Can Riots Have Positive Affects?

In August 2020, I attended my first riot as a very inexperienced independent journalist.  My reaction to it was the same as many others…this is anarchy.  I’m standing in the middle of a warzone.  Where is law enforcement?  This would lead me on my current path of finding answers to some very difficult questions while walking through a mine field of dangers to get those answers.

Recently, I saw a YouTube video in regards to the economic damage that is done from riots, and while riots do have catastrophic consequences to the communities they occur in, the premise of the video was that no good comes from riots.  I have always disagreed with riots, looting and destruction but historically riots have led to positive change.  I did a deep dive into America’s history and the most famous riots that led to positive change.

A quote from Dr. Martin Luther King always gets misinterpreted from both sides of the argument and consistently taken out of context like most things we see today.  As long as it fits a narrative or agenda.  Below is the full context from the famous speech by MLK.

“Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. ... But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again”

Let’s take a look at riots that have occurred throughout American history.  Again, for clarification, despite any positive change that has occurred from any of these riots, riots still have long lasting affects on communities and the people within them.  Riots should not be condoned or idolized.

The Stamp Act Riots of 1765 – were a foundation for the American Revolution.  It was the first attempt at directly taxing the American Colonies by the British Parliament.  The tax was imposed without representation of the colonists.  All of the printed material in America was supposed to be taxed for Britain’s coffers.  Riots emerged in the streets of Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Philidelphia and elsewhere.  These were brutal riots during that time where Andrew Oliver (who didn’t know he had been appointed tax collector was beheaded by an angry mob, then looted his house and wine cellar.  The same mob stormed the mansion of the Lt. Govenor and took everything not bolted down, including the roof.  Ships bringing in the stamped paper were turned back at harbors.  Every designated tax collector resigned within 8 months.  The Stamp Act Congress was formed of American lawyers and politicians and the act was repealed in 1766 after one year in existence, and really didn’t make much money in the first place.  The groups that had organized formed the Sons of Liberty.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 – This is the riot that history books most often glamorize and widely known as the first significant act of rebellion by American colonists against the British. This time the tax was on tea, again without representation in Parliament and the Tea Act of 1773 which granted a monopoly and tax exemption to the East India Trading Company.  The protestors comprised of 60 men within the Sons Of Liberty tossed an entire shipment of tea (342 chests -92,000 pounds) belonging to the East India Trading Company into the Boston Harbor while dressed as Native Americans.  This was met with punishment from the British as Parliament passed punitive measures, such as closing Boston’s port until the debt from the Boston Tea Party was paid, housing British troops in American home.  It sparked the First Continental Congress in 1774 and led to the American Revolution which began in Massachusetts in 1775 and ended in 1783 when the British finally recognized the U.S. Independence.

Pennsylvania Soldiers Riot of 1783- who’d fought in the Revolutionary war, started a ruckus over the fact that Congress of the Confederation hadn’t paid them.  400 of them marched on Congress’ base in Philidelphia and Congress fled, like we saw in the January 6th insurrection in modern day.  This Pennsylvania march led to the Constitution that the Federal Government needed to have its own special district as a base, hence Washington D.C. was born.

The Dorr Rebellion of 1841 – led by a Harvard Attorney named Thomas Wilson Dorr, were irate at the qualifications required to vote in elections.  Men needed $134 in property to be allowed, which was out of reach for most of Rhode Islands population.  The riots were (mostly bloodless, only one person died).  Dorr became so popular during this that for a month and a half in 1842, Rhode Island had two governments fighting for power.  The elected state government eventually lowered the property requirement for men born in America to $1, meaning that suffrage was hugely expanded. (Women, of course didn’t get a look in for over 50 years.  To date, Dorr is still considered one of the original govenors.

The 1855 Chicago Liquor License Riot- as the Temperance movement began to pick up steam it was not uncommon for legislatures to limit which days alcohol could be purchased and who could sell it.  Mayor Levi Boone increased the liquor license from $50 to $300.  It also reduced the licensing term from 1 year to 3 months in an attempt to reduce the number of saloons in the city.  It has a distinctly anti-immigration tone to it as the legislation most impacted the German and Irish immigrants.  Saloon owners ignored the new law and 200 hundred were arrested quickly.  During the first criminal trial related to the law, immigrants swarmed the downtown area.  After several arrests, an armed group of German immigrants marched on the area to rescue the prisoners.  The bridges across the Chicago River were swung, but once they were turned back the immigrants charged and were immediately fired upon killing one.  After the rioting, the licensing fee went back down to $50, residents started paying attention to who was running the city and the Sunday law went back to infrequent enforcement.

