What is the cause of the frequent urban riots that have plagued American history?
We are entering a new age in America. A New Black Liberation Movement is on the rise in this country. The urban unrest many associated with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement is now returning to America’s urban centers. Black Lives Matter protests are now common events in the daily news cycle, and on occasion these protests can turn violent as was seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and now Milwaukee. Now many Americans have begun to question this new social phenomenon. Some are asking why these riots are returning. What about America has sparked such violence in our urban centers?
To begin to analyze why such explosions of violence are returning, one must see why they existed in the past. Riots have always been unorganized spontaneous insurrections against the political establishment. The urban poor and working class people of the United States have continuously rioted as a desperate effort to fight back at the establishment that failed them. In the Nativist period, immigrant European factory workers would often riot and attack industrialist bosses and racist police forces. Insurrections like these would later be seen during the Civil Rights movement after many African Americans migrated to America’s northern urban centers. African American citizens would riot and attack local businesses and racist police forces. After the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, Latino and African American citizens would still often riot as seen in the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riot and more recently the Ferguson unrest.
What is the common relation between these instances of unrest? Each was an unorganized expression of rage. Working people of the United States have often organized their resistance to their oppression. Strikes, rebellions, occupations, marches, and boycotts, are common methods of organized protest that have frequented American history. However, riots are an expression of unorganized rebellion. These unorganized rebellions are often triggered when a historically oppressed community is overcome with rage, often triggered by a dramatic event. The initiation of a new draft policy pushed the Irish American community of New York over the edge and resulted in the 1863 New York City draft riot. The beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the officers in question would cause the Latino and African American communities of Los Angeles to boil over into the 1992 L.A. riot. These dramatic incidents may have triggered the riots, but disillusionment with the political establishment had already long existed in many of these communities, and these incidents were just straws that broke the camel’s back.
However, the rage in these communities is never organized. No political party, labor union, or other political organization is able to funnel the rage into organized protest. Instead the leaderless protesters end up sparking an unorganized insurrection we label as a “riot”. Without any direction there is chaos, there is no meaningful resistance but only an explosion of violence. Even in cases where an organized force tries to appear it may not successfully channel the militancy of the community. During the Ferguson unrest the organization Black Lives Matter was unable to totally channel the community’s militancy into their program of non-violent protest, instead many decided to bring their violent rage directly to the Ferguson police forces.
Today this cycle of violence continues. Many oppressed communities across the United States remain disillusioned with the current establishment and have no organizations to fully channel their political rage. Organizations like Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero cannot successfully channel the militancy found in the United States into their non-violent organizations. Until this mass political anger is pacified, America will continue to see sudden insurrections in its many urban cities.