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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The killing of an unarmed black man by a white policeman, everyone agrees, triggered last week's riots in Cincinnati. The fourth police slaying of a black Cincinnatian since November, and the 15th since 1995, Timothy Thomas' death uncorked a gusher of pent-up anger toward a police force that black citizens view as racist, tyrannical, and brutal. So striking is the pattern of discriminatory behavior among Cincinnati's men in blue that even Attorney General John Ashcroft, not previously known as a friend to African-Americans, announced that the Justice Department will investigate the city's policing practices.

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Some critics cite "racial profiling" as the cause of the Cincinnati riots, and while that euphemism may be new, police discrimination against blacks long predates it. Indeed, for all the anguished searching for the roots of the Cincinnati riots and those of the numerous disturbances that preceded it last century, there's no great mystery about their cause. Almost invariably, an instance (real or rumored) of police brutality or abuse of power, capping a history of tension with a city's black community, has provoked this country's major riots. Consider:

  • Chicago, 1919. On a hot July afternoon, a black teen-ager named Eugene Williams went swimming in a customarily "white" area of Lake Michigan. Angry white beach-goers pelted him with stones until he drowned. When police refused to apprehend the culprit and instead arrested a black onlooker, blacks, who had long considered the police to be insensitive to their concerns, attacked the officers. Whites retaliated, ushering in four days of brutal violence in which policemen at times abetted the white-on-black assaults.

  • Harlem, 1935. On March 19, department-store employees apprehended a 16-year-old shoplifter and whisked him off to be beaten in the store's basement. An outraged crowd massed on 125th Street, as rumors circulated that that police had broken the arms of a black woman who tried to help the boy—made plausible, again, because of the police's record of hostility to Harlem's blacks. Rioting ensued for the next day, resulting in two deaths.

  • Watts, 1965. On Aug. 11, police stopped motorist Marquette Frye on Avalon Street in the Los Angeles ghetto. Frye resisted arrest, a crowd gathered, and more policemen came. When some of them roughly manhandled Frye's mother, the story took hold that cops had kicked a pregnant woman in the belly, further angering the mob. Violence reigned for four days, with 34 people killed.

  • Detroit, 1967. On July 23, police raided a black drinking and gambling club, arresting some 80 habitués. Hordes of neighborhood blacks massed outside the establishment, first taunting the policemen, then throwing stones. A swarm of police cruisers swooped in but made no serious effort to disperse the crowd. Spontaneous looting and arson followed, and five days later, 43 people lay dead, many killed by police or National Guardsmen.

  • Miami, 1980. On May 17, a Tampa jury acquitted four Miami policemen in the killing of Arthur McDuffie, a black businessman, whom they had beaten to death after chasing his motorcycle—the latest in a series of cases of police brutality. Mayhem followed, with black mobs attacking whites and white policemen retaliating with deadly gunfire. Eighteen people lost their lives.

This list represents just a smattering of the numerous civil disturbances in 20th-century America sparked by friction between policemen and black citizens. It doesn't include the riots in East St. Louis in 1917, Detroit in 1943, Harlem in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992, St. Petersburg in 1996, and the dozens of mid-1960s outbursts around the country. But there, too, cops were a critical catalyst in the riots.

History repeated itself in another way as well: Almost all these disturbances generated an official commission that sought to determine the cause of the violence. These commissions invariably discussed the obvious systemic social problems—the woeful state of urban housing, education, and job opportunities for blacks. But they also routinely cited police actions against African-Americans as a key factor in the uprisings.

After the 1935 Harlem riot, a mayoral commission discovered long-standing discrimination by police against blacks. After Detroit's riots in 1943, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP wrote a report titled "The Gestapo in Detroit" that rebuked the city for failing to face up to its police department's consistently unequal treatment of the races. The so-called Kerner Commission, empanelled by Lyndon Johnson in 1967, is usually remembered for noting the social chasm between black and white Americans; less often recalled is the report's chapter describing "deep hostility between police and ghetto communities as a primary cause of the disorders surveyed by the commission."

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 media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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