I wrote this article in January of 2009, but felt it was relevant again due to the riots in London and other cities in the U.K. As we can see in the article, the riots in the U.K. should be of no surprise, as history shows us that poverty, discrimination, unemployment and police brutality often result in riots and mass uprisings.
The BART shooting and the subsequent violent protest was far from the first time police brutality provoked a riot. What is about police brutality that provokes the inner city poor to react by destroying property and causing chaos?
When police, the government agents who are supposed to protect and serve the community, assault, kill, harass and discriminate members of a disenfranchised community all ideas of law, order and justice are thrown out the window.
Usually police brutality is not the primary cause for a riot but it is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Usually poverty, discrimination, disenfranchisement and neglect combined with a symbolic incident of oppression lead to the anger, chaos and lawlessness that provoke riots.
While the USA’s police brutality infused riots of the 60’s and even the 90’s have been well documented, similar incidents have been occurring all over the world, from Greece to France to Canada. In most of these cases, class, religion or race and discrimination created an atmosphere of anger and resentment against the government that explodes when members of their community are unfairly brutalized or killed.
In 1965 in Los Angeles, three members of a black family were arrested for protesting the arrest of their brother. Animosity in the community, already fueled by racial discrimination, unemployment, poor schools and housing discrimination erupted and people began to loot, vandalize and clash with police and white motorists. The riot lasted for six days and 34 people were killed, 1,032 injured, and 3,952 arrested. Police commissioner, William Parker, helped escalate the situation by saying that the rioters acted “like monkeys in a zoo”
A gubernatorial commission found the causes of the riot to as high unemployment, poor schools, and other inferior living conditions.
In 1967, police raided a after hours party in Detroit and wound up trying to arrest 82 people who were celebrating the homecoming of two soldiers from Vietnam. This resulted in a neighborhood protest that lead to looting, vandalism and arson. Once again the national guard was called in and after five days of rioting. At the end of the riot, 43 people were dead, 1189 injured and over 7000 were arrested.
The Detroit Free Press cited the causes of the Detroit riot as racism, economic inequality, and poor housing.
Riots with roots in racism and police brutality are not unique to the USA. In 1976, during the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill, London, West Indian youths revolted against arbitrary mass arrests and began clashing with the police, throwing bottles and other objects at police and their vehicles. The causes for the riot are cited as an occupational police presence and unemployment among the West Indian youths.
One of the most prominent riots of the 20th Century was the 1992 riots sparked by the acquittal of four officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. After the officers were acquitted, African Americans in LA began to protest at the LA County courthouse and LAPD headquarters. A large group convened at the corner of Florence and Normandie confronted a group of officers who retreated because they were outnumbered. By the evening people began on Florence and Normandie began looting and attacking white motorists, including Reginald Denny.
Looting, arson and violence continued and eventually the National Guard was called in and later so was the Army and the Marines. The Riots wound up killing 53 people and causing more the one billion dollars worth of damage.
The Christopher Commission sited the causes of the LA Riots as high unemployment, racial profiling and police brutality.
The recent riots in France also were caused by police brutality, racism, unemployment and economic inequality. In October of 2005, two teenagers were chased by police into a power station where they were electrocuted. Protests and unrest subsequently ensued. Civil unrest spread to poor housing projects in other parts of France including violence, arson and clashes with police.
Almost 9,000 cars were burned and 3,000 people were arrested and 126 policemen and firefighters were injured. The BBC listed the causes of the riot as unemployment and discrimination against immigrants.
So we see that the causes of riots are often discrimination, poverty, and police brutality. Rather than blaming the poor and disenfranchised who riot, countries should attempt to eliminate the poverty, discrimination and police brutality that cause them. If not the cycle of the poor and discriminated succumbing to violence and chaos will continue and expand.
Watch Footage of the Watts Riot
Watch a History Project on The Detroit Riots
Watch a Program on The Notting Hill Riot
Watch Footage From The LA Riots
Watch a Report on the 2005 Riots in France