The Riots

Actually, given what’s going on in Baltimore right now – and the narratives it’s being fit into in a lot of places – I think I’ll republish an excerpt of a post I wrote back in 2013, before I really had any readers. I wouldn’t necessarily write this exactly the same way today, but I stand by the general idea.


All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.

During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”

This post was originally supposed to be pegged to the Detroit bankruptcy postmortems, but I’ve been busy, and in any case the phenomenon at hand is hardly that specific.

The following weekend, one hundred and fifty white teens armed with metal rods and bottles rampaged through the park, injuring thirty black picnickers. “Hoodlums” broke the windows of more than twenty-five cars…. Officers refused to escort victims into the park to retrieve their belongings, left several black women and children stranded in a park building as the mob attacked, and again rebuked the picnickers for using the “wrong park.”

But that was a particularly stark moment, since it called on all sorts of people to recount a narrative of northern urban decline. And pretty much every single one I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over two and a half million hits on Google.

This sounds familiar, if you’re a Chicagoan. Chicago Magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of the bankruptcy entitled “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,”‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”

The 1971 school year opened with the bombing of ten Pontiac[, Michigan] school buses, followed by mass protests…. [White] antibusing activists…vandalized school buses, puncturing radiators with sharpened broomsticks, breaking windows with stones and bricks, and forcing the district to create a high-security parking lot, complete with a bulletproof watchtower. Sweet Land of Liberty, Thomas Sugrue

This is something like a Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods – their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there – was the catalytic event that actually delivered chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettoes like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. The things I couldn’t explain from the other side of my train window – those are the “scars” (as the preferred metaphor goes) of the riots.

Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter] It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”

Ira Glass On a Catholic church?

Monroe Anderson Yes.

This American Life, Harold, describing events at a campaign stop by Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.

To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in LA), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people, who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:

Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.

Or this:

A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.

Or this:

In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.

Or this:

A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.

Or this:

When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.

Or this:

From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.

But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.

And more than that, the white riots – the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings – deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.

Without this context – without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs – none of what we see in the ghetto makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”

We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettoes.

But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.

With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s – years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots – Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.

The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.

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6 thoughts on “The Riots

  1. Comment on “The Riots”: Compare Baltimore to recent events in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and the suburbs of Paris: When you have 30-50% unemployment amount males 16-35, what happens – civil disorder, riots, etc.. We all know that there has been a significant cutback in low wage jobs over the last 25 years, and those jobs are not coming back. As millions escape poverty in China, India, Viet Nam, etc., millions of others head into poverty in the West or Middle East.

  2. The social forgetting of turn-of-the-century violence in the US is about a lot of things. I doubt that “let’s not talk about white violence ever” is a significant part of it (after all, people in the US do talk about the KKK and lynchings, and gay rights activists know of Stonewall). Rather, the entire attitude toward the history of white ethnogenesis is schizophrenic. On the one hand, there’s the No Irish Need Apply myth. On the other hand, there’s no attention paid at all to radicalism among immigrants, unless you count the “look at us, we’ve totally always been progressive” triumphalism of Jewish press organs (hi, Tablet). I imagine you know all of the following, but those are still not common knowledge in the US even among educated people:

    – Many immigrants only came to the US temporarily – something like a third of Italians went back after 5 years if memory serves.
    – First-generation immigrants did not usually learn English, and lived in ethnic enclaves with their own newspapers, businesses, social networks, and criminal organizations.
    – Socialism and anarchism were especially common among immigrants, to the point that the WASP mainstream identified immigration with trouble; the creation of modern suburbia was all about turning the ethnics into real Americans.
    – Conversely, the mainline union movement was uniformly behind immigration restrictions, viewing immigrants as reducing wages. This made me cringe.

    And that’s just turn-of-the-century immigration; the issues surrounding German immigration in the 19th century are even more obscure. Until a few days ago I had no idea that even buying bread at a bakery was in part a German innovation, since rural Anglo-Americans made theirs at home.

    I think it really boils down to a dual national forgetting: the forgetting of socialist agitation before the New Deal tamed socialism, and the forgetting of the process by which the US turned from an Anglo-Protestant nation to a white nation. The former really isn’t about race. The latter is, tangentially, but the anti-blackness there is more in the rewriting of history as “Irish-Americans came in and were really discriminated against and worked hard and assimilated” than in the part about the riots.

    1. This isn’t turn-of-the-century stuff, though – almost all of those excerpts are about things that happened between the end of World War Two and the early 1960s.

      I think the function of the stories we tell about KKK violence, or Southern violence, in many ways, is to act like a sponge and sop up all the other incidences of anti-black violence, cleansing people who weren’t donning a pointy white hat, or showing up to throw rocks at a 10th grader attending the “wrong” school. As far as urban anti-black violence in the North is concerned, there has been an almost total erasure.

      1. Agree with this. The traditional teaching of history (at least at a public, nearly all white, suburban school district in metro Detroit) broadly paints Southerners as racist slave owners and Northerners as saintly abolitionists.

        As I get older I realize more and more how false this characterization was.

    2. It’s much more simple than Alon proposes although the Germans may play a role just not for their commercialization of bread. But I’ll take mein with a big old bratwurst and sauerkraut.

      It’s just a case of people not wanting to delve into the real causes for these messes and the reasons they exist.

      Many people “forget” or the newer generations don’t believe that the Illinois Nazis were a real thing in Marquette Park and not only in Blues Brothers. Their protests were mostly non violent though. Perhaps no black man dared throw a rock into their crowd as happened in MLK’s march.

      Anyone interested look into the movie “Skokie” and the true story behind it. The legal ruling was essentially that the Nazis could not protest in Jewish Skokie but they could in hostile white and racially transitioning Marquette Park. The Jews in Skokie were off limits but blacks in Chicago werent. This largely supported real estate interests. Their slogan of “They will not cross” was referring to western avenue.

      I certainly would have classified those events you highlighted, Daniel, as riotous behavior. One key difference, though, is that those incidences you highlighted were very slight compared to the destruction of parts of the south and west sides during the race riots. So, it actually makes sense that we see and hear about these events more. No white protests have destroyed entire neighborhoods.

      At any rate, these people in Baltimore are mostly stupid young people who have been influenced by continued anti-cop rhetoric. The desire to become a cop innately draws some people to the profession that are prone to “power trips”. Tie that to the ability to enforce the law and problems arise. Some cops are assholes, the vast majority aren’t. No profession is able to weed out all of their assholes. Anti-police demonstrations are also rife with assholes.

      Understanding history is never bad. Anti-cop rallies aren’t exactly rife with people versed in history though. The whole anti-cop thing really has to take a walk.

  3. Excellent point, Daniel. There was a half century of anti-black urban violence that preceded the riots of the ’60s, and it resulted in an astounding loss of life and the destruction of white and black neighborhoods. I can name a few that are mostly unfamiliar to the general public: the Red Summer of 1919 in Chicago, DC, Omaha and other cities; the leveling of the Greenwood neighborhood in Oklahoma City in 1923; the assault and torching of Ossian Sweet’s house in Detroit in 1925; the Detroit race riot of 1943 (not 1967), and the numerous firebombings, cross burnings and other intimidation tactics directed at blacks in the ’50s to keep them out of white neighborhoods.

    If people remembered these events, it could be said that the riots of the ’60s were a response to earlier violence directed at blacks, as well as a reaction to the deteriorating conditions.

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