The Haymarket Riots of 1886- which is listed as the most famous labor riot in US history.  It started as a protest by workers for the 8 hour work day, but turned into a riot after an unknown assailant threw a dynamite bomb at police.  Even though the police and politicians increased their repression of workers after the incident, the Haymarket Riot led to significant developments in the organized labor movement and ended in the victorious fight for the 8 hour work day.

The Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 – while the parade itself was peaceful, I’m including it in with riots due to opposing spectators.  This was the first major demonstration for the cause which took place in Washington D.C. on the night of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.  The parade was organized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and activist Alice Paul, which consisted of more than 5,000 suffragettes, four mounted brigades, nine bands and 20 parade floats.  During the march on Pennsylvania Ave, opposing spectators attacked demonstrators and law enforcement did not intervene, leading to injuries of more than 100 women.  The strategic timing of the parade helped revive attention around the movement, but it would be for 7 more years of protests, demonstrations, and other tactics before the 19th Amendment (which grants women the right to vote) was ratified in 1920.  It is important to note that while this group is largely painted as racist, the general public is unaware or refuse to admit that the KKK acted as the strong armed militia during prohibition and pushed for women’s rights in an aggressive and violent manner which also helped push for women’s right to vote.  While women are guaranteed the right to vote under the Constitution, they are still fighting for protections under the Equal Rights Amendment which was originally proposed in 1923 and has yet to pass.  It’s concerning as well with women’s right to vote because blacks are listed under this as well and every so often this goes back in front of Congress to vote on whether to allow blacks to continue to have the right to vote.  It’s come very close sometimes to this not passing which would also take women’s right to vote away.

The Birmingham Riot of 1963- was a reaction to the white supremacist bombings of black churches in Birmingham, where four black girls were killed.  Black protestors reacted so strongly against local police that the Federal Government sent in the army which was the first time they had ever done this against black civil rights protestors.  The riot was the turning point in JFK’s mind about black civil rights.  It was instrumental in creating the Landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Harlem Riot of 1964- began after the police killing of James Powell, a black teenager in Harlem.  The riot lasted 6 nights and caused millions of dollars worth of property damage.  It encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to create “Project Uplift”, while it was mainly designed with the specific aim of avoiding further riots it was a program designed to reduce poverty among black youth in Harlem.

The Division Street Riots of 1966- was the first Puerto Rican riot in US history.  Puerto Rican residents in Chicago were impoverished and frequently discriminated against in housing, and by police.  The situation turned to a riot when police began harassing the attendents of an ethnic pride march on Division St.  The riot led to the creation of several Puerto Rican organizations, as well as cultural centers and a school.  Puerto Rican activists were able to push for civil rights improvements in Chicago throughout the following decades.

The Detroit Riots of 1967- which are dubbed as some of the largest riots America has ever seen.  It was sparked by the arrest of a party of black revelers at an unlicensed bar, but the violence spilled over racial lines: white people joined in, and looting was committed on black and white owned stores.  Detroit was still brutally segregated, and even though Detroit was pouring millions into social integration and affordable housing, dissatisfaction (particulary over discrimination by police) boiled over into unrest.   It led to 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-white people, and fair housing legislation was rushed throughout the state Congress.

Long Hot Summer of 1967- which was 164 riots in cities across the U.S.  It was a reaction to the disappointments of Black Americans across the country, as the Federal Civil Rights imporvements of the preceding decade had failed to liberate them from police brutality and poverty.  The rebellion shook the US political establishment to the point that President Johnson set up the Kerner Commission to investigate its causes.  The Kerner Report concluded that white racism and systemic discrimination was to blame for the riots.  Even though the President failed to act on the report, the mere fact that the establishment was led to accept the reality of ongoing racial discrimination was a huge achievement, given the open segregation that still prevailed in much of it.

