Much of the discussion of the rioting in Ferguson MO after the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by white police officer Darren Wilson — especially by white commenters — has focused on property damage during what started as protests over police actions. Relatively even-handed report from Wikipedia:

The shooting sparked protests and unrest in Ferguson, in part due to the belief among many that Brown was surrendering, as well as longstanding racial tensions between the majority-black Ferguson community and the majority-white city government and police. Protests, both peaceful and violent, along with vandalism and looting, continued for more than a week, resulting in night curfews. The response of area police agencies in dealing with the protests received significant criticism from the media and politicians.

The white response has tended to paint the protestors as dangerous and out of control, drawing on negative stereotypes of blacks. Black commenters point instead to long-standing grievances, amounting to rage, over police actions. (This rage doesn’t of course excuse property damage, but it does explain the depth of the black response.)

Now a tour of rioting of various sorts, following some personal observations about police forces.

Dealing with the police. As a general proposition: if you are black, Hispanic, gay, or a political activist (this list is not exhaustive, just representative), police forces are not there to protect you, and are quite likely to be actively repressive; only a fool would trust them. I have many decades of experience in this domain, including several years in which the Columbus OH police assembled a giant file on my household (including large amounts of wiretapping), because of political activities and my homosexuality, and numerous occasions on which I (I think wisely) did not appeal to the police.

One story of the latter type: For about two years I received regular death threats by telephone, both in Columbus and Palo Alto, which I did not report to the police — because that would have meant explaining that the basis of the threats was my homosexuality (and probably visibility as a gay activist in both places), and the prevailing police attitude was clearly that fags (and trouble-makers) were worthless trash, not deserving of protection (so that at best any complaint would simply be dismissed as not being worthy of pursuing, and at worst would lead to an investigation of me, as somehow having brought this persecution on myself).

There’s a lot more. I have never destroyed property in a protest, and I’ve done my best to counsel others against it, but I have lots of gay rage, much of it directed against the police (Firesign Theatre: “Deputy Dan Has No Friends”). And this is nothing to the rage of blacks in this country.

The riot tour: race riots. I’ll start with riots based on simple racial (or ethnic) hatred. In this category it would be hard to beat the Tulsa race riot of 1921. From Wikipedia:

The Tulsa race riot was a large-scale, racially motivated conflict on May 31 and June 1, 1921, in which a group of whites attacked the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It resulted in the Greenwood District, also known as ‘the Black Wall Street’ and the wealthiest black community in the United States, being burned to the ground.

On the ethnicity front, there’s this report (from Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, as reviewed in the American Scholar (Autumn 2014) by Wayne Curtis):

Violence within and against Italian immigrants (especially Sicilians) is a darkmotif. Krist recounts the [1890] assassination on a dim, rainy street of police chief David C. Hennessy. When asked who shot him before he died, Hennessy replied “Dagos.” Italians were rounded up and tried. When the acquittal of the first three proved unsatisfactory to city reformers, more than 6,000 agitated New Orleanians rallied and stormed the city jail, resulting in the lynching or shooting of 11 Italians, most of whom hadn’t yet been tried. Their bodies were left on grisly display for the gawking hordes.

The riot tour: protests of police (in)action. On to gay riots, in particular the White Night riots of 1979. From Wikipedia:

The White Night riots were a series of violent events sparked by an announcement of the lenient sentencing of Dan White, for the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and of Harvey Milk, a member of the city’s Board of Supervisors who was the first openly gay elected official in the United States. The events took place on the night of May 21, 1979 (the night before what would have been Milk’s 49th birthday) in San Francisco. Earlier that day, White had been convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the lightest possible conviction for his actions. [White’s lawyers successfully presented the famous “Twinkie defense”: from Wikipedia: “White’s defense was that he suffered diminished capacity as a result of his depression. His change in diet from healthy food to Twinkies and other sugary food was said to be a symptom of depression. Contrary to common belief, White’s attorneys did not argue that the Twinkies were the cause of White’s actions, but that their consumption was symptomatic of his underlying depression.” His lawyers did not present a “gay panic” defense, but it was often suggested that this was the source of his depression.] That White was not convicted of first-degree murder (of which he was originally charged) had so outraged the city’s gay community that it set off the most violent reaction by gays since the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City [which started with a protest against police actions, namely raids on gay bars] (which is credited as the beginning of the modern gay-rights movement in the United States).

The gay community of San Francisco had a longstanding conflict with the San Francisco Police Department. White’s status as a former police officer intensified the community’s anger at the SFPD. Initial demonstrations took place as a peaceful march through the Castro district of San Francisco. After the crowd arrived at the San Francisco City Hall, violence began. The events caused hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of property damage to City Hall and the surrounding area, as well as injuries to police officers and rioters.

Several hours after the riot had been broken up, police made a retaliatory raid on a gay bar in San Francisco’s Castro District. Many patrons were beaten by police in riot gear. Two dozen arrests were made during the course of the raid, and several people later sued the SFPD.

