The language of protest: Race, rioting, and the memory of Ferguson

Abigail Perkiss from Kean University examines protests over the Ferguson situation and the use of the word “riot,” which has a long and complicated history in United States history.


In the wake of last week’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, Americans came together in more than 170 protests across the country.

Many of these protests were peaceful. In Boston, upwards of 1,000 people gathered to condemn the decision. In Chicago, students staged a sit-in outside the mayor’s office. In Philadelphia, demonstrators marched from City Hall to the corner of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, site of the 1964 unrest during which, as historian Dan Royles writes, “anger over racist policing, economic inequality, and the slow pace of political change boiled over into a mass rebellion that ended in hundreds of arrests, two deaths, and millions of dollars in property damage.”

In some places, Ferguson protests became violent. In San Francisco, there were reports of demonstrators throwing bricks and bottles at police officers. And in the town of Ferguson, people threw bricks and set a dozen buildings on fire following last Monday’s announcement. As Reverend Osagyefo Sekou said of the demonstrations, “you didn’t just see buildings burning last night, you saw democracy on fire. We had peaceful protests for 108 days and the police didn’t respond to that. We are talking about a traumatized, grieving community. People feel like America doesn’t love black and brown children.”

Media outlets have described these violent episodes as riots. A Washington Post headline reads “Street Finally Reopens Four Days after Ferguson Riots.” Paul Lewis of The Guardian writes, “after attending the White House meeting, Holder traveled to Atlanta for a series of meetings the administration is holding to discuss policing in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots.”According to a reporter for Fox News, “A group of black Ferguson residents armed with high-powered rifles stood outside a white-owned business in the city during recent riots, protecting it from rioters that looted and burned other businesses.”

The word “riot” has a long and complicated history in the United States. According to scholar Ben Railton, the origins of the term as applied to racialized unrest date back to November 1898, when white residents of Wilmington, North Carolina brutalized members of the city’s black community. Weeks later, says Railton, “Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate officer and one of the supremacist leaders, wrote ‘The Story of the Wilmington, N.C., Race Riots’ for the popular publication Collier’s. Waddell’s story, accompanied by H. Ditzler’s cover illustration of marauding armed African Americans, led to the designation of the coup and massacre as a ‘race riot,’ a description that has continued to this day.”

As Railton writes, through the first half of the 20th century, similar episodes took places in cities across the country. In Tulsa, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit, white mobs tore through African American communities, beating and killing residents and wreaking havoc on homes and businesses.

The term “riot” connoted violence, aggression, property damage, and fear. And in the 1960s, white political leaders strategically co-opted the word and applied it to unrest in African American communities in order to delegitimize black protest movements.

In northern cities, the years following the Second World War saw widespread social mobilizing as African Americans sought to change the political, legal, and economic conditions under which they had been living for decades.

World War II saw a period of significant racial transition in the US; the war had given way to a sense that Americans couldn’t fight fascism abroad without contending with issues of racism at home, and across the nation there emerged a growing consciousness about civil rights among both white and black Americans.

This awareness about racial justice took shape at a moment when African Americans were experiencing the erosion of the material advancements that had briefly arisen during the war. By mid-century, black communities faced deteriorating housing, rising unemployment, failing schools, and a pervasive lack of political representation in cities across the country.

In 1964, Andrew Freeman, president of the National Urban League, called Philadelphia a “racial tinderbox.” Between high unemployment and substandard housing, the city had all the ingredients of disaster, said Freeman. “Consigned to street corners,” he warned, “the young Negro is building up a store of frustration and resentment.”

According to historian Ashley Williams, between 1965 and 1968, the United States saw 329 instances of urban unrest in 257 cities. These protests resulted in close to 300 deaths, 60,000 arrests, and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

“Rioters continued to attack vehicles…,” said a California Governor’s Commission report in 1965. The Commission, led by former US Director of Central Intelligence John McCone, formed in response to the unrest in Watts that August. “Some spectators described the crowd as having the appearance of a carnival, with persons acting with abandon and some spectators apparently enjoying the activity as if it were a sporting event.”

Reporting on the events in Newark in 1967, New York Times staffer Homer Bigart wrote, “the governor again said that the riots were not caused by a spontaneous uprising against unemployment, squalid housing, and general hopelessness – as negro leaders insist – but were an outbreak by a ‘vicious criminal element.’”

Labeling these episodes as “riots” had profound implications for the affected cities in the decades to follow.

The identification of “riot” spaces, writes activist Toivo Asheeke, “holds an inordinate amount of importance on whether one interprets… events as justified or not.” According to legal scholar Walter Olson, in many such areas, riotous associations of 1960s unrest took decades from which to recover. In addition to the immediate property damages, these cities faced reputations of violence, depreciating property values, and redlining.

We don’t yet know how Ferguson will be memorialized. Will we remember the demonstrations as legitimate protests against structural inequality, or will it be marked by recollections of violence and property damage? The language with which we talk and write about the events in the St. Louis suburb today could have profound effects on the viability of the community in the years to come.

For further reading, see:

Ben Railton, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Race Riots,”

Yamiche Alcindor, “Some Fear Rioting May Seal Ferguson Fate for Decades,”

Abigail Perkiss is an assistant professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey and a fellow at the Kean Center for History, Politics, and Policy. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Post-War Philadelphia, examines this experience of interracial living in American cities.

Follow her on twitter at @abiperk and visit her website at

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