The King Assassination Riots of 1968- which are often seen as the end of the Civil Rights era, and the beginning of the Black Power era in African-American history.  To many acitivists the murder of Martin Luther King signified the failure of nonviolent solutions to black oppression, leading them to develop more militant strategies.  The riots led to some major improvement in civil rights.  Before the riots, Congress stalled on passing the Fair Housing Act, which was designed to prevent racial and other forms of discrimination in housing.  After the riots, US Congressmen quickly changed their mind on the Act, and passed it as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  Later we would still see issues with fair housing essentially being named “Crime Free Housing”

The Stonewall Riots of 1969- LGBTQ patrons at one of the only openly gay spaces in New York, The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was raided by police.  It wasn’t unusual as being gay was still illegal (except in Illinois).  In the 60s, raids on local gay bars and harassment to patrons by the NY Police Department were common.  There were no legal protections for the LGBTQ community and since 1952 being gay had been listed as a mental illness in the American Psychaitric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.This time patrons fought back, resisting arrest, and forcing the police to barricade themselves inside the bar after striking a woman with a baton and a large crowd gathered and the riots lasted 6 days.  Leaders for the Stonewall Riots, including gay liberation activists and drag queens Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, formed organization, such as the Gay Liberation Front,  which pushed for policy changes and social inclusivity for the LGBTQ community. Gay newspapers, organizations and activist groups were formed. These events led to the galvanizing of the LGBTQ right movement.  After Stonewall, many new sexual and gender rights groups were formed, and these groups went on to achieve the decriminalization of same-gender relationships in the U.S.  GLAAD calls The Stonewall Riots a catalyst for the modern movement for LGBTQ 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 of that year.  The Stonewall Inn is now a Federally designated national monument.  In 1973 the psychiatric association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual.

The Kent State Riots of 1970- were originally a protest against America’s role in expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia, which led to a  4 day riot.  4 unarmed students were shot by police during the riot.  The riot prompted protests across the US, firebombings and arson and a nationwide student strike.  In response, Nixon withdrew troops from Cambodia.

Occupation of Alcatraz of 1969-1971- In 1934 the US government began using Alcatraz Island to house prisoners before closing the island’s prison in 1963.  The following year it was declared a federal surplus property and soon Native American activists began occupying the island, citing the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, an agreement that states Native Americans could claim unused federal lands. 89 members from all tribes began living on the island and continued their protest for 19 months.   Their initial demands were to build Native Indian institutions on the island, partly due to a fire a month prior that destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center.  At its peak there were 400 protestors who lived without running water, phone service, and electricity.  They spoke out that these and worse conditions were already in place on reservations.  Police and Federal Agents forcibly ended the occupation.  The protest brought attention to the Indian Termination Policy , which began in the mid 1940s, which was a series of laws and policies that aimed to abolish Native American tribes and culture in order to forcibly assimilate them into American society, making them tax-paying citizens and removing federal and state exceptions they were granted.  President Nixon ended the policy in 1970 and the publicity around the event led to a new policy of self-determination for Native Americans.

The Attica Prison Riot of 1971- Inmates endured awful conditions at the Attica facility in New York.  The prison was overcrowded and inmates were only allowed one shower per week, one roll of toilet paper per month.  They ended up seizing control of the prison.  The siege ended up in bloodshed as the state sent in armed police who immediately opened fire, killing 29 inmates.  The riots however sparked the largest national conversation about prisoner’s rights in US history and have led to prisoner condition reforms across the country, although this still seems to be an ongoing fight.

The Mount Pleasant Riots of 1991- were prompted by a rookie police officer’s botched arrest of a Salvadoran man for a disorderly conduct where the officer shot the man in the chest.  The LatinX community who were already discriminated against rioted and 230 people were arrested over two days.  It led to heavier integration of Latinos into the police force at Mount Pleasant.  A report by the US Commission on Civil Rights found Spanish speakers faced systemic discrimination from police and the community, and a new set of policies about police conduct, including an agreement not to ask citizens about their immigration status.

The LA Riots of 1992- sparked after the acquittal of four police officers used excessive force against Rodney King.  While this riot produced the least amount of positive change and some of most notable amount of damage of $1 billion dollars it started conversations about the racial compositions of juries and a large amount of charitable organizations emerged to mend the damage done to the city and community.

The Battle in Seattle of 1992- this riot erupted at the WTO Conference.  This riot is important because it is one of the first times the US saw Black Bloc or what the right refers to as Antifa.  While Black Bloc originally surfaced in the 70s and 80s in Berlin, the US saw it for the first time in Seattle in 1992 to 2012’s Occupy movement in Oakland into current protests being called Antifa.  It’s a strategy where a group of people wearing black hoodies cover their faces and march together to form a faceless, anonymous block within a protest.  What bothers me specifically about protestors wearing Black Bloc is the uneducated reason behind it that the look stands in solidarity with people of color, not knowing the true meaning behind the appearance and are now most commonly confused with Antifa fueling the right to constantly say that Antifa thugs are destroying things, when most are peaceful protestors, not true Black Bloc aggitators.  Black Bloc instigated the Seattle riot.  Just as Occupy Wall Street put inequality on the agenda in 2011, the Battle in Seattle put antiglobalization on the agenda.  Since then, it has become a common populist political position in US politics advocated by politicians like Bernie Sanders and others.

