America’s Protest and Riot History

(content significantly edited because I accidentally hit post before I was done).

This is by no means remotely intended to be anything like comprehensive.  I basically just skipped around, going first by memory, and then I found a useful list and skimmed through it, just touching on whatever caught my eye.  The reasons why something may or may not have caught my attention are mostly purely arbitrary- I’ve been there, I remembered hearing about it, I didn’t remember hearing about it and was surprised, I liked the sound of the name (hardhat riot?  Disco demolition?), it just interested me for no reason I can pinpoint.  So if something isn’t mentioned here and you think it should be, tell me about it in the comments!

On a number of websites where I read about Ferguson, in the comments section somebody will inevitably descend to calling the protesters and the looters in Ferguson ‘animals.’ and will claim that only blacks riot like this, and thus the police response is totally called for.  It always makes me a little sick inside.  More than once somebody has even challenged other readers to just try to come up with one other protest where the protesters were primarily white and there was resulting violence, destruction, or looting.  This always frustrates me- I generally can’t register to comment on those sites (they usually use Disqus, which hates me), but seriously- these people have a memory about two minutes long, and a knowledge of history that doesn’t extend much further than last week.

Wapo put together a photo slide show of famous protests, riots, marches.  I don’t even think they chose the most significant ones.  I went on a search, first looking by memory, things I’ve read, stories I’ve heard (pops may have been a psychopath, and he was, but he was also a commy pinko with labor sympathies and a real knack for history), places I’ve visited.  Then I found this treasure trove listing.

I didn’t notice the Chicago ’68 protests at Wapo’s listing.

These are just screen shots of images from the 1968 Chicago protests. Click to enlarge:

chicago 4

chicago 68 3

chicago 68 2 chicago 68

Looking at them, I wondered what made this a protest, and Ferguson a ‘riot.’ I know conservatives and libertarians don’t like to admit it, but racism still is a factor. Of course, I also know that sometimes we won’t ‘admit’ it because it’s a counterfeit card that gets played far too often and it’s a false charge.  Nevertheless, Chicago, ’68 looks like a riot to me.

Of course, in the sixties we also had protests over the VietNam War, protests for the Civil Rights movements, protests and riots in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the first half of the 20th century we had numerous race riots as well as labour protests with often violent clashes between unions and police and national guard units.

In the post-civil war era, we also had race riots, suffragette marches and protests, clashes between protestants and Catholics, between the new immigrant groups (mostly Irish and German) and those who had been here longer.

Pre-Civil war, there were protests and riots over slavery, anti-abolitionist riots, over the Fugitive Slave Law, and, again, with the Irish Catholics and the Protestants.

America has a long history with protests and riots, and the lines are generally blurred about which is which.   And it seems to me the peaceful ones are the anomaly.

There was the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914. Miners protesting unsafe working conditions the constriction of Company Towns, and low pay were set upon by state militia, several were shot. The camp was set on fire. 11 children and two women who had taken refuge in a cellar dug beneath their tent suffocated to death- two women survived to tell the tale.  There was spin then, too. (We visited the site many years ago, at the time a sadly neglected and unprotected site- we were even able to go down into the cellar)

Most of the rest of the information below is culled from Wikipedia:


In 1834 there were riots in New York city, largely whites and Irish immigrants targeting blacks and abolitionists.  Several homes and churches were destroyed.  The mobs were provoked by a series of lies and libels about abolitionists deliberately printed in a paper whose owner wanted all blacks deported to Africa.

I’d never heard of this one (or don’t remember it): “The Baltimore bank riot of 1835 was a violent reaction to the failure of the Bank of Maryland in 1834. The riot, which lasted from 6–9 August, was aimed at the homes and property of a number of former directors of the bank, who had been accused of financial misconduct and fraud. The Baltimore bank riot was one of the most violent and destructive events in any American city prior to the Civil War. Rioters destroyed many of the homes of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens, and much valuable property was smashed or burned. The authorities were unable to control the violence and effectively surrendered the city to the mob, which was actively or passively supported by numerous bystanders.”

