Riots are a staple in American history. Like them or not, there’s no denying this. Some riots support better causes than others, or at least are easier to understand.
But throughout U.S. history the American legacy of riots resurfaces, again and again. We can trace roots back as far as the Boston Tea Party. Don’t believe it? Then read on.
The Stamp Act Riots – 1765
You sure on that? https://t.co/Vad88GoFFg
— Holly (@catlady111310) June 20, 2020
This bit of history might sound familiar. British government proposing a tax on all stamps, and other printed goods? Check. Boycotting British imports? Check. The Declaratory Act? Check.
Unhappy with the heavy tax on all printed goods, colonists protested and destroyed the property of government officials that were tasked with executing the tax. The Stamp Act was so reviled, it was shut down one day after it went officially into effect.
The Stamp Act riots were the first among many that spurred forward the American Revolutionary war.
The Dorr Rebellion – 1841
Taking place in Rhode Island, this rebellion is a bit peculiar. There was only one death, and that was completely by accident. That sounds normal but the thing is, both sides here had armies…that just didn’t find each other.
Anyway, this whole thing was sparked by the fact that the people wanted a new Constitution, instead of the Royal Charter that Rhode Island was still clinging to, for some reason. There were calls to reform that were ignored, so… the people made another Constitution that everyone, including people who could vote, agreed to.
One setback: The old government didn’t exactly approve of this, so things got pretty dicey. Thus, there were two differing governors: Dorr for the new charter and King for the old one.
This protest finally led to a new Rhode Island Constitution in 1843…sort of. It didn’t exactly apply to some groups of people, like immigrants or those without property, so it left many of Dorr’s supporters still stuck in the same place, but the point is they got something done.
The Stonewall Riots 1969
Though it may just be my lack of historical knowledge, I cannot think of a more important event for LGBTQ+ history other than Stonewall.
After a police raid at the bar known as Stonewall Inn escalated into violence, people fought back. These riots became integral to the LGBTQ+ movement, thanks to some of its main actors, like Black Trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, who threw the first brick at Stonewall.
Soon, organizations began popping up for gay rights and several newspapers were born. Gay Power was the first gay newspaper after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The Gay Blade, later renamed The Washington Blade also published its first issue on October 5, 1969.
Without the stonewall riots against police brutality, the state of queer rights in the U.S., and quite possibly the world would not be where it is today.
The L.A. Riots -1992
Does this sound familiar? After four cops were acquitted with no charges (except one minor charge of a mistrial) for beating Rodney King, people took to the streets to protest without hesitation.
King was arrested for leading the police on a highspeed car chase, while drunk. The beating that took place afterward by four cops, was videotaped and aired on TV soon after.
The riots also took place in part because of the lack of justice for the shooting of a 14-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins. Harlins was shot in the back of the head by Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du who thought the young girl was stealing. Harlins had the money for her purchase of orange juice in her hand.
The judge at the time Joyce Karlin sentenced Soon Ja Du to community service after she was convicted of 2nd-degree manslaughter. The verdict and sentencing which occurred right before the Rodney King trial, set up the catalyst for the LA riots.
This riot engaged much violence and looting, despite pleading from King himself and the president at the time denouncing the riots.
The result of the riots was the federal government’s promise that the LAPD would be reformed—this, as you could guess, took quite some time. It didn’t happen until in the early 2000s, actually.
The Department of Justice itself oversaw the LAPD transition, with increases in diversity and tech to keep track of misconduct. The DOJ left the LAPD to its’ own devices in 2013.
Reflecting on this, given the current state of things the question remains if police reform truly leads to lasting and effective justice.
What do these historical riots mean for us today?
It’s easier to dismiss riots as something purely unnecessary, childish, or even criminal. But this totally ignores why people usually riot.
For those of you who love to quote MLK’s non-violence rhetoric, peep what he said about riots:
“We’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
People who are rioting, are usually rioting because they feel that they’ve been done wrong. That the system is wrong. Rioters are Americans who are fed up and angry. I’m not condoning riots here, but if you write them off, you’ll never know why.
On John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight Kimberly Jones explains in regards to looting:
“There’s a social contract we all have where if you steal or if I steal there’s an authority who comes in and they fix the situation. But the person who fixes the situation is killing us. So the social contract is broken!”
However, you choose to resist, good luck out there.