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world wide wednesdays :: historically significant riots, an inadequate compendium

in case you didn't know, today marks the twenty-third anniversary of the beginning of the l.a. riots that erupted when the police officers who beat african american motorist rodney king were acquitted of criminal charges. i haven't heard it mentioned on the news today [oh boy] because most news outlets, or at least the american ones, are falling over themselves trying to show the latest footage of fuck all happening in baltimore, while they wait for more rioting to happen. they do cut periodically to footage of a seniors' home that was under construction burning the other night, which, according to the conservative washington post, actually had nothing to do with the protests or the riots, which were happening in another part of the city. the burning community centre/ construction site has had far more coverage than the peaceful demonstrations that have been happening in the city, because... ok, i can't even come up with a good joke for that. it doesn't get covered because it doesn't give that dramatic, knife-edge tension, that sense that these perfectly-coiffed and powdered television hosts are dong something important and brave, rather than just reporting the potentially important things that are happening around them.

i say "potentially", because we can't tell what effect events in baltimore this week will have. at the moment, it looks like chaos, because it is chaos. no one knows what's going to happen as a result, so how history remembers the homicide of freddy gray, or that of michael brown in ferguson missouri, or any of the protests and violence that happened in their wake is something that will only be known in the future. i'm not here to comment on that [although i've been commenting on these events a lot outside the blog]. i'm here because i think that one of the things that gets lost in these ultra-close up analyses is the fact that riots and civic violence can make significant changes in the course of history. that doesn't make them less frightening, but it should give us a warning that it's important to pause and think about what's come before the spectacle.

so to that end, i thought i would present you with a my own little curated list of historically significant riots, in no particular order...

paris, 1968 :: a loosely affiliated network of students, blue collar workers and artists brought france to the brink of revolution [president charles de gaulle briefly fled the country] after a series of confrontations with both state bureaucracies and police. at its peak, nearly a quarter of the population was involved in the protests and occupations. although brief, the paris uprising succeeded in gaining concessions from the government and instilling a healthy fear of the people in the minds of subsequent administrations. certainly a model for modern-day protests because of its social [rather than political] success and probably the closest a western state has ever come to an anarchist republic.

poll tax riot, london, 1990 :: in power for more than a decade, it seemed like nothing but death could dislodge margaret thatcher from downing street, but things went abruptly wrong for the iron lady over a tax reform issue that triggered a massive protest that degenerated into a riot in the middle of london. initial claims that the riot had been caused by anarchists and militants among the crowd were embarrassingly disproved when the defence team for those arrested was able to show that the police had provoked rather than contained the violence. thatcher was subsequently hounded from office by her own party and her successor, john major, scrapped the poll tax. one of the more sinister legacies of the poll tax riot, however, may be the complicity of the media in building the narrative of events. aside from proving the culpability of police, the raw video footage of events showed that national networks had edited footage so that it appeared that the crowd of demonstrators attacked police, which had provoked the police aggression, when the sequence of events had actually happened the other way.

haymarket riot, chicago 1886 :: almost a hundred and thirty years on, this remains one of the most contentious stories in the history of labour protests. workers at the mccormick harvesting machine plant had been on strike for months, principally with the aim of getting an eight hour work day. in a confrontation between strikers and replacement workers, police murdered two of the strikers, which prompted a protest gathering at chicago's haymarket in support of the union and its members. at that protest, a bomb was thrown from the crowd and killed a police officer, the ensuing melee resulted in the deaths of six more policemen and at least four protestors. it also tripped off an ugly wave of xenophobia against german and bohemian [modern-day czech] people and facilitated a massive clampdown on organized labour. although eight suspects were arrested and convicted of conspiracy, the police acknowledged that none of them was the actual bomber and there were allegations that, in fact, the bomb had been thrown by an agitator seeking to cause problems for the unions. it remains a polarizing subject, either an example of organized labour's extremist strain or of the lengths to which those in power would go to undermine the working class.

boston tea party, 1773 :: possibly the most famous riot in history, "the destruction of the tea in boston" as it called is like a traumatic incident on the american psyche. if you've ever wondered why so many americans bristle at the very mention of taxes, consider that their country became independent because of a showdown with one of the most powerful countries in the world over a tax on tea. the issue wasn't really the tea, of course, but whether or not the british had the right to impose a tax on their colonies without granting them representation in parliament. the americans argued that this ran contrary to the british constitution. the british argued that the constitution didn't apply to the colonies. next thing you know, huge shipments of tea are being dumped in boston harbour and there's a revolutionary war happening.

nika riots, constantinople, 532 :: yes, you read that right. this riot didn't so much change history, but it is part of history, despite being almost forgotten. the nika riots were a precursor to both political and sports riots, incorporating elements of both. at the time, support for a specific chariot racing team implied not just that you came from the same area as their captain, or that you preferred their colours, but political affiliations. during the races, it was customary for fans of each team to shout slogans for their team and for their political beliefs. so you'd end up with a mash-up of "you're going home in a fucking ambulance [once it's been invented]" and "hey hey, ho ho, justinian's taxes have got to go". in fact, emperor justinian was nearly forced to abdicate when a particularly heated series of chariot races got out of hand. in the end, the emperor was able to prevail [reputedly by reminding a large group of the protestors that he cheered for the same racing team as they did, whereas the guy who wanted to replace him cheered for their rivals], but by the time the riots ended, there were roughly thirty thousand people dead and much of constantinople lay in ruins, making the nika riots the most deadly and most damaging in history.

watts riots, los angeles, 1965 :: in many ways the blueprint for what we have been seeing in the last couple of years [and that we saw in los angeles again in 1992], the watts riots were the immediate result of a confrontation between an african american family and the police, but were more akin to a rupture in a pressure cooker. accusations of police brutality in black and latino neighbourhoods were dismissed as exaggeration or outright lies by a police force desperate to show that it had reformed after damaging scandals in the 1950s. when locals saw what appeared to be an assault on unarmed blacks [including one woman] by white police officers, their anger erupted and a week-long wave of violence, directed largely towards the police and white-owned businesses, followed. in the wake of the riots a commission was organized to report on the causes of the civil unrest. the report identified long-term poverty, high unemployment and poor services as key issues and recommended substantial improvements in public housing, better health care facilities, increased ties between the police force and the community, emergency literacy and job training programs, improvements to public schools in the area and more. almost none of the recommendations were acted upon.

i could include many, many more examples of how our realities have been shaped by riots. i've purposely avoided confrontations that were entirely one-sided, such as st. petersburg's "bloody sunday" of 1905, which was a major factor in the fall of the russian czar nicholas ii. the incomplete list above is just intended to be a reminder that history is often shaped by violence against both people and property. that violence doesn't erupt in a vacuum and it's important to understand the larger forces behind current events. that doesn't mean that we have to condone violence, but i do think that we need to understand it. we need to remember that protestors aren't a uniform group and that there may be many different agendas at work; we need to question what we hear about events, because information is often distorted to fit certain narratives; we need to be vigilant and not let fears about public violence cause a backlash against certain groups; and we need to remember that ignoring the causes of riots and protests only means that we'll be seeing them again and again, until fundamental changes are made.

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