While Dr. Martin Luther King never advocated for violent and destructive behavior, he did state that it would be morally irresponsible to condemn riots without, at the same time, condemning the “contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.”
There were a massive wave of race riots that swept the cities in 1960s black America. From 1964 to 1971, there were over 750 riots around the country. Compared to the courteous and well-behaved forms of peaceful protest typical of the earlier civil rights generation, the 1960’s riots saw a sea of change that had been an extreme overdue response to the injustices that black America had endured for so long.
In August 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California broke out in fire and vandal. The Watts riots commenced when a when white police officers stopped an intoxicated black man, 21-year-old Marquette Frye, on a highway in South Central Los Angeles. As an altercation broke out involving the police, Frye and Frye’s two family members – the situation quickly turned violent. Allegedly, the officers had struck Marquette Frye’s mother, Rena Price, who was also pregnant at the time along with Frye for resisting arrest. As the crowd started protesting, the altercation quickly grew into a five-day racial riot with nearly 4,000 were arrests. Many cherish the memory as the moment when the militant became mainstream in a “fed-up” black America, replacing the nonviolent, gradualist efforts of old-guard civil rights leaders. The Watts riot indeed shaped modern black American history more decisively than ever before, bringing light to racial oppression of blacks by police officers.
The famous “LA Riots” or “Rodney King Riots”, erupted after the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King on April 29, 1992. The riots were the first in history to be captured completely by the media on a national level. In the six days of outcry, the riots shed light on police abuse, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and a sense of disenfranchisement among African-Americans in the United States. Afterward, the LAPD and city of Los Angeles made significant alterations in response to the African American’s objections. More minorities were encouraged and accepted to join the police force and Daryl Gates, LAPD police chief, took institutional blame for the incident and resigned. The police officers were then retried by the U.S. Department of Justice, and two of the four were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights and sentenced to prison.
The Ferguson riots rose from the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. In Ferguson, where there was already substantial tensions between police and minorities, the shooting brought national attention to the injustices, subconscious biases and racial profiling conducted by police. The unrest sparked a vigorous debate about the relationship between law enforcement and African American equality. It also brought light on aggressive policing tactics and over-militarization of civilian police in America. As a result of the events in Ferguson, President Obama ordered a review of the distribution of military hardware and equipment supplied to state and local police. Additionally, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the Department of Justice’s “Ferguson Report” extensively in the 2016 Fourth-Amendment case Utah v. Strieff as evidence of systemic racial bias in police practice.
Riots are a tool that protesters use to show how dissatisfied they are with the current system.
As Dr. King stated, “rioting is the language of the unheard.” Rebellion as performance, with no plan of action behind it is used as political activism by victims of injustices. In a society where everyone seems to look the other way, the oppressed often feel that this use of behavioral rebellion is their only option. Riots are useful in helping push the truths of racial injustice further into the national conversation which is usually ignored. The fact that this tactic is still used in modern America shows how the social divide is still extremely prevalent and remains a crucial problem for minorities. The riots are not just an excuse to loot and destroy but a desperate result of a long pattern of police abuse, harassment and violence toward the African-American community in the context of systemic class inequality, custodial citizenship and mass incarceration.
An interesting correlation of prominent race riots in the U.S.: http://www.infoplease.com/us/history/race-riots.html