Yesterday, August 10th, 2011, CNN ( “The Most Trusted Name in News” ) posed its “Question of the Day” to its morning viewers: “Britain Riots: Can it Happen Here?” which elicited our gut response: “Uh. It HAS happened here, dumbasses.”
Does CNN truly believe its viewers are that stupid? Or maybe it’s like et Twitter follower @ButcherMose suggests: “Media is run by dude in Momento .” Whatever the case the whole fiasco inspired us to dig back into our book archives (that’s right, folks – we don’t just write blog posts and Jack Handy-isms on The Twitter; we got books under our belt – HA!), and re-introduce to the Internutz a brief overview of race riots here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. from our own ego trip’s Big Book of Racism! (ReganBooks, 2002) . Because sometimes asking is as bad as acting as if it can’t happen.
RIOT ON TO THE BREAK O’ DAWN, AFTER THE JUMP…
Not Okay in OK
Tulsa, OkLahoma — May 31–June 1, 1921
On the night of May 31, a crowd of Whites gathers at the Tulsa courthouse to witness the lynching of a Black shoe-shine man who, according to a fabricated story in the local newspaper, had attempted to rape a White woman. A Black crowd gathers to protect the innocent man from the bloodthirsty mob. However, after a skirmish between the opposing groups leaves a White man shot dead, Black Tulsa is subjected to an unprecedented bloodbath. Over the next twelve hours, the once-prosperous African-American business district of Greenwood (a/k/a the “Black Wall Street”) is torched by white rioters by land and from the air with explosives dropped from small airplanes. More than 1,400 Black homes and businesses—among them churches, restaurants, grocery stores, movie theaters, libraries, schools, law offices, a hospital, a bank, a post office, several private planes, and a bus system—are destroyed. The city’s official death toll of mostly Black victims is initially calculated at thirty, but the Red Cross’ count inflates the figure to 300. Years later, the discovery of mass graves raises the estimate of those dead to possibly thousands more.
Beast in the East
Los Angeles, California — June 3–7, 1943
Eleven White sailors on shore leave claim to have been attacked by a group of Mexican-American youths adorned in zoot suits—a style of dress stereotyped as pachuco hoodlum gear. Seeking payback later that evening, more than 200 sailors take a fleet of taxicabs to the center of Los Angeles’ Mexican-American barrio, East L.A., and begin indiscriminately attacking anyone rocking a zoot suit. For the next four nights, American servicemen – sailors and soldiers – continue their battle on the community. All the while, cops turn a blind eye and act as passive accomplices to the violence. The June 21 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.” At midnight on the night of June 7, military authorities finally stop the rioting by declaring the city off-limits to their personnel. Though hundreds of pachucos — many not even wearing zoot suits — are arrested, no sailors or soldiers are prosecuted for their lawlessness. The servicemen are, in fact, widely heralded by the local press. A June 7 Los Angeles Times headline reads: zoot suiters learn lesson in fights with servicemen.
Detroit Race City, Part 1
Detroit, Michigan — June 20–21, 1943
Detroit is the most important industrial center in the country during World War II. But the huge influx of Blacks from down south filling the city’s factory jobs gradually transforms the city, nicknamed the “Arsenal of Democracy,” into an overcrowded metropolis that residents cynically redub the “Arsehole of Democracy.” On the night of June 20, at an amusement park called Belle Isle, multiple incidents of fighting between Black and White teenagers erupt. Two false rumors – that Whites have thrown a Black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle Bridge and that a Black man has raped and murdered a White woman on the bridge—circulate throughout the rest of Detroit. In response, Black mobs loot and destroy White-owned businesses while Whites attack streetcars carrying Black passengers, and gather outside the Black-patronized Roxy Theater to assault moviegoers. It isn’t until the next night, when Whites invade the destitute Black ghetto (ironically named Paradise Valley), that U.S. Army troops are finally called in to shut down the city. In the end, the death toll totals nine Whites and twenty-five Blacks — seventeen of them killed by White policemen. Nearly 700 people are injured in the melee and the damage is assessed at $2 million.