The Cincinnati Riots of 2001- in the previous decade, the combination of poverty and police brutality of the Cincinnati Police Department had led to high tensions.  The riot started after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Timothy Thomas.  After the riot was a community boycott to pressure the city into taking action against the police department.  Under the economic pressures from the damage caused by the riot as well as the boycott, the city implemented reforms in their police department.

Occupy Wall Street of 2011- while not labeled an official riot, agitators came in to disrupt the mostly peaceful occupying of towns across the country.  Occupying space for more than a day is not a constitutional protected activity and labeled as an unlawful assembly.  Occupy takes credit for introducing income inequality into the broader political discourse, occupiers decried corporate greed, social and economic inequality, and political corruption, and new kind of climate movement" that questions the power of the fossil fuel industry. Occupy's injection of income inequality into the discourse paved the way for Bernie Sanders calls to get money out of politics, rein in Wall Street banks and provide free public college education.  It helped jumpstart "a whole generation who now got politicized. Pointing a finger at banks, corporations, and the wealthiest 1 percent, whom they blamed for corrupting our democracy by buying elections to control the legislative process, the protesters camping in Zuccotti Park issued a call for justice: “We are the 99 percent.” Overnight, the movement created a new narrative around economic inequality—and seized the public’s attention. Polls showed that a wide majority of Americans supported Occupy.

At its core, Occupy made protesting cool again—it brought the action back into activism—as it emboldened a generation to take to the streets and demand systemic reforms: racial justice, women’s equality, gun safety, the defense of democracy. Rewriting the protest playbook, Occupy introduced a decentralized form of movement organizing that enabled hundreds of city chapters to reinforce and strengthen one another yet remain independent—a sharp break from the traditional, hierarchical structure of protest movements of the past. Pioneering the use of live-stream technology while employing powerful social-media messaging and meme tactics to grow participation both on- and offline, Occupy showed a new generation how to turn social movements into a viral spectacle that seizes control of the public narrative.

The Ferguson Riots of 2014-2015- followed the police killing of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown.  Despite the outrageous efforts of the Ferguson Police Department to prevent news media from entering the city during the riots like we recently saw in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, the riot was broadcast live on TV around the entire world.  The Black Live Matter Movement shot to international fame due to the Ferguson riots, raising awareness about the ongoing police brutality against black Americans.  Governments and police departments across the US while reluctant took strong action to end the systemic killings of black Americans.  The riots also shifted the entire US political discourse towards its cause and towards related problems such as Mass Incarceration.


Standing Rock Pipeline Riot of 2016- a youth led protest from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe drew hundreds of thousands of activists to block the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Missouri River upstream from the Standing Rock Reservation that crosses North & South Dakota.  Which led to a global movement to support Indigenous rights and under the current administration shut down a major build in the development of these pipelines.

Throughout history there have been hundreds of other riots not listed here like the Watts Riots that began conversation around the country as well as within our government that have aided in positive change coupled with thousands of protests that helped pave the way and kept the pressure to illicit change.

In 2020, after the death of George Floyd not only have we seen thousands of protests but several of them turned into riots in various cities across the country.  Some of the changes that have happened due to these riots that were positive were Confederate statues being taken down, schools, parks and streets being renamed, states have redesigned their flags, sports teams redesigned their logos, corporate brands redesigned their logos and imagery, music groups dropped their Confederate ties, old cases of black, brown and indigenous killed by police or private citizens have been reopened leading to convictions and some of the first law enforcement convictions the country has ever seen.  In addition, police reform across the country has been a widely spread accomplishment with bias training, updates to their policies, banning of chokeholds, defunding departments with some even being dismantled all together.  Now riots and protests can’t take all the credit for law enforcement departments being completely dismantled, some of them did that to themselves due to their excessive insurance claims where insurance companies got tired of paying out millions of dollars and ended up dropping the departments coverage.

Do the positive changes from riots outweigh the totality of damage caused by riots?  Only we can decide if the outcome was worth the long lasting affects both good and bad and only time will tell.


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