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What We Don’t Talk About When We Use the Word ‘Riots’

People tend to dismiss the larger context of the events in Baltimore, just like with Chicago in the 1960s.

A protestor stands before Baltimore police on Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday.   Photo: Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun

I originally wrote the bulk of this post in 2013 after reading a lot of media reports linking the 1967 Detroit riots to that city’s bankruptcy decades later. I was reminded of it while reading reports on the protests in Baltimore yesterday.

Like what’s happening in Baltimore, the violent protests of the 1960s were taken by much of the country as evidence of a kind of national crisis. Like what’s happening in Baltimore, the violent protests of the 1960s took place in a much broader context of violence that was not taken by most of the country—which is to say, white people—as evidence of a national crisis. The truly horrifying thuggery of the present-day Baltimore Police Department never merited wall-to-wall coverage on CNN; likewise, the angry mobs who attacked black neighbors in communities across Chicago, and elsewhere, in the 1960s frequently went unremarked on by contemporary newspapers, let alone history books.

The point is not to justify smashing or burning as a tactic of protest. It is to point out that certain types of violence against Americans—or their property—seem to hold us riveted, and others do not. And that as long as certain kinds of violence against Americans are so boring to so many as to be immediately forgotten, the stories we tell about ourselves and our cities won’t just be incomplete; they will be wrong.

Consider what happened at a 1947 riot against black residents at a Chicago Housing Authority property in Roseland. All blockquotes are from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold Hirsch, except where noted.

During the first two evenings of disorder, crowds ranging from 1,500 to 5,000 persons battled police who frustrated their attempts to enter the project. Mobs broke off their engagements with the police and assaulted cars carrying blacks through the area…. Blacks were hauled of streetcars and beaten. Roaming gangs covered an area…of nearly two miles…. An “incomplete” list…included 35 blacks who were known injured by white gangs, and the Defender reported that at least 100 cars driven by blacks were attacked. Eventually more than 1,000 police were dispatched to the area, and more than 700 remained in the vicinity a full two weeks after the riot had “ended.”

Or what happened later in Calumet Park:

On July 28, 1957, a crowd of 6,000 to 7,000 whites attacked 100 black picnickers who occupied a portion of the park that had previously been “reserved” for whites…. On the first day alone at least forty-seven persons were injured and sixty to seventy cars stoned. Rioters spilled out of the park, attacked police officers attempting arrests, and, eventually, placed the entire area between the nearby Trumbull Park Homes and Calumet Park in turmoil.

When we talk about urban riots, why are we never talking about that?

When Urban Violence Started—and When We Say It Did

When Detroit filed for bankruptcy, many observers attempted to put it in the context of a city in decay. But pretty much every single article I read said something like this, from the Boston Globe: “Detroit’s deterioration, which started in earnest after the 1967 race riots were among the most violent in the country’s history, has accelerated in recent years.” Or this, from NPR: “In the 1950s and ’60s, the car companies started moving factories from the urban core to the suburbs. Many white families followed, but discriminatory practices blocked that option for black families. As a result, Detroit got poorer and blacker, while the suburbs got richer and whiter — especially after the city’s 1967 riots over race and income disparities.” Searching for Detroit AND bankruptcy AND riots gets you over 2.5 million hits on Google.

This sounds familiar if you’re a Chicagoan. This magazine, in fact, published a post in the aftermath of Detroit’s bankruptcy, “How Highways and Riots Shaped Detroit and Chicago,” which declares that the 1968 riots in the latter city “didn’t have the effect of Detroit’s (much deadlier) riots on the whole of the city, but it did permanently damage whole swaths of it while changing the commercial and racial makeup of the city.” It quotes another article: “Marie Bousfield has worked for Chicago’s Planning Department…for 15 years. ‘It’s my view that the riots were the cause of what you call “white flight,"‘ Bousfield told me recently, though she was quick to add that that’s only her personal feeling…. She is certainly not alone in believing that the riots were at least partly responsible. There’s no doubt that there was a dramatic increase in white flight…during the early 70s.”

This is what I call the Big Bang theory of urban violence. There were always problems in American cities, the theory says. There were pressures. The seeds of disaster. But the series of riots of the 1960s, when black people looted and burned entire neighborhoods—their own, but no one at the time could be sure they would stay there—was the catalytic event that actually created chaos and unchecked violence. It was the moment when ghettos like Detroit, or the West Side of Chicago, were born. 

The White Riots

The following is taken from This American Life, describing events at a campaign stop by Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, in 1983.