Watts, California — August 11–16, 1965
Coming just a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watts riots show the world that all is still not good in the ’hood. A twenty-one-year-old Black man, Marquette Frye, is stopped and arrested by white police officers during the evening on a drunken-and-disorderly driving charge near his home in the South Central L.A. neighborhood of Watts. Frye’s brother and mother plead with the officers to release Marquette, but the cops refuse and, after a scuffle, arrest them as well. A growing crowd of onlookers spit on the officers and pelt them with rocks and bottles. The disgruntled mob begins setting small fires, before the whole shebang escalates into one of U.S. history’s most notorious outbursts of urban rage. For six days, African-Americans and Latinos loot and firebomb large sections of inner-city Los Angeles—targeting white-owned (largely Jewish-owned) businesses—and coin the catchphrase “Burn, baby, burn” a decade before the Trammps cut “Disco Inferno.” Snipers shoot at firemen attempting to extinguish the blazes, the result of the L.A. Fire Department’s prejudicial hiring practices and ill treatment of Black firemen. The National Guard eventually regains control and institutes a curfew zone covering 46.5 square miles. Thirty-four people die, 4,000 are arrested, and damage estimates reach $40 million.
Detroit Race City, Part 2
Detroit, Michigan — July 23–25, 1967
The “long hot summer” of 1967 sees the ruckus brought to several major cities — among them New York, Washington, Chicago, and Newark, where riots leave twenty-six dead and 1,500 injured. Once again, though, the Motor City takes the title of strife-life capital. After police execute an early-morning raid on the United Community and Civic League, an illegal bar/gambling spot in a Black neighborhood, a crowd gathers in protest after rumors spread of police brutality. In a short time, the protests turn to looting and burning of White-owned stores. Mindful of the city’s history of police overreaction to minor incidents, authorities elect not to send extra officers to the scene and even impose a local news blackout in the hopes of keeping a lid on the situation. Both tactics backfire as rioters rage unchecked. They begin burning down Black businesses and homes as well as White ones, spreading the affected area to fourteen square miles. When the smoke clears, forty-three are dead, 7,000 arrested, 1,300 buildings destroyed, and 2,700 businesses looted with property damage totaling $22 million.
Ray of Blight: King Assassination Riots
Numerous cities — April 4–11, 1968
After Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, rioting erupts in more than 120 cities across the map. In Chicago, Mayor Richard J. Daley orders police to “shoot to kill” riot participants. In Washington, D.C., President Lyndon B. Johnson deploys the 82nd Airborne Division to control the chaos. Meanwhile, rioters in downtown Trenton loot a sporting goods store and drive golf balls down city streets like ticked-off Tiger Woodses at dodging police officers as the city burns. Nationwide forty-six die; with 2,600 injured. Ironically, in normally tense Boston, there is relative peace as James Brown’s concert at Boston Garden is broadcast live on local television on the night of the assassination, keeping folks indoors and entertained.
Get off the Bus
Boston, Massachusetts, 1974–1976
On June 21, 1974, Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity orders that Boston public schools achieve racial balance via the forced busing of students from designated Black neighborhoods to schools in designated White neighborhoods and vice versa. The decision escalates simmering tensions between the two areas most visibly affected by the plan – the Black ghetto of Roxbury and its White Irish-Catholic counterpart, South Boston — and immediately makes Garrity the most hated man in Boston. For the next three years, police-escorted buses of Black students enter white areas amid hurled bricks, bottles, and epithets, earning the Hub the dubious nickname “the Little Rock of the North.” Despite the in-school presence of metal detectors, police officers patrolling hallways and cafeterias, and even snipers assigned to nearby rooftops, racial fighting breaks out daily. The ferocity of antibusing demonstrations is captured in a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph by Stanley Forman taken outside Boston City Hall in which a Black attorney is seen being jabbed by a white man using an American flag pole.
