With protests taking place in at least 140 cities over the last week sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we thought it was time to look at other demonstrations and riots throughout American history. And given the potential risks to personal safety—not to mention large gatherings in the midst of a pandemic—people may wonder whether participating in protests can actually make a difference. In short: they can.
Of course, looking back at the history of demonstrations in the United States in an accurate and meaningful way is easier said than done, because this country’s historical narrative has been dictated by the same white men who colonized the land in the first place. This includes the words we use to refer to the incidents and people involved—like “patriots” versus “thugs,” or “rebellions” versus “riots.” As Genetta Adams, managing editor of The Root, tells Mother Jones, whether something is considered a riot versus a rebellion or uprising is all in the eye of the beholder. “This country was founded on acts of vandalism and property destruction,” she explains. “See the Boston Tea Party. This was a fight for ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’ Who decides what these acts are called? Unfortunately, today, all too often it’s all-white or majority-white newsrooms.”
Like the events of the past week, previous demonstrations have ranged from peaceful protests to situations involving various levels of violence, and many have brought about actual change. Here are some notable examples.
As crucial to the sanitized story of the birth of America as the first Thanksgiving, the Boston Tea Party is something we all learn about in school as a heroic act that set in motion the country’s quest for independence from England. On December 16, 1773, approximately 116 men—some dressed as Native Americans—boarded three British ships and dumped around 45 tons of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the British tax on tea and monopoly of the East India Company. This act of rebellion is widely considered to be one of the major events that set in motion the process of American independence.
What started as several days of strikes in support of labor rights—including an eight-hour workday—culminated in a peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. But things quickly escalated when someone detonated a bomb once police arrived to break-up the protest, leaving several people—including seven police officers—dead and many others wounded. The events in Chicago represented a turning point in the labor rights, and sparked an international movement for shorter working hours and higher wages.
The road to universal women’s suffrage in America was incredibly long. Though the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 granted white upper- and middle-class women the right to vote, it would be years before women of color had the same privileges. One of the major events in the fight for women’s suffrage took place on May 3, 1913, when thousands of women—including Jane Addams, Alice Paul and Rev. Anna Howard Shaw—marched along Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, demanding that women be granted the right to vote. The situation turned violent, though, when male spectators began attacking the women, leaving approximately 100 injured and sent to a local hospital.
What started as a police raid on an unlicensed bar turned on July 23, 1967, into five days of violence and the largest incident of civil disobedience of 20th century America. With a total of 43 deaths, hundreds of injuries, nearly 1,700 fires and more than 7,000 arrests, the Detroit Uprising is seen as a turning point in the American civil rights movement. Among the results was the election of Detroit’s first Black mayor, Coleman A. Young, in 1974, and the introduction of policies to integrate the city’s police department.
In late June and early July 1969, a series of protests and clashes between police and protesters occurred in and around the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village that had become the target of police raids. Within weeks of the events in Manhattan, far more visible movements for LGBTQ+ rights—which had previously primarily been covert, grassroots campaigns—began in different parts of the United States. Though no one was killed during the riots, many were injured as a result of police violence.