Riots and Popular Protests

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Riots and Popular Protests

The categorization of the regional histories of riots and popular protest throughout the African diaspora requires a broad understanding of the term race riot. On the one hand, the term applies to the mass opposition embodied by violent protest among peoples of African descent challenging the socioeconomic oppression, violence, apartheid, and poverty that they faced throughout the Americas, in Europe, and in colonial Africa. However, the term race riot is also applied to the racialized attacks carried out by whites against black communities or individuals in retribution for their perceived transgressions, or to dissuade any future transgressions.

The nature of racially motivated popular protest is related to the very definition of race in a region (in this case, North America, Africa, Europe, and Latin America) and how race is related to political, social, and economic power. Popular protests involving people of color are much more likely to be defined racially in those parts of the African diaspora where the racial difference between black and white populations was once defined and defended by legal categorization, such as in the United States under segregation, in South Africa under apartheid, or in Great Britain when nonwhites immigrated in and threatened white job security and the Commonwealth Immigration Act was passed.

Whereas popular protest throughout Latin America has at times reflected the racial hierarchy that places whites at the top and nonwhites at the bottom, these incidents have often been described as "class violence." This is not to argue that race is unimportant to socioeconomic divisions in Latin American. The overwhelming reliance on forced laborfirst indigenous, then Africanto support plantation economies throughout the colonial period in both the Spanish and Portuguese colonies left a legacy of poor people of color in many modern Latin American states. However, the lack of de jure segregation between whites and blacks following abolition in much of Latin America has led to very different models of race relations and patterns of violence than have been seen in the United States.

The United States

The history of the United States is permeated by hundreds of race riotsthere were thirty-three race riots during the Reconstruction era, and twenty-six in the year 1919 alone. During this history, the nature of racially motivated rioting and popular protest changed radically. For nearly a century following the era of abolition, the term race riot generally implied white populations violently attacking black individuals or communities. Starting in the 1930s and 1940s, however, the term began to identify African-American uprisings against social hardships, legal inequity, and police mistreatment. This shift in the racial makeup of the rioter was not unique to the United States.

antebellum and reconstruction eras

In the nineteenth century there were numerous urban race riots in the United States; African-American populations faced violent attacks in Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The destruction peaked with the New York Draft Riots in July 1863. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the Democratic Party warned white immigrant populations (largely Irish and German) that Emancipation would draw free blacks from the South into Northern cities, and thus into competitions for jobs. The passage of the new draft laws in March 1863 heightened racial tension in the city. All white men of fighting age were to be entered into a draft lottery, though men who could hire a substitute or pay the government an exception fee could avoid enlisting in the Civil War. Black men, not granted citizenship, were exempted from the draft. Early in the morning on the Monday following the first conscription lottery, held Saturday, July 11, New York erupted into a bloody riot that lasted for five days. During the first hours of the uprising the mobs exclusively targeted military and government buildings, but later that day the tide shifted toward a violent attack on African-Americans, their community, and the whites perceived as supporters of blacks. Before the riot ended, scores of people were killed, eleven black men were lynched, and millions of dollars worth of property had been destroyed. In the years following the riots, blacks fled the city, and the black population dwindled to a forty-year low.

the world wars

During the first decade of the twentieth century, white attacks on black communities, which had previously occurred mostly in the South, shifted to urban centers in the North. Mobs attacked blacks in New York City in August 1900 and burned black homes in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. However, a new surge of racial attacks took place after World War I, as whites struggled to take back the gains African Americans had made during the war. A backlash against the Great Migration, a period of mass movement of blacks from the South to the North, motivated scores of riots. This culminated in the Red Summer of 1919, during which cities across both the North and South exploded into race riots. The worst

of the violence took place in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas. Each violent incident was initiated by whites, but increasingly there was shock in the popular press at black willingness to fight back. When the Chicago Riot ended, there were fifteen whites killed along with twenty-three blacks, and in Washington, D.C., four whites and only two blacks were killed. This change was generally attributed to black involvement in the war, but it marked an important turning point in racial violence.