Miami Sound Clash
Miami, Florida — May 17–20, 1980
Twelve years before the Rodney King verdict, Miami endures the murder trial of thirty-three-year-old Black insurance executive Arthur McDuffie. In December 1979, McDuffie is arrested after a high-speed chase and dies after being repeatedly struck by White policemen brandishing heavy flashlights. Police initially attempt to cover up the murder by claiming the chase ended in McDuffie’s accidental death when his motorcycle crashed. The trial, which takes place before an all-White jury after a change of venue, ends with the acquittal of four White officers. Subsequent rioting in Miami’s Liberty City ghetto claims eighteen lives and causes $100 million in damage. Miami, rife with resentment amongst African-Americans due to economic opportunities lost to incoming Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Haitian immigrants, will suffer through several more race-fueled disturbances in the ’80s.
The Crown Heights Affair
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York — August 19–23, 1991
A seven-year-old Black child, Gavin Cato, is struck and killed when a car in the motorcade of the rabbi Menachem Schneerson spins out of control onto the sidewalk. Angry Black residents of the largely West Indian community begin beating the car’s driver, Yosef Lifsh, before he is taken to the hospital by a privately run Jewish Hatzolah ambulance. The news that Lifsh will not be arrested by police spreads through the area. Later that evening, an angry mob chases down twenty-nine-year-old Australian rabbinical scholar Yankel Rosenbaum and stabs him to death in retaliation. Four days and three nights of turmoil engulfs the neighborhood. Jewish residents are beaten, cars are overturned and set on fire, and stores are looted and firebombed as Crown Heights’ Black majority releases its long-standing frustration with the neighborhood’s economically and politically empowered Orthodox Jewish minority. Hundreds of police officers in riot gear eventually restore order, but Black New York City mayor David Dinkins is heavily criticized by Jews for the New York Police Department’s slow response to the chaos. In concert performances thereafter, even A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg alters his lyrics to “Can I Kick It?” from “Mr. Dinkins would you please be my mayor?” to “Mr. Dinkins was a shitty fuckin’ mayor.”
Royal (Black ’n’) Blue
Los Angeles, California — April 29–May 1, 1992
You love to hear the story again and again: Black motorist Rodney King is stopped by White police officers in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, after his 1988 Hyundai sedan is allegedly clocked at 110 miles per hour. King is ordered out of his car, told to lie on his stomach, and is repeatedly kicked, struck with nightsticks, and shocked with a Taser gun by police as a resident in a nearby apartment complex records the violence with his video camera. The world is outraged upon viewing the eighty-one-second videotape. But not as outraged as L.A.’s inner-city dwellas on April 29, 1992, when a jury of ten Whites, an Hispanic, and a Filipino finds all four cops charged for excessive force not guilty. Rioting, looting, and arson erupt across Los Angeles, with its epicenter at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. White motorists are pulled from their cars and assaulted, including truck driver Reginald Denny, whose beatdown is broadcast live from a TV news helicopter.
But the racial acrimony isn’t limited to Black versus White. Black-Korean relations are also strained in the wake of the Latasha Harlins murder trial (in which a local Korean store owner who’d fatally shot a Black teen for shoplifting in March 1991 was sentenced only to probation), and many Korean-owned businesses are pillaged in the chaos. The rioters themselves are of diverse ethnic affiliations. Of the nearly 17,000 arrested almost 37 percent are Latino, 30 percent Black, 7 percent white, and 26 percent “unknown.” The final tally: fifty-two dead, nearly 3,000 injured, and a billion dollars in property damage.
DisHonorable Mention: Yak Attack
Geraldo, New York, New York — November 3, 1988
During the taping of a Geraldo Rivera talk show on the subject of Nazi skinheads, a brawl breaks out between two guests—John Metzger, leader of the White Aryan Resistance Youth, and Black activist Roy Innis of the Congress for Racial Equality. Amidst the bedlam of fisticuffs and audience members storming the stage, a chair strikes Geraldo in the face, breaking his nose. Tuff break, homes. (Then again, G-man is a Puerto Rican Jew with a somewhat Semitic schnozz — so no one really notices the “snap.”)