The leaders were jailed and the property owners sued the state of Maryland and won.

In 1844 there were riots and protests in Pennsylvania– rumours spread that Catholics were trying to remove Bible reading from public schools, Irish immigrants attacked a ‘nativist’ (anti-Irish immigration) meeting, nativists retaliated, things escalated. People died. Property was destroyed.

The Squatter’s riot in 1850 took place in Sacramento– it involved land speculation, ownership, old land grants, and squatters who wanted to keep the land.  In the end there were several misunderstandings and broken promises which led to an altercation between the two groups, injuries, and deaths.  The squatters lost in court, but they did manage to get their leader, arrested and charged with murder, elected to the state legislature while he was still in prison.  Later he was the first governor of Kansas.

1855, Louisville, Kentucky, Bloody Monday:

The Know-Nothings formed armed groups to guard the polls on election day, but the riots took place after the polls closed as the armed groups moved into Catholic neighborhoods. Germans (primarily Catholics) were also caught up. By the time it was over, more than 100 businesses, private homes and tenements had been vandalized, looted and/or burned, including a block long row of houses known as Quinn’s Row. Historians estimate the death toll at 19-22,[5] while Catholics including Bishop Martin John Spalding of Louisville, said the death toll at well over 100 with entire families consumed in the fires.

Citizens were dragged from their homes and attacked on the streets and in their place of work. Weapons, arms and later bodies of the dead, were stored in Louisville Metro Hall (the old Jefferson County Courthouse, now the Mayor’s Office), a Know-Nothing stronghold at the time. Sporadic violence and attacks had occurred in the year and months leading up to August 6, continuing for some time afterward.[6]

Only by Louisville Mayor John Barbee‘s intervention, despite being a Know-Nothing, were the bloodshed and the property destruction brought to an end, including his personal intervention that saved two Catholic churches: the new German parish of St. Martin of Tours and the Cathedral of the Assumption from destruction by the mob.

In 1857, New York City’s Mayor Wood was known for the police corruption under his watch.  Statue legislature replaced him and his police force and ordered him to step aside and deliver police assets to the new police force.  He refused.  15 captains and some 800 patrolmen supported him, and this resulted in:

The New York City Police Riot of 1857, known at the time as the Great Police Riot, was a conflict which occurred between the recently dissolved New York Municipal Police and the newly formed Metropolitan Police on June 16, 1857. Arising over Mayor Fernando Wood‘s appointment of Charles Devlin over Daniel Conover for the position of city street commissioner, amid rumors that Devlin purchased the office for $50,000 from Wood himself, Municipal police battled Metropolitan officers attempting to arrest Mayor Wood.

Washington Riot:

On June 1, 1857, a band of American Party rowdies traveled by train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. to assist local party members in controlling the polls at a municipal election. The band included members of the Plug Uglies, Rip Raps, and Shiffler Fire Company from Philadelphia. After word of their arrival spread and rioting began at several polls, President James Buchanan called out United States Marines from the Navy Yard to quell the fighting. At one of the polls, the Marines clashed with citizens, most of them Washingtonians. They opened fire, killing ten men, only one from Baltimore. The violence drew sharp condemnation of Buchanan’s resort to military force, but resulted in no significant criminal prosecutions.

The Lager Beer Riot:

The Lager Beer Riot occurred in Chicago, Illinois in 1855 after Mayor Levi Boone, great-nephew of Daniel Boone, renewed enforcement of an old local ordinance mandating that taverns be closed on Sundays and led the city council to raise the cost of a liquor license from $50 per year to $300 per year, renewable quarterly.[1] This move was seen as targeting German immigrants. On April 21, after several tavern owners were arrested for selling beer on Sunday, protesters clashed with police near the Cook County Court House. Waves of angry immigrants stormed the downtown area and the mayor ordered the swing bridges opened to stop further waves of protestors from crossing the river. This left some trapped on the bridges, police then fired shots at protesters stuck on the Clark Street Bridge over the Chicago River.[2] A policeman named George W. Hunt was shot in the arm by a rioter named Peter Martin. Martin was killed by police, and Hunt’s arm had to be amputated.