The Harlem Riot of 1935 marked a second critical shift in racialized violence in the United States. On March 19, 1935, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was caught stealing a penknife from a white-owned store in Harlem. The owner called the police, but by the time they arrived a crowd of African-Americans had formed and called for the boy's release. The owner convinced the police to release the boy out the back door to avoid trouble. Rumors quickly spread among the black community that the boy had been killed, and the crowd of picketers turned unruly. Violence and looting followed, but the crowds spared several black-owned businesses (and some with signs in the window that claimed black ownership). In the end, there were 125 arrests, 100 injuries, and three people killedall were black. This marked the first racially motivated riot started by blacks in a northern city, and it was the first time that white-owned businesses were targeted, or at least the first time that black-owned business were consciously spared. The Harlem and Detroit riots of 1943 followed this modelthey started as black protestsand they also followed the model that blacks paid the price, through arrests and attacks at the hands of police and white mobs.

civil rights era and beyond

A series of riots swept innercity America during the 1960s, affecting Harlem, Boston, Chicago, Newark, Watts, Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Detroit, to name only a few. By one count, over 300 "important" racial disturbances impacted more than 250 cites, causing more than 300 deaths, 8,000 injuries, and destroying property valued in the hundreds of millions. While the civil rights movement fought legal, or de jure, segregation in the South, issues of police brutality, crime, and poverty had been overlooked. As the Kerner Commission reported in 1968, in trying to explain three

years of racialized violence, "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white separate and unequal."

Black men and women eventually used violence to address these issues, and violence continues to serve in this role into the twenty-first century. In 1980 and 1989 crowds in Miami erupted into violence, first when four white police officers were acquitted after the beating death of a black man, and then when a black man on a motorcycle was killed by a Hispanic policeman. In Los Angeles in 1992, fifty-two people were killed and thousands were wounded following the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King, the African-American motorist who was stopped for speeding and whose brutal beating at the hands of Los Angeles police was recorded on videotape by a witness. And in 2001, the African-American community in Cincinnati burst into violence following the killing of an African-American man by the police.

South Africa

The intersection of black and white in South Africa came about as a result of European colonization beginning in the seventeenth century, rather than the importation of enslaved Africans to support the institution of plantation slavery, as was generally the case throughout the Americas. Following the British victory over the white Afrikaners in 1902, the British Parliament established the Union of South Africa in 1910. Segregation and discrimination against nonwhites had already been practiced throughout South Africa for decades, but it was only in 1948, following the election of the all-white National Party (NP), that racial division was written into law with the implementation of apartheid ("separateness" in Afrikaans). Two years later, in 1950, the Group Areas Act was passed. This law called for separate areas for each of the four racial groups (blacks, whites, coloreds, and Asians), and in 1952 strict "pass laws," which controlled black movement in white

areas, were implemented. Black men who remained in urban areas for more than seventy-two hours were subject to arrest and imprisonment.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress and renamed in 1923, originally defended black voting rights, but it became one of the primary opposition groups to the apartheid regime. It started under black leadership but was open to white and Asian membership. In 1952 the ANC launched the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, and following months of nonviolent protest and thousands of arrests, rioting erupted in several cities, leading to numerous deaths and extensive property damage. Then, in 1956, police killed three black women following protests that involved thousands of black women who opposed the extension of the pass laws, which for the first time would apply to black women as well as men.

After breaking with the ANC in 1958, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe (19241978) founded the Pan-African Congress (PAC) the following year. Shunning the multiracial membership of the ANC, the PAC would only accept blacks into its membership. In 1960 the PAC called for a mass demonstration in which people would gather without passes and offer themselves to the police for arrest. Tens of thousands of people gathered at various locations, including a crowd of more than five thousand in the town of Sharpeville, the site of the Sharpeville Massacre on March 21, 1960. White police fired on the demonstration, killing sixty-nine and wounding at least 180, though some reports put that number as high at three hundred. This attack led to strikes, demonstrations, and protest marches, as well at riots across the nation. Both the ANC and the PAC were outlawed and forced underground, and an international outcry led to the United Nations's first sanction vote against South Africa.

Finally, on June 16, 1976, thousands of black students protested in Soweto against new legislation that required that some high school subjects no longer be taught in English, but exclusively in Afrikaans, a language associated with oppression. The violence spread to neighboring townships, and eventually upwards of 575 people were killed, the majority in Soweto.

Although it would be years before the NP and the ANC reached an agreement that would end apartheid in South Africa, popular protests such as those mentioned here were essential parts of the organized resistance that led to the downfall of apartheid on November 13, 1993.


In the years following World War I, with the return of both black and white British veterans, tensions grew around the small black immigrant communities in Liverpool, Cardiff, and London. In 1919, Britain experienced several race riots between white and black workers. At the core of these events were tensions among white workers who perceived this new immigrant population as a threat to their well-being. The victims of the violence were people of Caribbean descent, Ethiopians, Somalis, and Egyptians.

In the years following World War II, England experienced a large-scale growth among its immigrant West Indian population. In 1951 Britain's nonwhite population (including both West Indians of African descent and South Asians) was estimated at 74,000; in 1959 it was 336,000, and when the Commonwealth Immigration Act was implemented in 1962 to slow this immigration through a series of quotas on arriving immigrants, the nonwhite population had reached 500,000 people.

