Are Riots Effective? 9 Times Violent Demonstration Changed American Politics

On Monday, riots erupted in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, who died from injuries sustained in police custody. The riots, which started after Gray's funeral and were stoked by a widely circulated flier calling for a "purge," are now into their second day. A state of emergency has been declared by the state, and 15 police officers are reported wounded.

But the riots in Baltimore are not just part of a current series of protests over police brutality and racial hatred; they are the latest incarnation of a very American institution, which reaches back to its beginnings. A quick peek at the history books reveals that American history, before and after the Declaration of Independence, is packed full of protests that turned violent and unruly, from the tiny and symbolic to the nationwide and highly destructive. Thomas Jefferson himself said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure." When grievances strike, Americans have always taken noisily to the streets, and sometimes, they've achieved some genuinely great things.

Lest we romanticize the American rebellious spirit, however, not all of these outbursts were on the side of justice and equality, and even those that were often didn't achieve much. The violent anti-abolitionist riots of 1834 certainly weren't what we'd call glowing examples of national pride, for example.

But there are examples where riots led to genuine institutional shifts, new laws, and change for the better. Let's take a look at nine times when violent demonstration created real change in America.

1. The Stamp Act Riots

When: 1765

The Issue: You've heard of the Boston Tea Party (which we'll get to in a minute), but the Stamp Act Riots were also a foundation for the American Revolution, for much the same reason. This time, it was a stamp tax: all the printed material in America was supposed to be taxed for Britain's coffers. Unsurprisingly, it was wildly unpopular, and riots emerged in the streets of Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.

What It Changed: The Stamp Act Congress, formed of American lawyers and politicians, drafted an angry declaration on why the British Crown had no right to tax Americans on anything at all. The Stamp Act was repealed by a rattled British government in March 1766, and the stage was set for a bigger rebellion to ensue, known as...

2. The Boston Tea Party

When: 1773

The Issue: This is the riot we glamorize most in the history books. As every school kid knows, it was about a British tax duty again, this time on tea. The protesters famously tossed an entire shipment of tea belonging to the East India Company into Boston Harbor, some while dressed as American Indians to emphasize how non-British they felt.

What It Changed: The British government was, of course, not particularly impressed, and attempted to retaliate, restricting America's already-limited right to govern itself. The push towards war had begun, and the rest of the story is, well, history.

3. The Pennsylvania Mutiny

When: 1783

The Issue: Pennsylvanian soldiers who'd fought in the Revolutionary War started a ruckus over the fact that the Congress of the Confederation, who were based in Pennsylvania at the time, hadn't paid them. Four hundred of them marched on Congress' base in Philadelphia, whereupon Congress itself was flabbergasted to find out that the state of Pennsylvania wasn't willing to do much to protect it. The congressmen fled.

What It Changed: Pennsylvania's refusal to protect Congress led to the idea in the Constitution that the federal government needed to have its own special district as a base, rather than relying on anybody else. Hence the idea of Washington D.C. was born.

4. The Dorr Rebellion

When: 1841

The Issue: Rhode Islanders, led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, were irate at the very particular qualifications required to vote in elections. A man needed $134 in property to be allowed, which was out of reach for much of Rhode Island's population, and towns were represented regardless of their population. The riots were largely bloodless (one person died by accident), and Dorr was so popular that for a month and a half in 1842 Rhode Island had, in effect, two governments fighting for power.

What It Changed: The elected state government eventually lowered the property requirement for native-born men to $1, meaning that suffrage was hugely expanded. (Women, of course, didn't get a look-in for over 50 years.)

5. The Detroit Riots

-/AFP/Getty Images

When: 1967

The Issue: Many things seem to have contributed to the huge Detroit riots of 1967, some of the biggest America has ever seen. It's largely seen as a race riot, sparked by the arrest of a party of black revelers at an unlicensed bar, but the violence soon spilled over racial lines: white people joined in, and looting was committed on black and white stores. Detroit was still brutally racially segregated, and even though Detroit was pouring millions into social integration and affordable housing, dissatisfaction (particularly over discrimination by police) boiled over into unrest.

What It Changed: Both good and bad things emerged from the city riots, but much stricter police protocols over hiring minorities and enforcing discrimination laws were put in place, a lot of government departments started recruitment drives for non-whites, and fair housing legislation was rushed throughout the state Congress.

6. The Stonewall Riots

When: 1969

The Issue: LGBT customers at one of the only openly gay spaces in New York, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, were raided by police in the early hours of June 28 — not unusual, as homosexuality was still illegal in every state except Illinois. This time, however, the customers reacted badly, resisting arrest and forcing the police to barricade themselves inside the bar. Protests increased, with many more people joining in, and carried on for six days.

What It Changed: GLAAD calls the Stonewall riots "a catalyst for the modern movement for LGBT equality." It marked the beginning of a fight for rights rather than an attempt to remain under the radar; the city's first gay pride parade was held in November, and visibility and advocacy groups sprung up all over the nation by the next year.

7. The Kent State Riots

When: 1970

The Issue: The Kent State riots were originally a protest against America's role in expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia, but they turned into a four-day riot, and then took a turn for the devastating when four unarmed students were shot by police.

What It Changed: The riot and its aftermath prompted huge protests across the United States, widespread reports of firebombing and arson, and a nationwide student strike. President Nixon withdrew troops from Cambodia in response.

8. The Mount Pleasant Riots

When: 1991

The Issue: The Mount Pleasant riots in Washington D.C. were racial in nature, prompted by a rookie police officer's botched arrest of a Salvadoran man for disorderly conduct, in which she shot him in the chest. The Latino community, which had been feeling sidelined and discriminated against already, rioted — and 230 people were arrested over two days.

What It Changed: The riots prompted a heavier integration of Latinos into the police force at Mount Pleasant, a serious report by the United States Commission On Civil Rights, and a new set of policies about police conduct, including an agreement not to ask citizens about their immigration status.

9. The L.A. Riots


When: 1992

The Issue: The L.A. riots, which remain infamous, erupted after a mostly-white jury acquitted four police officers of excessive force charges against Rodney King, a black man they'd collectively beaten with batons over 50 times. Property damage worth $1 billion was caused, swathes of Los Angeles were set ablaze, and 50 people were killed, as protestors ran riot, convinced that the entire system of government was prejudiced.

What It Changed: In the light of the spate of recent killings — Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, now Freddie Gray — some would argue not much. South L.A., the sparking point for the riots, is still poor and suffering from gang problems, and police brutality remains an issue: in 2012 there were calls for the LAPD to be investigated by the federal government after three more incidences of violence. However, at the very least, the L.A. riots started conversations about the racial compositions of juries, and a huge amount of charitable community organisations emerged afterwards to try and mend the damage.

Images: Getty, S.E. Corlew, Johnny Japan, David/Flickr, Wikimedia Commons