In the 1920s there were the Tulsa Race riots– whites attacked black communities and burned them to the ground.  It’s a sickening thing to read about- and it wasn’t an isolated event.

In 1937 in Chicago:,

‘On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs.’

In 1938 there was the Hilo Massacre in Hawaii.

The Hilo Massacre, also known as Bloody Monday,[1] was an incident that occurred on 1 August 1938, in Hilo, Hawaii, when over 70 police officers attempted to disband 200 unarmed protesters during a strike, injuring 50 of the demonstrators. In their attempts to disband the crowd, officers tear gassed, hosed and finally fired their riot guns, leading to 50 injuries, but no deaths.

I’m not sure why it’s called a massacre when there were no deaths.  The police officer in charge had the men exchange their ammunition for birdshot in an effort to avoid any fatalities, but some either did not hear or didn’t comply, and still there were no fatalities.

This one’s a little hard to believe, but it’s a great illustration of the shifting values of a nation- in the 1940s there were nylon riots because of a shortage of nylon stockings- panty-hose.  In Pittsburg 40,000 women actually stood in line for hours trying to get in a department store to buy a limited supply of nylons.  Fights broke out, police had to break them up.  There were riots and demonstrations and accusations that the owner of the patent (DuPont) was stocking up on them to keep the prices artificially inflated. I couldn’t tell what sort of injuries, if any, there were. I’d pull somebody’s hair in order NOT to have to wear panty-hose, so it’s hard to imagine a culture where the opposite is true.

Less amusing are the Peeksill Riots in New York, protesting communist singer Paul Robeson- he was an avowed communist or at least a supporter of known communists and it was the Cold War era, but the Associated Press certainly fanned the flames:

…he had appeared at the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Conference in Paris. Referring to the growing tensions between the USA and the USSR, he stated:

We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong…We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People’s Republics.[5][6]

What came over the wires to news agencies via the AP in the United States was as follows,

We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the United States and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the United States government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels…. It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.[7]

Research by historians would later show through time records that the AP had put the dispatch on the wires as Robeson was starting his speech.

During those riots:

The first black combat pilot and decorated World War I veteran, Eugene Bullard was knocked to the ground and beaten by the mob, which included white members of state and local law enforcement. The beating was captured on film and can be seen in the 1970s documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest and the Oscar winning Sidney Poitier narrated documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist. Despite recorded evidence of the beating, no one was ever prosecuted for the assault.


Following the Peekskill Riots, Democratic House Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi condemned Robeson on the house floor. When Republican New York Congressman Jacob Javits spoke to the United States House of Representatives, deploring the Peekskill riots as a violation of constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and free assembly,[25] Rankin replied angrily. “It was not surprising to hear the gentlemen from New York defend the Communist enclave,” Rankin bellowed, saying that he wanted it known that the American people are not in sympathy “with that N***** Communist and that bunch of Reds who went up there.”

In Chicago there was also the Days of Rage:

The Days of Rage demonstrations were a series of direct actions taken over a course of three days in October 1969 in Chicago, and organized by the Weatherman faction of the counterculture-era groupStudents for a Democratic Society.

The group planned the October 8–11 event as a “National Action” built around John Jacobs’ slogan, “bring the war home”. The National Action grew out of a resolution drafted by Jacobs and introduced at the October 1968 SDS National Council meeting in Boulder, Colorado. The resolution, which read “The Elections Don’t Mean Shit—Vote Where the Power Is—Our Power Is In The Street”, was adopted by the council; it had been prompted by the success of the Democratic National Convention protests in August 1968 and reflected Jacobs’ strong advocacy of direct action as political strategy. Such direct actions included vandalizing homes, businesses, and automobiles as well as assaulting police officers. Dozens were injured, and more than 280 members of the Weather Underground were arrested.

