In a September 27, 1966 interview with CBS’ Mike Wallace, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked about the “increasingly vocal minority” who disagreed with his non-violence tactics. Dr. King acknowledged indeed, there were some who did not agree with him.
Dr. King went on to say, “and I contend that the cry of black power is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”
The first recorded riot in this country was waged by white colonists and a run-a-way slave. On March 5, 1770, in Boston, Massachusetts, a street brawl between British soldiers and American colonists occurred. Crispus Attucks, a Black man, was the first of five men killed by the soldiers, in what is known as the Boston Massacre. These killings helped fuel the anger against Britain’s rule and was the catalyst to the American Revolution.
On March 19, 1935, the Harlem riot was sparked by rumors that a Black Puerto Rican teenager, was caught shoplifting a 10-cent pen knife at a five and dime store, and that he had been beaten by its employees. When the police refused to prove that the teenager was ok, a crowd of over 400 gathered. As the sun set, the crowd began breaking out store windows and looting. By the next day, three African Americans were dead, sixty were injured, and there was $200 million in property damages.
A second riot occurred in Harlem on August 1, 1943, set off when a white police officer shot and wounded a Black soldier. It ended with five deaths, hundreds injured, 400 arrests, and damages estimated at $5 million.
Harlem’s third race riot in 1964 lasted 6-days after a white off-duty police officer shot and killed 15-year-old James Powell. In the end, one Black resident was killed, over 100 injured, 450 arrested, and property damages of a million dollars.
The Watts Rebellion took place in Los Angeles, California from August 11 to August 16, 1965, after Highway Patrolman, Lee Minikus attempted to arrest Marquette Frye for suspicion of driving drunk. Marquette panicked as he was being arrested. His brother and mother tried to intervene, and all three Frye’s were arrested. A crowd gathered and attempted to free them. The highway patrol used their batons and shotguns to keep the crowd back from the police car.
LA Police Commissioner fanned the flames by calling the rioters monkeys in a zoo. The rebellion lasted six-days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, the arrest of 34,000 people, destruction of 1,000 buildings, and $40 million in damages.
The Newark NJ 1967 riot was sparked by a display of police brutality. John Smith, an African American cab driver, was arrested for driving around a police car and for double-parking. A witness, who saw Smith’s arrest, called members of the Congress of Racial Equality. These civil rights leaders were given permission to see Smith in his holding cell and noticed injuries inflicted by the police.
As reports of Smith’s arrest circulated, angry residents gathered in front of the police precinct. Objects were thrown at the precinct windows, and around midnight Molotov Cocktails were thrown at the precinct, and a group began to loot stores.
Police officers were given clearance to use firearms to defend themselves. A looter was shot while trying to flee from two police officers. In the end, 26 people, mostly African Americans, were reported killed, 750 injured, and over 1,000 arrested, with property damages over $10 million.
The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked riots in 100 cities in the US and left more than 50 people dead. That same year, President Lyndon B. Johnson received a report from the Kerner Commission, that he established, to identify the causes of the violent riots that had occurred throughout the 1960s, with recommended remedies.
Many blamed the riots on outside agitators or on young Black men in the various communities. However, the Kerner Commission unequivocal assertion was that white racism, not black rage as the root of all of the riots. President Johnson was blindsided by the report. He was expecting it to support his belief that Communist agitators were responsible for the riots.
The report condemned the common practice of sending armed police officers with deadly weapons into heavily populated urban neighborhoods. It identified bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, high unemployment, inadequate housing, voter suppression, and other cultural embedded biases as the root of the violent unrest. The report proposed aggressive government spending to provide equal opportunities to African Americans.
Fifty-three percent of white citizens condemned the claim that racism was the cause of riots, while 58% of Black citizens agreed with the report. The white backlash to the report was the catalyst that ushered in Richard Nixon and his law-and-order platform. Instead of dealing with the reality of racism in the country, the Nixon Administration began arming police officers like soldiers. Crackdown on crime in inner cities became the cry of the day. The Kerner Commission report was shelved.
According to William Pretzer, Senior Curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum, the presidential appointed Kerner Commission reported, “white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Pretzer went on to say that riots are commonly sparked by repressive and violent police actions; that urban uprisings were political acts of self-defense and racial liberation on a mass, public scale. He also stated that it was white southerner’s that set the precedent for rioting when they viciously attacked Freedom Riders and other civil rights protestors.
After the 2014 Ferguson, MO riot, following the police killing of Michael Brown, the Obama Administration began conducting investigations into police brutality. Using a statute, in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, called Consent Decrees, Obama’s Justice Department used this as a means to hold state and local law enforcement authorities accountable for various civil rights violations.
Fourteen Consent Decrees were enforced upon troubled police departments, like Ferguson, MO where Michael Brown was killed, running away from a police officer; and Cleveland, OH where a police officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun in the park; and Baltimore, MD where Freddie Gray died after being handcuffed and put in leg irons in the back of a police van, and not restrained by a seat belt. Gray suffered damage to his spinal cord and died a week later from his injuries.
Trump Administration’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, scrapped the use of Consent Decrees. According to Sessions, “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.”
In 2015 the Washington Post began to track fatal shootings by on-duty police officers in the United States. These statistics were under-reported because police departments were not required to report them. Since the Post began to track police killings, around 1,000 people annually are killed by police. Police officers are not charged in 99% of the cases, and victims of police killings are disproportionately Black.
On May 25, 2020, the world witnessed the callous act of murder of George Floyd. We saw his cry for mercy over eight minutes and 46 seconds. In the aftermath, people of all ages, all races, all genders, took to the streets around the world, proclaiming Black Lives Matter, and unwilling to continue turning a blind eye to the systemic racist policies of the United States. In spite of a world pandemic, these protests continue daily across the globe, demanding to be heard.
Here we are, still dealing with the same effects of systemic racism and a country on the edge. Our elected leaders didn’t hear the Kerner Commission, they didn’t hear Martin, they didn’t hear the protestors of the past … Can You Hear Us Now?