Monroe Anderson [Tribune reporter]: It was almost a riot. When Harold [Washington] showed up and the press entourage showed up, there was this angry– people were approaching the car. People were out of control. I thought that we were in physical danger. And then we get to the church, and somebody spray-painted, on the church, graffiti that said, “Die, nigger, die.”

Ira Glass: On a Catholic church?

Monroe Anderson: Yes.

To get to the point, this is a theory that is tenable only because we have decided to eliminate all other forms of racialized violence from our collective history. When we talk about “the riots,” context is unnecessary: it is understood that we are talking about blacks, in the 1960s (or, maybe, the early 90s in L.A.), burning and looting the neighborhoods where they lived. As a result, we don’t even have a word for the things that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a word to talk about white mobs burning buildings in Northern cities, or beating or killing innocent people who wanted to move into their neighborhoods. We don’t really have a word for this:

Estimates of the Englewood crowds varied from several hundred at the riot’s inception to as many as 10,000 at its peak. “Strangers” who entered the area to observe the white protestors and innocent passers-by…were brutally beaten.

Or this:

A crowd of 2,000 descended upon the two-flat bought by Roscoe Johnson at 7153 S. St. Lawrence…. They started throwing gasoline-soaked rags stuck in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches.

Or this:

In Calumet Park, as dusk fell on the scene that saw whites attacking cars occupied by blacks, white handkerchiefs appeared on the antennas of cars driven by whites so that, in the diminishing visibility, the rioters would suffer no problems in selecting their targets.

Or this:

A mob of 2,000 to 5,000 angry whites assaulted a large apartment building that housed a single black family in one of its twenty units. The burning and looting of the building’s contents lated several nights until order was finally restored by the presence of some 450 National Guardsmen and 200 Cicero and Cook County sheriff’s police.

Or this:

When a black family moved to suburban Columbus in 1956, whites greeted them with a burning cross and cut telephone wires.

Or this:

From May 1944 through July 1946, forty-six…residences were assaulted [in Chicago] (nine were attacked twice and one home was targeted on five separate occasions)…. Beginning in January 1945 there was at least one attack every month…, and twenty-nine of the of the onslaughts were arson-bombings. At least three persons were killed in the incidents.

But they all happened, and they deserve to exist, at least, in our collective memory.

And more than that, the white riots—the 48-hour flash-bang ones, and the slow-burn, once-a-month terrorist bombings—deserve to have as prominent a place in the narrative of northern urban decline as the black riots currently enjoy. Not to make white people wallow in guilt, or even to “blame” them (although those who participated, many of whom are still alive, probably should feel pretty bad about it, if they don’t already), but because any discussion of “what went wrong” that doesn’t mention white violence is just woefully incomplete, and yet that is pretty much the only discussion that we have. It’s like analyzing the causes of World War Two without having heard of the Treaty of Versailles.

Without this context—without the knowledge that the advent of black people to previously all-white urban neighborhoods caused a total breakdown of public safety pretty much immediately as a result of these white mobs—none of what we see in the ghetto makes sense. So we have to invent a narrative to explain it, and we tell stories about how black people burned down their own homes and businesses, and maybe, depending on our politics, about a “culture of poverty” or “welfare dependence.”

We also, of course, tell a story about economic devastation wrought by de-industrialization, automation, and offshoring jobs. But we never explain why black neighborhoods seem to be overwhelmingly the ones that are decimated, while the white ghetto, as a northern urban phenomenon, is practically unknown. True story: cross-racial comparisons of social indicators like teen pregnancy and street crime that control for neighborhood poverty are impossible in most large American cities, because there are no white neighborhoods as poor as the black ghettos.

But if whites were so freaked out by the arrival of black people that they bombed their houses and even the buses that their children went to school on, maybe it makes sense that they (consumers and bankers) also pulled every dollar out of the commercial life of their neighborhoods when they decided they had lost the battle against their black neighbors. Maybe it makes sense that these places became as shunned and isolated as they did.

With this context, the black riot-Big Bang theory of urban violence becomes absurd. In the 1950s—years before Watts, or Detroit, or the King riots—Philadelphia lost a quarter of a million whites. Chicago lost 400,000. Detroit lost 350,000. The scale of the abandonment, as with the anti-black violence, was massive from very, very early on.

The web of political and economic and social causes that brought about that abandonment is, of course, extremely complex. I am not suggesting here that white violence was the only, or even overriding, cause. I am suggesting, however, that a conversation about urban decline without it is impossible, both because it was important in its own right and because it illuminates so many of the other causes.

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