George Floyd’s death has triggered angry scenes in many US cities but race riots are almost as old as the United States itself.
by Chris Summers 4 June 2020
Several US cities have been hit by days of demonstrations and occasional rioting by protesters furious at the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who died in Minneapolis on 25 May after a police officer knelt on his neck.
Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and manslaughter after he was caught on video kneeling on Mr Floyd’s neck for nine minutes after arresting him about a forged US$20 bill. Three other officers who were with him have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
Hard Scrabble – 1824
The 19th century is a litany of race riots in the United States, both before and after the Civil War which ostensibly lifted African-Americans out of slavery.
The city of Cincinatti had riots in 1829, 1836 and 1841 when white mobs attacked “free blacks”, who had mostly bought their way out of slavery and moved north looking for work.
But probably the first race riot was in 1824 in Hard Scrabble, a predominantly black neighbourhood in Providence, Rhode Island.
On 18 October a mob attacked homes in Hard Scrabble after a black man had the temerity of refusing to step off the sidewalk into the gutter as a group of white men approached him.
Hundreds of whites – many of them recent immigrants from Germany, England and Ireland – destroyed 20 black homes. One man was convicted of rioting but served only a few weeks in jail.
Jack Johnson Riots – 1910
In 1910 sport was the spark which lit tinderboxes in several US cities.
Jack Johnson had become the first black world heavyweight champion when he defeated Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908 but two years later white Americans hoped he would be dethroned by former champ Jim Jeffries in the “Fight of the Century” in Reno, Nevada.
In July 1910 Johnson completely dominated the ageing Jefferies, finally knocking him out in the 15th round.
As soon as the news reached Chicago, New York, Boston and other cities race riots broke out with angry white mobs turning on African-Americans who had been celebrating Johnson’s victory.
Up to 30 people were killed, with deaths being reported in towns as far away as Omaha, Nebraska and Little Rock, Arkansas.
President William Taft – who had turned down a request by promoter Tex Rickard to referee the bout – was dismayed by the riots and encouraged Congress to pass laws which made it harder to export footage of boxing matches which might incite racial tensions.
Johnson – who had several white girlfriends – was later convicted on trumped up charges under the Mann Act, went into exile and was forced to defend his title in Europe.
Watts Riots – 1965
The rioting which broke out in the predominantly African-American district of Watts in south central Los Angeles in August 1965 came out of nowhere and was a huge shock to most people in the United States.
The spark was a routine traffic stop – white California Highway Patrol officers pulled over two black stepbrothers, Ronald and Marquette Frye, on a Wednesday evening as they drove their mother’s car.
It was a low-key traffic stop around 7 p.m. on a Wednesday evening that ignited what would become known as the Watts Riots.
Marquette was arrested for driving while intoxicated and began scuffling with the patrolmen.
A crowd gathered and their anger at the heavy-handed treatment of the Frye brothers boiled over. Bottles and stones were thrown at buses and cars and before long the mob was setting buildings on fire.
The riot lasted for six days, led to 34 deaths and 4,000 arrests, and cost US$40 million in property damage.
Eventually the National Guard were called in.
California’s Governor Pat Brown set up the McCone Commission, which investigated the cause of the riots and blamed high unemployment, poor schools and bad living conditions in Watts but largely cleared the police of any blame.
Martin Luther King Riots – 1968
Three years later Martin Luther King Jr, 39, was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee by a white supremacist, James Earl Ray.
The killing of King, who had spent years campaigning for African-Americans’ civil rights to be respected especially in the Deep South, triggered a furious response in black neighbourhoods across the US.
Riots broke out in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington DC and Kansas City and there were 40 deaths and 15,000 arrests.
At one point rioting came within two blocks of the White House.
The city’s mayor imposed a curfew and banned the sale of alcohol and guns but by the time peace had been restored 1,200 buildings had been burned down, at a cost of $27 million.
Rodney King Riots – 1992
Civil rights legislation was finally passed in the late 1960s and the Jim Crow era came to an end, but most US police forces remained predominantly white even in cities which had large African-American populations.
Black people often complained in the 1970s and 1980s of brutality and harassment at the hands of white cops but it remained hidden…until March 1991.
That night a black motorist Rodney King – who had just been paroled from prison – was ordered out of his car after a 110 mile an hour chase through the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles. He was suspected of driving while intoxicated.
Unbeknown to the LAPD officers who forced him to the ground and kicked and beat him with batons for 15 minutes, they were being filmed by a local resident, George Holliday, who heard the commotion.
The video was given to a local TV station and four officers were eventually charged with using excessive force – King had suffered a fractured skull, brain damage and several broken bones.
But when a largely white jury in Ventura County acquitted the men on 29 April 1992 the news met with disbelief and violent anger in Los Angeles.
African-American neighbourhoods like Compton, Watts, Inglewood, Hawthorne and Long Beach erupted and the violence even spread to Hollywood.
The National Guard eventually quelled the violence but only after 63 people had been killed, 12,000 arrested and damage totalling $1 billion caused.
Ferguson, Missouri – 2014
Brutality by white police officers against African-Americans disappeared off the political radar for another 20 years.
But in August 2014 a black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
Brown, 18, was unarmed but was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who suspected him of a robbery at a nearby store.
In November 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in relation to the incident, sparking a new wave of protests in Ferguson, a primarily African-American suburb of St. Louis.
The protests turned into riots but they were tiny compared to the 1992 LA riots, with only 10 people injured and 300 arrested.
The US Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the law enforcement activities of the Ferguson Police Department and they concluded the agency was continuously engaged in discriminatory practices against the community’s African-Americans, while making substantial money from the fines and court charges.