Although West Indians were welcomed by the British industrialists and by the government as workers in the years following 1948, working-class whites quickly began to view this population as a threat to their job security. Black settlement in England led to an increased white backlash, and white membership in racist and fascist organizations grew in response to the growing Afro-British population. West Indians faced inadequate housing, unemployment, discrimination, and violent attacks.

notting hill and nottingham riots of 1958

At the end of the summer of 1958, Britain faced a period of unprecedented racial violence. Initially, the town of Nottingham experienced a weekend of riots following a bar fight on August 23, touched off by white outrage over a white woman talking to a black man. Following the incident, more than 1,000 whites attacked the black community with rocks and sticks. While some blacks retaliated against their attackers, most fled to their homes. Although the bulk of the violence was controlled by the end of the weekend, racial violence flared up over the following two weekends.

Then, in West London one week later, on Saturday, August 30, a mob of white men attacked the white Swedish wife of a black West Indian, irate over the couple's alleged racial betrayal. After throwing stones, glass, and sticks at her and striking her across the back with an iron rod, the mob allowed the police to escort her home. This event was the catalyst to a week of nightly clashes between whites and West Indians in the areas of Notting Hill and Notting Dale. Mobs of white men, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, attacked blacks, broke the windows of stores that sold to blacks, and fought with the police. Most blacks stayed indoors during the riots, but some fought back with knives and razors, and the police arrested both white and black rioters.

toxteth and brixton riots of 1981

By the 1980s the nature of race riots in Britain underwent an important shift (one can argue that these changes began a decade earlier, given the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976, which ignited among poor Afro-British over arbitrary police arrests). Following the patterns of rioting in the United States in the 1960s, most British riots stopped representing white rage against black settlement in Britain, and instead reflected black hostility towards racially discriminatory patterns of employment, housing, and especially community policing. Rather than attacks by white mobs on black communities, most of the riots that took place in Britain in the 1980s followed the pattern of black outrage at the social injustice carried out in the inner cities where they lived.

In July 1981, in Toxteth, an innercity area of Liverpool, fierce battles between police and members of the communitylargely, but not entirely, young Afro-British menbroke out over the police arrest and handling of a young black man. The police applied the "sus" laws, which allowed them to stop and search anyone who was "suspicious." These laws were overwhelmingly applied to detain young Afro-British men. A fracas broke out between police and an angry crowd who witnessed police handling the man, and three officers were injured. Over the following weekend, this violence erupted into a riot involving Molotov cocktails (thrown by rioters) and tear gas (by the police). In the following week 470 police were injured, 500 people were arrested, and more than seventy buildings were destroyed.

Similar tensions over the "sus" laws and police procedure were brewing in Brixton, South London. On Monday, April 13, 1981, a police patrol stopped to assist a black youth who had been stabbed in the back. They called for an ambulance and were in the process of bandaging the man up in the back of their car when they were attacked by a crowd of black youths who assumed that the police were responsible for the young man's injury. An ambulance arrived, and the youth was taken to the hospital. When police reinforcements arrived the incident concluded, though the immediate increase in police patrols in the area heightened tensions in the community. For the next three days there was violent rioting against the police by innercity youths, both white and black. There was also significant looting of stores in the area. Only two people were injured (both police), and 282 people were arrested (mostly black). Twenty-eight buildings were burned while scores of businesses reported losses to looters.

"great british riots" of 1985

The tension between police and predominantly black youths continued to simmer, and it exploded again in the summer and fall of 1985, with the worst violence occurring in London and Birmingham. Though each uprising resulted from a separate incident, the violence of 1985 was the result of the same social conditions that previously sparked the uprisings of 1981. In each case, the spark was produced by the tension between the police and the black youth whom they hoped to control.

In September 1985, three different race riots broke out following altercations between police and black citizens. In Birmingham, on September 9, a parking ticket led to an altercation between the police and a black driver. When the police arrested the man, a crowd of angry onlookers protested and a fight ensued; eleven officers were injured and two people were arrested. In Brixton, on September 28, while attempting to arrest a black man for the possession of a firearm, the police shot and permanently paralyzed the mother of their suspect. On October 5, at the Broadwater Farm Estate (a majority black public housing development in the predominantly white Tottenham district of London), the arrest of a black driver led to the death of another black mother. The police had implemented a heavy stop-and-search procedure around the housing project. After arresting a twenty-three-year-old black man with an improperly licensed car, they arrested him for auto theft and, following an altercation, for assaulting a police officer. They then went to his home to follow up, and while they were searching the property his mother collapsed and died. The man was eventually cleared of all charges and collected monetary damages from the police.

