As news of the protests surrounding Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Mo., has circulated, many have noted an eerie coincidence: last week also marked the 49th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, seven days of riots widely regarded as a turning-point in the black freedom movement. Events in Los Angeles touched off a series of similar uprisings in cities across the country, the most deadly of which took place in Detroit in 1967.
Historian Peniel E. Joseph wrote one of the most compelling of these comparisons, calling Watts an “existential punch to the gut of America” that, like events in Ferguson are doing now, “revealed the limited impact that legal and political legislation had on democracy’s underbelly, where black girls and boys played in trash-strewn neighborhoods, police indiscriminately harassed citizens of color and poverty remained an open secret from coast to coast.” With National Guard troops and Humvees on the ground now in Ferguson, the comparison is only getting more salient.
Those referencing Watts have also pointed to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Otherwise known as the Kerner Commission, the NACD was an 11-person group tasked with investigating the riots of the mid and late 1960s. It found that systematic factors like high unemployment, lack of access to social services and segregated housing were major contributing factors to demonstrations in Watts, Detroit and elsewhere. The commission’s report, and the Johnson administration’s subsequent rejection of its recommendations, are seen as evidence for the common threads of institutionalized racism and structural inequality that weave Watts and Ferguson into a common and hardly spontaneous narrative.
Loosely overseen by the Kerner Commission, however, were two other, lesser known hearings begun in 1967 by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities Commission. Dramatically entitled “Riots,Civil and Criminal Disorders” and “Subversive Influences in Riots, Lootings and Burning,” respectively, each hearing was tasked with investigating the political dissidents within the riots.
Senator Karl Mundt of South Dakota was quoted as saying, “I think the people of Detroit ought to know they have a hard-core group of communists working in these elements. They are engaged in a satellite war, the same as freedom is involved in Vietnam.”
While there were certainly “subversive elements” within the Detroit riots, it was more triggered unrest than calculated revolt. On the heels of major popular victories in the civil rights movement — the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed just five days before Watts — a rising tide of black militancy and a growing antiwar movement at home and abroad, Mundt had good reason to be worried.
Riots are threatening, but not because they pose a physical threat to the state. As Robert Stephens II recently wrote in Jacobin, “Riots, like other forms of political action, can build solidarity. They can create strong feelings of common identity.” From cooperative economics to organized labor, solidarity is a threatening concept to those in traditionally respected positions of power; the people, united, can be defeated, but it’s pretty damn hard.
That said, riots are not things to be strived for or fetishized, especially given their tendency to bring even more violence on already overly-policed and surveilled poor communities and communities of color. Where Stephens’ analysis falters is in posing riots, ironically, as a solution to violence and a “viable political strategy.” Investigative reporting, Mike Brown’s murder and the dystopic stream of images coming out of Ferguson this week have all confirmed once again that the state has a monopoly on the use of deadly force. Riots challenge the state at the thing it does best: violence. The question for those interested in building movements to confront the systemic inequalities that undergird riots, though, isn’t how best to condemn or create riots, but how to leverage these moments of solidarity into ways that build long-term political, social and economic power. As Stephens himself noted, “The key … is to transition outrage and disruption into constructive political organization.”
After the Detroit riots in 1967, rank and file autoworkers and veteran organizers tapped into popular discontent by creating the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, which later united with other Revolutionary Union Movement chapters across industries in Detroit to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Inspired, in part, by the disruption to industry posed by the riots, the league coordinated a series of wildcat strikes, work actions and community initiatives that — by grinding production to a halt — both forced the city’s auto industry to respect workers and propelled workers themselves into the larger black freedom struggle.
While they didn’t form in the immediate aftermath of a riot, following the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the Dream Defenders mobilized black and brown youth in Florida into a multi-tiered organizing program involving base building at the local level, confrontational direct action and statewide policy pushes to scale back regressive legislation. Throughout history, there have been countless examples of organizing channeling rage into change. In as violent a context as the United States, violence — predictably — happens frequently, overwhelmingly from systemic causes like police brutality and economic inequality. The task for those interested in making transformative change is to build organized, strategic and locally rooted political programs aimed at fostering active popular support that draws people out of grief and into movements.