot? Blacks riot over systematic problems in society; we do not have the luxury to riot after football games, something white people tend to do.
As I sat and watched the recent riot unfold in the city of Milwaukee, I was pulled to Janette to share my frustration. My tone was harsh as I responded with a lot of emotion toward a privileged white policy official delivering a response to a news commentator. He stated that “they” are burning down their own neighborhood, closing businesses in their community, which employs them, and targeting the very police force that shot and killed an armed black man, who could have brought harm to other black people.
Listening to the coverage was unnerving. He failed to fully answer the question. Black folk have rioted since the days of Nat Turner, who led the 1831 slave rebellion against white supremacy. Turner, motivated by God, and inspired by humanity and dignity for better treatment, sought a desire for hope and freedom.
Black people do not just riot. Years of abuse, discrimination, targeted police brutality, racism, and the injustice of an American capitalist system have furthered deep-seeded levels of inequality in black communities. As a law-abiding citizen – and one who is opposed to violence, I support riots. It seems to be the only way to bring attention to a country living the “dream” of color blindness. Yep. A grand lie and myth.
This video points to the myth of color blindness and American inequality.
Race riots are a natural part of the American genesis. Yet, folks act as if this is a new phenomenon. Since the arrival of black people as slaves, circa 1619, we have been subhuman actors. After emancipation, we became second-class citizens. In truth, we were never citizens. White supremacy took hold shortly afterward, as it established the age of Jim Crow. In the years immediately following World War I, tens of thousands of southern blacks and returning black soldiers flocked to the nation’s northern cities looking for good jobs and a measure of respect and security. Many white Americans, fearful of competition for scarce jobs and housing, responded by attacking black citizens in a spate of urban race riots. Chicago and Tulsa were driven by white fear and a sense that black folk failed to stay in their place. In Tulsa, hundreds of whites led a racially motivated attack on blacks killing some 300 people, mostly blacks.
In an editorial immediately after the Chicago race riot of 1919, Crisis editor W. E. B. Du Bois argued in favor of acts of self-defense and armed resistance, despite the editorial’s conciliatory title, “Let Us Reason Together.” Du Bois noted:
If the United States is to be a Land of Law, we would live humbly and peaceably in it—working, singing, learning and dreaming to make it and ourselves nobler and better: if it is to be a Land of Mobs and Lynchers, we might as well die today as tomorrow.
By 1965, the end of de jure measures emboldened de facto racism. Often, white communities sought to further and empower the police to guard their property against “thuggish” black folk. In part, such measures driven by white politicians have allowed for decades of mass incarcerations.
Below are brief summaries of black riots due to police brutality, as reported here in The Riot Act.
- Chicago, 1919. On a hot July afternoon, a black teen-ager named Eugene Williams went swimming in a customarily “white” area of Lake Michigan. Angry white beach-goers pelted him with stones until he drowned. When police refused to apprehend the culprit and instead arrested a black onlooker, blacks, who had long considered the police to be insensitive to their concerns, attacked the officers. Whites retaliated, ushering in four days of brutal violence in which policemen at times abetted the white-on-black assaults.
- Harlem, 1935. On March 19, department-store employees apprehended a 16-year-old shoplifter and whisked him off to be beaten in the store’s basement. An outraged crowd massed on 125th Street, as rumors circulated that that police had broken the arms of a black woman who tried to help the boy—made plausible, again, because of the police’s record of hostility to Harlem’s blacks. Rioting ensued for the next day, resulting in two deaths.
- Watts, 1965. On Aug. 11, police stopped motorist Marquette Frye on Avalon Street in the Los Angeles ghetto. Frye resisted arrest, a crowd gathered, and more policemen came. When some of them roughly manhandled Frye’s mother, the story took hold that cops had kicked a pregnant woman in the belly, further angering the mob. Violence reigned for four days, with 34 people killed.
- Detroit, 1967. On July 23, police raided a black drinking and gambling club, arresting some 80 habitués. Hordes of neighborhood blacks massed outside the establishment, first taunting the policemen, then throwing stones. A swarm of police cruisers swooped in but made no serious effort to disperse the crowd. Spontaneous looting and arson followed, and five days later, 43 people lay dead, many killed by police or National Guardsmen.
- Miami, 1980. On May 17, a Tampa jury acquitted four Miami policemen in the killing of Arthur McDuffie, a black businessman, whom they had beaten to death after chasing his motorcycle—the latest in a series of cases of police brutality. Mayhem followed, with black mobs attacking whites and white policemen retaliating with deadly gunfire. Eighteen people lost their lives.
Since the Watts riot of 1965, racism and the growing economic disparity in L.A. contributed to levels of violence that came to a halt after police officers were acquitted for the brutal beating of an unarmed black man named Rodney KIng. As pictured above, the L.A. riot brought rival gangs together to protest community inequality. This riot reduced years of black-on-black violence in L.A., as the murder rate declined. The killing of Freddie Grey by cops launched the city of Baltimore into a riot, which brought in the Department of Justice, who concluded that years of targeted hostility toward black and brown people and economic inequality were systematic issues. As I noted above — riots can be good. Cities such as Chicago might need a riot to address gang violence, economic inequality, police brutality, and racism.