In each case, community backlash led to rioting; firebombing; the destruction of homes, stores, and vehicles; massive arrests (black and white); and the widespread injury of police officers and civilians alikeone police officer was stabbed to death in the Broadwater Farm Estate Riots. Indirectly, these patterns of violence impacted police policy; in the period following these uprisings there was an increased commitment to the recruitment and training of black officers, attempts to improve police and community relations, and the repeal of the infamous "sus" laws that allowed police to stop and search "suspicious individuals" without cause.


Obviously, not all popular urban uprisings are race riots; labor, class, and gender have been at the center of many popular protests. That said, it is easier to define a race riot as such when the divide between blacks and whites in a society is easily defined and absolute. However, since the abolition of slavery in 1888 in Brazil, there has been a conscious effort to deny racial division, racial hierarchy, and racism in general. Thus, even if a popular protest involves or impacts large numbers of Afro-Brazilians, it is generally not called a race riot.

Before the abolition of slavery, Brazil was the site of numerous slave rebellions. In 1835 in Salvador, the capital of Bahia in northeastern Brazil, a group of enslaved AfricansMuslims who had attained literacy through their religionorganized an uprising in that city. When it was put down by the ruling elite, whites took violent revenge against the African community overall, enslaved and freemen alike, following a violent pattern of revenge replicated in the days following slave rebellions throughout the African diaspora.

Salvador, the former capital of the Brazilian colony, was the site of many episodes of violent protest in the early nineteenth century. Bahia was near the center of the plantation sugar economy, and the overwhelming majority of its population consisted of Brazilian-born blacks and Africans. In the years following Brazilian independence, Brazil claimed its independence as a royalist empire in 1822 under the crown rule of Dom Pedro I, and there were violent struggles between geographic regions and among the various ruling classes throughout the nation. Although wealthy Brazilians had spearheaded the war against the Portuguese elite who had retained political and economic power during the colonial period, once independence was achieved, wealthy Brazilians recognized the Portuguese as essential business partners. More important to this study is the fact that these movements were actually fought by populations on the fringe of political power: soldiers, freed slaves, urban poor, landless peasants, and, in some cases, slaves. Underlying the broad antiroyalist revolutionary movements were street riots and looting in which predominantly Afro-Brazilian mobs targeted the white Portuguese ruling class. Following Brazilian independence in 1822, Salvador experienced anti-Portuguese uprisings in 1823, 1824, and 1831. These were not explicitly racially motivated attacks, but following centuries of violent oppression under slavery, Europeans (as opposed to Brazilian-born whites) were suddenly politically vulnerable, and African and Afro-Brazilian resentment suddenly took form in acts of organized violence.

In Rio de Janeirowhich was made Brazil's capital in 1763, reflecting the economic shift from the sugar industry in the Northeast to coffee in the Southpopular revolts took place in 1880 and 1904. Although neither is defined as a race riot, race played a central role in each. The Vintem Riot of 1880 was an uprising against a tax on public transportation (a vintem was the coin of smallest value in Brazil at the time) in the city of Rio de Janeiro. Rio had grown rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, quadrupling in size between 1822 and 1888 to a population of 500,000. This tax affected Rio's poor, predominantly Afro-Brazilian free-blacks and slaves, as well as growing Portuguese and Italian immigrant populations. On the first day of the tax, a group of approximately four thousand protesters at first only demanded that passengers not pay the tax, but later in the day they became violent. They tore up tracks, overturned tram cars, beat up drivers, and built barricades from pavestones and tram tracks. The police and army were called in, and that night peace returned to Rio. Three men had been killed; all were European immigrants. In 1904 the Brazilian administration set out to modernize Rio, in part through a forced vaccination plan against smallpox. The political opposition opposed mandatory vaccinations, and in November 1904 crowds took to the streets for a week of on-and-off rioting. The police reports describe the central role of Rio's underclass, specifically pointing out prostitutes, pimps, drunks, and professional troublemakers. Although neither uprising fits within the traditional rhetoric of the race riot, the role of race among the rioters, and the fact that the overall attempt to "modernize" the city was part of the general attempt to "whiten" Brazil and its capital, cannot be over-looked.

There was a popular movement in Rio de Janeiro that was clearly divided along race lines. During the four-day Revolt of the Lash in November 1910, more than 2,500 Brazilian sailors in Rio (85 percent of whom were Afro-Brazilian) rose up against the use of corporal punishment by white officers in the Brazilian navy. They took over four modern dreadnought battleships and held the city hostage for four days until the national congress met their demands. In this case, the racial division was identifiable because of the segregation practiced in the Brazilian navy. Even though these Afro-Brazilian sailors couched their demands in the language of slavery and race, Brazilian historians have traditionally placed this revolt in a context of class, not race.

See also Black Power Movement; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Identity and Race in the United States


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zachary r. morgan(2005)