[…]John Jacobs, Jeff Jones, David Gilbert and others led a charge south through the city toward the Drake Hotel and the exceptionally affluent Gold Coast neighborhood, smashing windows in automobiles and buildings as they went. The protesters attacked “ordinary cars, a barber shop…and the windows of lower-middle-class homes” as well as police cars and luxury businesses. The mass of the crowd ran about four blocks before encountering police barricades.

Even the Black Panthers disavowed their tactics and disassociated from the Weatherman and SDS.  Weatherman members (mostly white) also smashed windows in cars and stores on Chicago’s Loop.

In 1970, of course, there was Kent State, where four students were shot and killed by the national guard, shocking the nation (although it appears that police had been killing unarmed protestors for decades without getting much attention- maybe because this time the victims were college students from upper middle class families?  More likely because of television, though).

In the aftermath, a group of students in New York gathered to mourn the Kent State dead and express solidarity with their goals.  About 200 unionize construction workers opposed them, and chased down students to beat them with their hard hats, earning it the name of The Hard Hat Riot:

The workers chose those with the longest hair and beat them with their hard hats and otherwise.Attorneys, bankers and investment analysts from nearby Wall Street investment firms tried to protect many of the students but were themselves attacked. Onlookers reported that the police stood by and did nothing.

Construction workers converged on a nearby university building and smashed windows and beat several students, using clubs and crowbars this time.

The Memorial Park riots lasted over about 3 days in the 70s, in Michigan over the police closing a park the local counter culture had largely taken over- hippies, IOW, pretty much all white kids of fairly progressive parents, based on the news paper articles I read. Hundreds of kids (many under 16, based on arrest reports) rioted, throwing rocks and bottles, blocking traffic on a busy road by rolling tires into the road.  There were several injuries, none major.  500 kids were arrested.

In Chicago there was Disco Demolition Night, a gimmicky promotion to boost attendance at a White Sox game at Comiskey park, resulting in a destroyed batting cage, stolen bases (literally), and bats, and the destruction of the playing field as well.  During the first baseball game, attendees through disco records onto the field.  The second game had to be forfeited because the field was in no condition to play.  Property damage was significant, injuries were n0t- maybe as many as 30. Chicago police in riot gear came in to disperse the rampaging kids- most of them were apparently white teenagers who had been smoking pot.  There have been claims that this was racially motivated, because I guess you only dislike Disco if you hate blacks and gays.

Kansas has had at least two different riots related to football games in the eighties- lots of property damage.

In Huntington Beach there have been at least 3 riots during a surfing event- lots of property damage, police in riot gear and tear gas.  It’s interesting that the articles I read did not mention looting, but shop windows were smashed and at least one of the photographs clearly shows somebody helping himself to a bike from the shop.   That’s, um, just last year, btw.

In 1988 in New York’s Tompkin Square Park there was a riot over the gentrification efforts by those who lived or worked around the park. Some of the park users objected to being gentrified. Pushers, homeless people, and young people used the park. Neighbors around them wanted the park cleaned up but they didn’t all agree about how to go about it. Police stepped in. But apparently the police response was so brutal, they are largely viewed as having caused the subsequent riot, even by those who inititally welcomed their presence:

