Riots in the USA: The Past, the Present, and the Future


Rosa Pineda

Protestors stand in front of a fire in Lafayette Square, about a football field away from the White House. It was in that same square where police fired tear gas at protestors to clear space so that President Trump could get a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Noah Sollinger, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Last week, America reached its breaking point.  Frustrated and infuriated, citizens across the country have taken to the streets, demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to police brutality.  In many cities, such as Flint and Camden, peaceful protests have flourished, and citizens have even marched through the streets side by side with police officers.

However, this was not the case in several major urban areas, including Minneapolis, where the demonstrations originated last week.  Here, citizens have resorted to violence and demolition.  Cars have been destroyed, buildings have been burned, and stores have been looted.  

Unfortunately, the violence has been coming from both sides, as there have been countless filmed examples of police using excessive force to suppress these demonstrations, from innocent people being shot with pepper balls on their own front porch to a reporter being casually pepper sprayed as he lay on the ground defenseless.  

The response to these riots has been undeniably complex.  With most citizens still quarantined at home, millions of people have used social media to express their opinions.  While many agree that the protests are justified, there is a larger rift as to whether it is necessary for these demonstrations to become violent.

Some people maintain and promote a “burn it all down” mentality, claiming that everything destroyed and taken by rioters is collateral damage in their greater quest for justice.  Others ask “What would MLK do?” and advocate solely for peaceful protests.  As posts, opinions, demonstrations, and stories flood social media, the harsh reality of the divide in America today is impossible to ignore.  

It is important to acknowledge that there are several fine lines here.  First, there is a difference between burning and vandalizing public property–such as monuments or police cars–and the looting and destruction of private businesses and property.  Yes, both may be illegal, but one action acts out against the establishment which has failed, while the other simply causes more unnecessary struggle for innocent people.  If protestors burn down a police precinct, they are acting out against the system.  If they rob a shoe store, they are just criminals.

At the end of the day, if you are an unaffected, privileged individual, you have absolutely no way of understanding the profound pain felt by the black community at the moment.  For that reason, some may argue that those outside of the black community have no right to weigh-in on how a protest should and should not be conducted.  

However, at the same time, individuals must continue to fight for justice for each and every person.  If someone puts their life savings towards a business, and it is looted and burned to the ground by protestors, can that simply be dismissed as collateral damage?  The logical answer to that question is no.  To continue, if rioters burn down a police building, and an innocent radio operator dies after being stuck inside, can that be dismissed as well?  Of course not.  So, although you are still an unaffected individual, do you have an obligation–as a supporter of justice–to call out those who are paradoxically causing more injustice upon others as they strive to achieve justice for affected communities? 

These are complicated questions, and there is no right answer.  Part of the reason there may be such a divide among the American public regarding these issues is our education system. In American schools, over the past 50 years, the violent side of the history of the civil rights movement has often been largely left out of the curriculum.  This leads to a general lack of understanding among the American public regarding the relevance of violence to the movement’s success as a whole.  For that reason, it is important to look to the past as a guide for peace in the future.  Historically, riots have been a recurring theme in this country, with a variety of results. 

In 1963, after an assassination attempt on Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother by the KKK, there were eight days of extremely violent riots in Birmingham, Alabama.  Stores were burned, hundreds were wounded, a policeman was stabbed, and eventually, JFK mobilized the Army to stop the violence.  

These protests may have resulted in several injuries and tons of property lost, but they were invaluable in their effects on the civil rights movement as a whole.  JFK faced immeasurable pressure following this incident, and it is one of if not the main reason that he chose to introduce sweeping civil rights reform.  In fact, declassified records from a White House Meeting just two days after the riots had ended reveal that JFK insisted that “as a means of providing relief we have to have legislation.”(source) It is clear that these riots had a troubling effect on Kennedy, who worked hard to pass a landmark civil rights bill until his death in November of that same year. 

The following June, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or nation of origin.  This bill would not have been a possibility without JFK’s efforts, and JFK would not have put in that effort had it not been for the 1963 Birmingham Riot. 

In 1968, violent riots swept the nation following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.  For six days, frustrated Americans took to the streets in cities across the country to demand justice for Dr.  King and the black community as a whole.  The worst violence was seen in cities like Washington, D.C., where the demonstrations resulted in the destruction of over 1000 buildings throughout the city (source). Additionally, in Wilmington, Delaware there was a two day riot which resulted in a nine and a half month occupation by the National Guard (source).  

Under intense societal and political pressure, President Johnson was faced with a variety of response options, but chose the legislative route.  According to the official House of Representatives Historical Archives, he sent a letter to the Speaker of the House requesting that he bring the proposed civil rights bill to vote as soon as possible in order to “show the nation that its leaders were acting on civil rights issues championed by King,” (source).  

Later that month, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, an incredibly important piece of legislation which expanded upon the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in several ways.  The bill has several sections, including one aimed at hate crime prevention, one regarding Native American rights, and one expanding laws against housing discrimination.  

Just like 1963, this bill would not have been passed had it not been for work of the President, and the President would not have focused on that work had it not been for the riots and the resulting political pressure. 

These are two examples of how leaders and legislators should ideally respond to violent demonstrations by their people. Unfortunately, when looking at more modern examples, protestors’ calls for action have gone largely unheard, as the government has failed to pass any significant legislation regarding the issue of police brutality which has plagued communities across this country for centuries. 

In 2014, violent rioters filled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to demand justice for Michael Brown, an African American male who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Dozens were injured, hundreds were arrested, and police used military-like tactics, but the response of President Barack Obama’s administration amounted to a review of police use of military equipment (source) to control riots and an investigation into the Ferguson police force for possible discrimination(source).  

President Obama never came out with a legitimate legislative response to the root of the problem, which is of course police brutality, and instead turned to press conferences to encourage frustrated citizens to “exercise restraint.”  Even after Officer Wilson was not indicted after trial by Grand Jury, Obama maintained his position and never worked towards a true legislative response.  Justice was never achieved in Ferguson, and for that reason the riots continued in four separate waves.  Even two years after the incident, when protestors were simply trying to mourn, shots were fired and multiple people were injured. This problem never went away, because a proper legislative response was never offered.

Violent protests are uncomfortable.  Nobody wants to see people get hurt, property get stolen, and buildings get destroyed.  But it is so incredibly important that instead of encouraging this destruction, or on the contrary calling out these groups and demanding that they remain completely peaceful, we focus our efforts on what can be done.  

Citizens can and must demand that legislators offer a true response that addresses the root of the problem.  The arrests and conviction of the four officers in Minneapolis could be a start, but that is not sufficient.  We need common sense police reform: Automatic firings after a certain number of infractions, an end to internal investigations, the establishment of an independent committee dedicated to investigating police.  Individuals must work to hold themselves, and their politicians, to a higher standard: not only immediate justice for George Floyd, but also widespread justice for all black brothers and sisters who have been oppressed for far too long. 

This incident may have occurred on the other side of the country, but we still have an obligation to stand up and say that discrimination in our community or in any other community will not be tolerated.  After all, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.