The theme for protest riots comes from Peter Finch’s character Howard Beale in the film Network:

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

The riot tour: police riots. Note the police retaliation for the White Night riots: in effect, a riot of their own. Now we are in the world of police riots. From Wikipedia:

A police riot is a riot carried out by the police; a riot that the police are responsible for instigating, escalating or sustaining as a violent confrontation; an event characterised by widespread police brutality; a mass police action that is violently undertaken against members of the public for the purpose of political repression. The term “police riot” was popularized after its use in the Walker Report, which investigated the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to describe the “unrestrained and indiscriminate” violence that the police “inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat.” In this sense a police riot refers to rioting carried out by the police (or those acting in a police capacity) rather than a riot carried out by people who may be motivated to a greater or lesser degree by grievances with the police (see the 1981 Toxteth riots [in inner-city Liverpool] or the 1992 Los Angeles Riots for examples of riots over policing rather than police riots).

Riot tour: celebratory riots. From a site on college riots:

Over the past few decades, the three things that have been typically associated with the outbreak of a riot in the U.S. are race, war, and sporting events (celebratory riots). With all of the political opinions and team spirit prevalent on a college campus, it’s easy to see why so many riots do take place on or near college grounds.

Ohio State (where I taught from 1969-95 and where I still hold an emeritus appointment) has had its share of campus riots, in particular one that began as a protest (in April 1970) against the Vietnam War, was exacerbated by the Kent State shootings on May 4, and then was elevated (by actions of the governor) into a civil conflict. And then a series of notable celebratory campus riots in 2001-3:

April 2001: the first Chittfest block party riot, which began with house parties on and near Chittenden St., north of the campus

April 2002: the second Chittfest block party riot

November 2002: riot following the Ohio State-Michigan football game

November 2003: riot following the Ohio State-Michigan football game

On the 11/23/03 riot, from a site on campus disturbances:

Fans celebrated Ohio State’s 14-9 win [over Michigan] first by rushing the field, then pouring into the streets. Windshields were smashed, cars were rolled over, and fires were started [on] many a corner. The night in Columbus was especially tragic for local couches, many of which were reduced to ash. In all, a crowd of 5,000 started 107 fires and destroyed 20 cars, leading to 70 arrests.

From a site on celebratory disturbances, focusing on this 2003 riot and summarizing research up to that time:

Sometimes, but not always, associated with sporting events.

Typically occur very late at night and extend into the early morning hours.

Almost always associated with high volume alcohol consumption.

Involve fire setting as a common practice along with destruction of public and private property, such as overturning and burning cars.

Involve active participants who are nearly all white, young adult males with a large crowd of onlookers who are predominately white, young adults of both sexes. Many are students of the “host” institutions, but other young adults who are not students are often involved. (Of the students arrested in Ohio State’s 2003 post Michigan game disturbances, all were male, 70 percent were first- or second-year students, and were not intoxicated, according to self report and police report. (Ohio Report, 2003, p. 23))

Involve eventual police intervention that is met with considerable resistance and lack of respect for authority. (Ohio Report, 2003, p. 7)

Incidents of celebratory disturbances (vs. disturbances associated with protests) have risen sharply in the last two decades. Crowd size and the level of destruction also are growing rapidly. Ohio State has experienced 19 riots or disturbances since 1996, including a riot involving up to 6,000 people Nov. 23-24, 2002 [that would be aftermath of the OSU-Michigan game, listed above]. (Ohio Report, 2003, p. 6, 21-26)

Further observations from 2003:

Students increasingly view celebratory riots as “tradition”

At Ohio State, students frequently talk about riots now being a “tradition,” both as part of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and springtime parties in off-campus neighborhoods. (Ohio Report, 2003, p. 28)

Ohio State student rioters held belief that victory “earned us the right to riot.” (Ohio Report, 2003, p. 6, 21-26)

“For many fans, it has become tradition to exhibit poor sportsmanship. Fans sometimes interpret spectator aggression, when repeatedly shown on television or learned from parents or peers, as approval. In a broader sense, sport is just a microcosm of greater society’s developing culture of violence.” (NCAA Report, 2003, p. 4) 

[NCAA Summit on Sportsmanship and Fan Behavior]

Ohio State President [Karen] Holbrook said that before the Michigan game when she urged students to “think, use moderation and show respect,” her office was flooded with e-mails criticizing the suggestion. “They thought I was attacking or trying to take away the very essence of Ohio State football,” she said. (The NCAA News, March 3, 2003)

Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman urged that letters be sent to all Ohio State students’ parents asking that they tell their kids to act responsibly before, during and after the Michigan game. “I received written responses saying, ‘What do you mean telling us not to let our children behave this way?’ ” Coleman said. (The NCAA News, March 3, 2003)

Murray State Professor Dan Wann, an expert in crowd psychology, told his students in his sports psychology class about the [NCAA] summit. They were shocked. “They said to me, ‘That’s what we do – we tear down the goal posts. What do you mean we’re not supposed to do that?’ “Wann said. “If you want to effect change, you’re going to have to change their viewpoint on what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

The university has had some success in moderating these views and reducing the level of celebratory rioting.

But goodness knows I remember well those years in Columbus, when a sensible person stayed far away from the campus area after a home football game.

(Celebratory riots occurred at other universities (Michigan State and Penn State, for example) after football games with Ohio State on those campuses.)

2 Responses to “Rioting”

  1. Ellen Seebacher Says:

    I am really interested by the coinage (in one of the Wikipedia articles you quote) of “darkmotif” — based on somebody’s misinterpretation of “leitmotiv,” German for ‘leading motive’.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I caught that too, but didn’t want to move too far from the main point. I don’t see other uses parallel to Curtis’s, though I haven’t done a very exhaustive search.

      On a related side issue, I think Curtis could have used some copyediting help with this review.

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