Although bottles reportedly flew, it was the police who charged the crowd.[8] Despite NYPD protestations that their actions were measured, “The police panicked and were beating up bystanders who had done nothing wrong and were just observing,” said poet Allen Ginsberg, a local resident and witness.[8] Captain McNamara countered, “We did everything in our power not to provoke an incident. They didn’t charge the crowd until the bricks and bottles started flying.” New York Times photographer Angel Franco saw the police beat a couple who emerged from a grocery store; when he tried to take photographs, an officer clubbed him. A New York Daily News reporter, Natalie Byfield, was also clubbed on the head. Both were wearing cards identifying them as the press.[12] Jeff Dean Kuipers, a reporter for Downtown Magazine, was clubbed after an officer told his African-American companion, Tisha Pryor, to “move along, you black nigger bitch.”[8]
[The police] ran into the crowds with horses. I saw residents pulled off their stoops … They cracked my friend’s head open. It didn’t matter if you were a journalist or a resident or a storekeeper.
— Jeff Dean Kuipers, to the Newsday press[1]
Pryor is in tears, with blood running down her neck, in a videotape made by artist Clayton Patterson.[8] Another video made by freelance cameraman Paul Garrin shows officers swinging clubs at him and slamming him against a wall. Photographer John McBride, taking still photos of the riot that were to be published in The Village Voice, was also struck by a policeman’s nightstick in the same attack taped by Garrin.[13] Mr. Fish, a travel promoter out for an evening on the town, attempted to hail a taxi on Avenue A near Sixth Street when he was suddenly struck on the head. “I was just standing there watching,” he said. “The next thing that I remember is seeing the stick, and then a young woman who was helping me.” Patterson’s videotape showed that no officers helped Fish until an ambulance arrived. A police helicopter hovered over the scene, contributing to a sense of chaos.

The park users retaliated, and things got even worse.

In 1992, after the Bulls won their first NBA title, rowdy fans caused $10 million in property damage during post-championship festivities. In Philadelphia, ’08, thousands of fans spilled into the streets and smashed windows and overturned cars to celebrate.
Denver, ’98: “After the Denver Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers to win Super Bowl XXXII, 10,000 fans went a little overboard and tears of joy became tear-gas-induced tears when people began flipping cars, looting and destroying the Mile High City. The Broncos’ victory and the following riot were selected as top news stories of 1998 by newspaper and broadcast members of the Associated Press.”
Boston, ’07, fans celebrated by setting people’s cars on fire and throwing bottles at the police.

It’s kind of sad that in the early years most protests and riots were over significant social issues, even if people were wrong, they believed what they were protesting affected their lives, their values, their culture, their homes.  But in the late 20th and early 21st century we seem to riot more often because we’re excited about winning at the Roman circus, I mean, gladitorial, I mean, sporting event.


There are no photographs of it, but there was Shay’s Rebellion:

an armed uprising that took place in central and western Massachusetts in 1786 and 1787. The rebellion was named after Daniel Shays, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and one of the rebel leaders.
The rebellion started on August 29, 1786. It was precipitated by several factors: financial difficulties brought about by a post-war economic depression, a credit squeeze caused by a lack of hard currency, and fiscally harsh government policies instituted in 1785 to solve the state’s debt problems. Protesters, including many war veterans, shut down county courts in the later months of 1786 to stop the judicial hearings for tax and debt collection. The protesters became radicalized against the state government following the arrests of some of their leaders, and began to organize an armed force. A militia raised as a private army defeated a Shaysite (rebel) attempt to seize the federal Springfield Armory in late January 1787, killing four and wounding 20.

There was the Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against excise taxes on distilled spirits:

Throughout counties in Western Pennsylvania, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Resistance came to a climax in July 1794, when a U.S. marshal arrived in western Pennsylvania to serve writs to distillers who had not paid the excise. The alarm was raised, and more than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of tax inspector General John Neville. Washington responded by sending peace commissioners to western Pennsylvania to negotiate with the rebels, while at the same time calling on governors to send a militia force to enforce the tax. With 13,000 militia provided by the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Washington rode at the head of an army to suppress the insurgency. The rebels all went home before the arrival of the army, and there was no confrontation. About 20 men were arrested, but all were later acquitted or pardoned.

The Boston Tea Party itself was a protest with the immediate goal of destroying private property, abeit while making a protext against taxes and regulations geared toward collecting money for the government coffers.

