Fire and Rage

This Week's Riots Are Part of America's Long History of Racial Rage

The rage across the country over the decision not to indict the officer in Ferguson is real. Unfortunately, it’s also not new.

11.29.14 9:59 PM ET

The clouds of tear gas. Lines of police in full riot gear. The smell of acrid smoke from burning buildings and cars. And a crowd in the throes of deep mourning and rage.

When the announcement came down that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who had shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown, was not going to be indicted on Monday, it sparked protests and looting in Ferguson, Mo., a Saint Louis suburb where the incident happened, and set off a wave of mass demonstrations across the country and even as far away as London.

Sympathetic crowds marched down busy streets in Los Angeles, tied up traffic on trains in Oakland, and crowded a downtown Seattle shopping mall as they chanted, “Hands up. Don’t shoot.” And the Macy’s in Manhattan was a brief flashpoint of activity as protesters demonstrated in front of the store.

“The bottom line is that people were blind angry and enraged,” said Michael T. McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a Saint Louis-based organization that formed after Brown’s death, and executive director of Veterans for Peace. McPhearson, a former U.S. Army captain, had taken part in protests in Ferguson after the announcement was made that a grand jury would not put Wilson on trial for the August killing of Brown, a death that blew off the lid on the simmering racial tensions between the white-dominated police force and a majority black town that felt like it was under siege.

Protesters demonstrate outside of Macy's in Herald Square during the Black Friday shopping day in New York November 28, 2014. More than 200 people angered by a grand jury's decision not to indict a white police officer for killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sought to disrupt Black Friday shopping in New York with a protest in front of Macy's flagship store. Many protesters said they were encouraging a boycott of Black Friday to highlight the purchasing power of black Americans and to draw links between economic inequality and racial inequality.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES) - RTR4G0FD

Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The rage soon spread across the country. Looters and vandals damaged more than a dozen stores and businesses in Oakland, Calif., news reports said. Protesters chained themselves to trains on the BART on Friday, which resulted in a standstill for more than an hour, according to CBS. On Saturday, activists on Twitter were calling for action at local retail stores.

In London earlier this week, more than 1,000 people marched and protested at the U.S. Embassy, according to CNN. A diverse crowd held up signs that read, “Black Lives Matter” and “Am I Next?” They held aloft candles and sang chants. They were not just motivated by the events across the pond, but a few of the protesters were trying to shine a light on police brutality in the United Kingdom, too. Among the protesters were relatives of Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed in 2011 by police and whose death had set off riots across England.

Seattle saw a spate of demonstrations on Black Friday as about 150 to 200 activists sought to disrupt the busiest shopping day of the year by lying on the floor inside Westlake Center in a “die-in” demonstration, which forced the mall to close three hours early, according to The Seattle Times. Protesters also chanted at the tree lighting at the Westlake Center. Five people were arrested in total during the protests. The Black Friday demonstrations were part of a nation wide boycott and mass action to bring awareness to Ferguson. Activists used #BlackoutBlackFriday and #NotOneDime to organize online.

In Manhattan, protesters also targeted Black Friday by marching through Midtown and into Times Square, according to DNAInfo. They blocked traffic on 6th Avenue and chanted in front of Macy’s flagship store at Herald Square with a few even entering the store to the surprise of shoppers and retail workers. Reuters wrote that about 200 had shown up in all in front of the store. Some protesters held up signs and yelled, “Hands up. Don’t shop,” in a twist of the most visible chant used during the Ferguson demonstrations: “Hands up. Don’t shoot.”

Nell Painter, a notable historian on black history and race, said these demonstrations are in a long line of civil unrest that has happened every time an unarmed black person, especially a man, has been gunned down or beaten by police.

“The crucial point is that these kinds of attack have a long history and it keeps happening,” she said.

Painter brought up the infamous case of Rodney King, who was beaten at the hands of Los Angeles Police, and Sean Bell, who was killed in a hail of bullets by New York City police before his wedding in 2006. She also cited Trayvon Martin as similar incident, which sparked protests.

In less recent history, Painter pointed out the Harlem Riots of 1943, when a white police officer shot a black man in the shoulder inside a hotel lobby, according to records from Baruch College in New York City. Over two days in August, rioters and looters rampaged through stores and threw stones. This was similar to the Watts Riots in 1965 in Los Angeles when a struggle involving a drunk black man at a police station caused a week of rioting and looting with 34 people dying, thousands of arrests, and about $40 million in property damage, according to Stanford University.

“You can call them urban uprisings. They inevitably follow police brutality. That’s been constant,” said Painter.

On the flipside, Painter said, many race riots in the earlier parts of the 20th Century before the 1940s were started by whites who attacked black communities. Examples include the Tulsa race riot in 1921 when mobs of white men brutally attacked a black neighborhood, destroyed more than 1,000 homes, and left 100 to 300 people dead, according to the New York Times.

And even earlier, whites in New York City targeted black people, businesses, and organizations sympathetic to them in 1863 when the Union Army started calling up men in a draft for the Civil War, according to the Washington Post.  A notably large Irish contingent took part in the infamous draft riots because they did not want to compete for jobs with blacks. The ensuing riots were estimated to have killed about 500.

In the aftermath of the Ferguson announcement, looters and rioters rampaged through parts of town and left about 15 to 20 buildings damaged by fire and some cars suffering from vandalism in areas near the shooting, said McPhearson.

“I have to put this on the prosecutor’s office,” he said about the long lag time between the news that a grand jury had reached a decision on Monday morning and the evening speech by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. The news should have been handed out during the daytime, McPhearson said, when protests would have been were more peaceful. Instead, crowds were witness to Brown’s mother crying and wailing as she found out at the same time as everybody else did that Wilson would not go to trial, as captured in video.

“There are many things that could have been done in better ways,” said McPhearson. “You have to wonder what he (McCulloch) was thinking.”