Another day in America, another racially charged urban riot sparked by the suspicious death of a black person at the hands of the police.
This time, it’s happening in Baltimore, where there continues to be a glaring lack of information regarding the death of a Freddie Gray. Police arrested Gray on April 12 — for no reason other than the fact that Gray apparently ran — and by April 19, Gray died from “spinal injuries.” If that seems bizarre, that’s because it is. According to witness Kevin Moore, who recorded Gray’s arrest, the cops had Gray “folded up like he was a crab, or like a piece of origami.” Go ahead and view the video at the link, it’s not easy to watch, unless maybe you’re an advanced Yogi who’s used to having your body turned into an Auntie Anne’s pretzel.
Predictably, racist internet trolls (is there really any other kind?) and conservative news outlets are having a collective orgasm over what they see as yet another opportunity to denounce the “savagery” of urban black America. Whether it’s claims on Twitter that Baltimore is full of “stupid ghetto niggers,” or outlets like Breitbart denouncing the “Black Rioters,” or far-right slime factories like Independent Sentinal blaming the riots on “radical black separatists” who are “anti-Americans,” nothing gets a large segment of white people shaking in their golf pants like the thought of scary black people migrating out of the inner city to tear down white America’s white picket fences.
But riots are hardly unique to black people. As Identities Mic’s Derrick Clifton notes, whites have been known to occasionally riot by torching vehicles and looting local merchants, usually over grave, unconscionable societal injustices such as the outcomes of sporting events. There was the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riots after the Canucks lost. There was the 2015 Ohio State University riots after the Buckeyes won. There was the 1999 Denver riots after the Broncos won the Super Bowl. There was the 2011 Penn State riots in which the rioters destroyed stuff in the name of a guy who protected a pedophile. There was the 2014 San Francisco riots after the Giants won the World Series, and the list goes on. In these cases, as Clifton notes, white people who riot tend to get the media designation of “fans,” a truly gentle euphemism. The way Americans view white rioters runs in stark contrast to the narratives of riots in Ferguson, Missouri and now Baltimore, Maryland, where rioters aren’t just “rioters:” they’re “black rioters,” they’re “thugs,” they’re “niggers.”
When black people riot, it elicits apocalyptic overtones from some white people. Writing about the Baltimore riots, one paranoid author at the nutball conspiracy site Economic Collapse claims that, “This kind of thing is not supposed to happen in America.” Au contraire: riots have always happened in America. In fact, rioting is a long (if unfortunate) American tradition.
Now, let me be clear: I’m not defending the rioters. Riots are terrible things, and yes, the few hundred rioters in Baltimore are being counterproductive by tearing apart their own communities. Yet if the riots in Baltimore seem pointless, that’s precisely the point. Riots never happen without a spark; a very real instigation. That spark, however, quickly turns individuals into a roving collective in which individual thoughts and actions are subsumed by base — even pointless — responses fed by the need to unleash intense emotions by looting and breaking stuff. Riots, therefore, are both direct and indirect spontaneous responses to long-simmering grievances. If the killing of Freddie Gray was the individual spark, then the utterly reactionary carnage displayed by the rioters is the spontaneous, base response — and this type of response is deeply, profoundly American.
Americans of all colors and backgrounds have rioted for a variety of reasons since the very beginning. As historian, Paul Gilje writes in Rioting in America, riots have been a crucial mechanism for enacting social change in American society, from the Boston Tea Party to Baltimore in 2015. “In the story of America,” Gilje writes, “popular disorder has expressed social discontent, altered economic arrangements, affected politics, and toppled regimes.”
Well-known Revolutionary-Era events like the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Stamp Act Riots were, well, riots, but so were lesser-known events like the New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot of 1772. In the latter instance, over twenty men decided to protest a long-standing colonial law that made it illegal to cut down white pine trees larger than 12 inches in diameter without first consulting royal surveyors and paying the King a tidy sum. Unable to vent their anger by personally flogging the King himself, the rioters instead stormed the office of local sheriff Benjamin Whiting (who enforced the White Pine Law) and proceeded to “beat him to their hearts’ content” with wooden switches. Clearly, white colonialists never stopped to consider how white-on-white violence was tearing their culture apart.
Riots have always served an important function in American history by opening up new (albeit violent) avenues for channeling suppressed grievances over various types of social issues. Gilje reminds us that, “during riots the normal rules of society are put aside and new rules, connected to previous patterns of popular disorder, suddenly and briefly come into force.”* The Civil War, more than any other period in U.S. history, was a period when previous social patterns collapsed. It was no coincidence, then, that the Civil War hosted one of the most significant riots ever to occur on American soil.
The Civil War’s first deaths by hostile action occurred during an 1861 riot in — you guessed it — Baltimore, then the largest city in the slaveholding South. In April 1861, sectional tensions exploded when President Abraham Lincoln sent 700 Massachusetts militia troops through Baltimore en route to protect Washington D.C. from a southern invasion. The problem, however was that Baltimore was rife with Confederate sympathizers.
On April 19, the Federal troops, riding in rail cars, caught the ire of pro-southern onlookers, who swarmed the cars by the hundreds and unleashed a torrent of stones, bricks, and gunfire on the Yankee troops. The troops returned fire, and soon the violence spread as enraged mobs dumped sand, steel anchors, and anything else they could find onto the railcar tracks to prevent the Federals’ passage. Their railway blocked, the northern troops were forced to march through narrow streets infested with teed-off southern mobs that labeled the troops “white niggers.” Over the course of several blocks, the soldiers exchanged bursts of gunfire with civilians armed with paving stones and pistols. Within an hour, the riot was over, and eleven rioters and four Federal soldiers lay dead. The fighting of the Civil War had begun with an urban riot in which white people fought over what to do about black people.
Now, in 2015, Baltimore once again finds itself at the center of a long-running national debate over issues of race, class, and authority — the very same issues that caused blood to run through the city’s streets in 1861. And make no mistake: race is a crucial issue here. Baltimore is one of the most racially segregated and impoverished cities in America. In the City of Firsts, roughly 63 percent of the residents are black, and one in four of those residents lives below the poverty line. Add to this demographic makeup a brutal police culture that has long fueled a tense relationship between cops and city residents, and you have a recipe for an explosion when the right fuse is lit. In this case, the fuse was Freddie Gray.
We don’t yet know enough of the facts about how Gray died and how protests over his mysterious death at the hands of police led to eruptions of violence, looting, and arson. But Americans do themselves no favors by reacting to news coverage of the riots with knee-jerk outbursts of racial determinism bereft of any understanding of the complex history that made Baltimore — and many other American cities — ground-zeros for the country’s tragic racial legacy. Recognizing the historical and structural forces that lead to urban violence isn’t the same thing as condoning it. Those rioters who looted and destroyed the CVS pharmacy may be opportunists, they may be criminals, and they may be utterly apolitical. But one thing they are not is un-American.
The rioters in Baltimore, for a number of reasons — some complex and others base — are products of larger social, economic, and historical developments that have plagued Baltimore and countless other American cities for decades, even centuries. To say that what they’re doing “is not supposed to happen in America” ignores a long tradition in which Americans of all colors have rioted to force social and political changes during times when they felt that the normal social channels were unresponsive to their demands. This was true in 1772. It was true in 1861. And it’s still true in 2015.
* See Paul Gilje, Rioting in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 1, 8.