Riot Act
Riot Act
The history behind current events.
April 20 2001 8:30 PM

Riot Act

The last century's racial disturbances have a common cause: police brutality.

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But if the precipitating cause of urban riots is no secret, the explosive reaction of African-Americans to police misbehavior somehow keeps surprising most Americans, or at least most white Americans. Yet these reactions, which typically have followed long-festering grievances against an abusive police force, follow a certain logic.


Unlike a regular violent incident, police brutality embodies a corruption of the law itself. Normally, if people are harmed or if their rights are violated, they seek justice by appealing to the law—the courts, the government, the police. But when the law itself is the culprit, people have no avenue of redress. The courts do not always deliver justice, especially as many African-Americans experience it. (It makes sense, then, that some riots, such as Miami in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1992, occurred not immediately after a case of police brutality but later, after the courts failed to punish the perpetrators.) Perceiving no other recourse, people take to the streets.

It should go without saying (but in case it doesn't, I'll say it) that pinpointing police brutality as the spark behind these conflagrations in no way exculpates the rioters. In all the race riots of the last century, only a handful of opportunistic demagogues have sought to remove blame from the violent and the lawless. On the contrary, public opinion has always leaned heavily the other way: American society is so reflexively deferential to the police that we even now have special laws against killing cops, as if their lives were more valuable than others.

But it takes two sides to have a race riot. Until the spotlight of responsibility for such mayhem is directed at the police as well as at black ghetto-dwellers, the racial uprisings that tour the country every generation will probably not abate. Yet that seems unlikely to happen soon, John Ashcroft's conversion notwithstanding. In 1967, psychologist Kenneth Clark told the Kerner Commission that he had just read a report written after the 1919 Chicago riot. "It is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of '43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot," Clark said. "… The same analysis, the same recommendations, the same inaction." So far, there are few signs the Cincinnati riots will produce more than another report.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, has written for Slate since 1996. He is the author of several books of political history.