America’s Top 5 Most Terrible Riots

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A riot is one of the clearest examples of societal breakdown. While a runner-up to warfare in that regard, big enough riots can leave whole cities looking as if they have just been through an actual war, and can leave scores of people injured or dead. Riots tend to be set off by specific events, but represent the bubbling over of years of simmering tensions. During some of our country’s worst rioting, the police and military were powerless to calm the unrest, and were forced to simply contain the situation in hopes that it wound itself down. To put it another way, these five riots got real ugly real fast.

5 Los Angeles on Fire … Again

In 1992, four white police officers were acquitted of assault and excessive force charges relating to an arrest of a black man named Rodney King. Within hours of those verdicts being announced, Los Angeles was consumed in what would be a deadly, days-long riot. The LA Riots began mostly in the region then called South Central, but spread well out across much of the city. Thousands of National Guard troops were called in to assist the beleaguered Los Angeles Police Department. More than 50 people were killed, fires burned across the city and thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. The riots cost an estimated $1 billion of damage material loss. If there was any positive outcome, it was a gradual but definite rapprochement between the LAPD and the city’s millions of residents.

4 Tragedy Sparked by Tragedy

On April 4th, 1968, an assassin’s bullet ended the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sadly, in the days that followed, many more people would be killed in riots set off by rage and sorrow over Dr. King’s death. These riots took place not in Memphis, where he died, but in cities all across America, with the worst rioting happening in Chicago, where 40 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured. (Note that a few months later, more rioting rocked the city, this time surrounding the Democratic National Convention.)

3 Los Angeles on Fire

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The Watts Riots of 1965 saw nearly three-dozen deaths, thousands of arrests and millions of dollars of property damage. The riot’s name is derived from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a community of mostly poor, African American residents who had long felt ostracized from society. Witnesses to a violent arrest of a black man by white police officers became agitated and began to hurl insults and then objects at the arresting officers on the night of August 11th. This small pocket of unrest soon grew to engulf dozens of square blocks and involve more than 30,000 rioters.

2 We Don’t Want Your Civil War

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Perhaps not surprisingly, people did not like the idea of being forced to fight in the American Civil War. Thus it was that in 1863, the New York City Draft Riots broke out following outrage over new draft laws passed by Congress. Most of the rioters were poor or working class men, and the chief object of their ire was the commutation fee that well-heeled citizens could pay to avoid service. The Draft Riots lasted four days and left more than 120 men dead, and close to 2,000 wounded – figures not unlike those you’d find in a smaller Civil War battle.

1 America’s First Riot

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The event now known as The Boston Massacre had a relatively low body count, as massacres go. British soldiers killed five members of a rioting crowd of proto-Americans, who had been worked into a frenzy based on years of pent-up frustration over taxation, impressment and the garrisoning of British soldiers on land that the colonists saw as their own sovereign territory. The incident became a valuable propaganda tool for those in favor of revolution.

Steven John is a published novelist and competitive pole vault champion. (The latter is not true.) His writing runs the gamut from speculative fiction to essays fueled by a mix of mirth and derision. He has never been to Lisbon but, statistically speaking, is probably taller than you.

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