Ferguson may have a connection to petty taxes and fines as well:

What seems clear at this point is that Ferguson – while in some ways a nicer and safer town than some have imagined – does suffer from a unusual degree of antagonism between police and residents, an antagonism that crucially involves race (the town is an extreme outlier in its now-famous extent of black underrepresentation in elected office) and yet has other vital dimensions as well. The town gets nearly a quarter of its municipal revenue from court fees – the figure in some neighboring towns is even higher – and according to the ArchCity Defenders report quoted in Newsweek, Ferguson’s municipal court is among the very worst in the way it adds its own hassle factor to the collection of petty fines.

Click through the link to see how many people in Ferguson have been arrested and compare that to their crime rate- they aren’t being arrested for what most of us consider crimes, but for minor infractions, mostly traffic violations (like jaywalking), and the city officers have a vested interest in protecting this significant source of municipal revenue.  The trouble in Ferguson has been simmering a very long time.  Mike Brown and Officer Wilson are just the unlucky matches set to this powder keg.

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  1. Posted August 21, 2014 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    What I would like to understand is the mechanism or process by which this tragic incident in Ferguson became a national news story. Were there no young people shot by police in other places on that same day or during the intervening time? Were there no young black men shot by other young black men on that same day? If it’s a case of “dog bites man”, where are the other stories of similar events? If it’s a case of “man bites dog”, then this shooting is unusual and we are somehow generalizing and making it into a nation-wide problem.

    I am also unable to understand how looting and rioting, or even peaceful protests, are going to fix the problem of racism in Ferguson. After having arrested the looters or having policed the peaceful protests, are police going to look more favorably on young black men whom they suspect of having committed a crime? Are they going to be less confrontational or less prone to pull a trigger to defend themselves from a perceived threat? I really doubt it.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 21, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Sherry, there is a huge difference between being shot by a criminal and being shot by an agent of the state, surely you see that? And I think what made this a national issue is the police response, which is egregious.
      And I’m shocked that you see no point in even peaceful protests. They worked in the Civil Rights movement. At this point the police have already promised to install dash and vest cams, to review their procedures for hiring, to make several other changes.
      Did you see the video of the officer pointing his weapon at protestors with a camera screaming that he was going to kill them? He’s been relieved of duty.

      The city of Ferguson clearly has several problems of long standing- what would you have the citizens do?

  2. Roxie
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    And the police are more and equipped for war. I agree race is still an issue. I wonder, will I live to see that dissolve? What can happen to get our country off replay?

  3. Posted August 21, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I really am just trying to understand the entire event, and it’s hard to wrap my head around all the different aspects of the story and all the different opinions that are floating about. Yes, I agree that the police have been unnecessarily confrontational and militarized. However, they must be acting out of fear. Perhaps Michael Brown was also acting out of fear? Fear of white policemen?

    My question is: what will deescalate the situation and bring lasting change? I don’t think protests on the street are going do that because the protesters are going to be confused with and perhaps infiltrated by looters and rioters. Perhaps meetings—inside a building– to organize a political response (voting, as you hinted) would be helpful. Help and prayer for Mr. Brown’s family and all of the other families involved seems appropriate. I think local journalists who can and will follow this story as truthfully and fully as possible from beginning to end would be performing a great service to the community. Those are just a few ideas. As I said, I haven’t wrapped my head around all of the facets of the ongoing story, nor do I know all of the details.

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted August 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      There’s definitely a lot going on, and many, many issues.

      I find it interesting that of the 168 people arrested, only 7 have Ferguson addresses. And only around 20 or so were arrested for looting. The others were arrested for failure to disperse- and we know that included reporters and people sitting on private property.

      I’m not sure why you’re willing to assume the police ‘must’ be acting out of fear, when they act this way across the nation, and write articles essentially claiming that the public owes them deference or they deserve the beating they’re going to get.

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