The 8 Worst Riots in American History

Crime, News

Riots have made a huge mark on American history. Whether incited by racial conflicts, perceived injustices, or police brutality, a riot can cause such destruction that it blights the landscape and destroys burgeoning progress in an area.

Sometimes, however, in the aftermath of violence, social movements begin that result in improved conditions. Eight of the most significant riots in American history follow.

1 & 2) The Civil War: Baltimore and New York

A riot in Baltimore in April 1861, just days after Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, began when a Union Army regiment marched through Baltimore en route to Washington D.C. and a crowd of Confederate sympathizers blocked the way. Soldiers fired into the mob and a brawl ensued; four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed and many more injured. Several buildings were destroyed including a newspaper office.

The New York draft riots, in July of 1863, were the worst examples of civil unrest to date.  What started as a demonstration against the draft turned into the largest and bloodiest civilian uprising to date in the United States. New York City police were quickly overwhelmed by the rioters, and the governor ordered the state militia back to the city. Federal troops were dispatched from West Point and from the recent fighting at Gettysburg as well. African Americans were targeted and attacked by the rioters, many of whom were poor immigrants who feared freed slaves would compete with them for jobs.  The death toll has been placed at anywhere between 120 and 2,000 people killed, with over 2,000 injured. Property damage was estimated at between $1 and $5 million.

3) Chicago: Haymarket Square, 1886

The Haymarket riot of May 1886 began as a rally in support of striking workers in Chicago. A bomb was thrown at police as they were dispersing the until-then peaceful meeting; in the ensuing melee eight police officers and four civilians were killed and over 60 were wounded. Eight people were tried and four executed for inciting the bombing with inflammatory speech and  the burgeoning labor movement had a massive setback as a result.

4) Springfield 1908

The transfer of two African-American prisoners out of the Springfield, Illinois city jail by the county sheriff was the spark that lit the riot in August of 1908. The prisoners were transferred for their own safety after accusations of sexual assault against white women brought racial tensions to a boiling point. When the crowd that had formed outside the jail learned the prisoners had been moved, they were enraged. Eventually over 60 homes and business were destroyed and seven people were confirmed dead, at least two of whom were lynched by the crowd, although the actual toll was thought to be much higher. Much of the African American population of Springfield, fearing for their lives, were forced to leave after losing homes and business. With racial conflict at the heart of this and other riots at the turn of the last century, a meeting was held in New York City several months later which led to the formation of the NAACP.

5 & 6) 1960s: Race Riots in Los Angeles and Detroit

Race riots became front page news in the 1960s. The Watts riots began in August 1965 in Los Angeles, when a white California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a black man, Marquette Frye, on suspicion of drunk driving. A crowd grew as the officer questioned Frye and his brother, who was also in the car; their mother showed up at the scene as well and the officer ended up arresting all three. As more officers arrived to control the crowd, fighting inevitably broke out. Five days of violence, fires and looting ensued, with 34 deaths, more than 2,000 injured and nearly 4,000 people arrested. The National Guard was eventually called in to gain control of the situation.

Detroit was another area of racial tension and on July 23, 1967 a police raid of an illegal bar turned deadly. Police confrontations with bar patrons and witnesses to the raid grew into five days of violence and destruction among the worst in the history of the United States. Vandalism, looting and fires spread across the city as the Michigan National Guard and the Army were called in to restore order. The eventual toll was 43 dead and nearly 1,200 injured, including civilians, Detroit police officers and firefighters, National Guardsmen, state police officers and Army soldiers. There were 7,231 arrests, including 703 juveniles, and over 2,500 business looted or burned. Damage was estimated at somewhere between $40 and $80 million.

7) New York City, 1969: Stonewall

The Stonewall riot in New York’s Greenwich Village is a landmark moment in gay history. Police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, expecting to clear the place and make a few arrests. Bar patrons refused to cooperate or leave, however, and a crowd of around 400 gathered to witness the spectacle of police officers attempting to quell an impromptu kick-line of protesters. Violence ensued; 13 people were arrested, many were hospitalized. The two nights of rioting united the gay community in New York; within months, several activist organizations and three newspapers were established in New York to fight discrimination. The first Gay Pride marches took place one year later on the anniversary of the raid.

8) Los Angeles, 1992: Rodney King

Racial tension in south central Los Angeles exploded in April 1992 after the four police officers accused of beating of Rodney King were acquitted. The officers were white; King was a black man on parole who had led them on a high-speed chase. Outrage at the verdict triggered nearly a week of rioting, looting, and violence that eventually required the deployment of U.S. Army soldiers and Marines to quell. In the end, 54 people were killed, over 2,000 injured, and property damages were estimated at nearly $1 billion.

What do you think will spark the next major riots in America? And when do you think they will happen?