Riots, rebellion and the Black working class

May 6, 2015

Lee Sustar looks at the changing dynamics of African American urban rebellion--from the uprising in Watts 50 years ago this summer to the eruption in Baltimore today.

THE UPRISING in Baltimore over the past few weeks followed a familiar pattern for anyone who knows about the great African American urban rebellions of the 1960s.

The latest episode in an ongoing saga of racist police violence--this one deadly--outrages African Americans, who take to the streets. Hyper-aggressive police move in, but young Black working people, all too used to seeing the cops get away with murder, fight back. Panicked politicians denounce the "rioters" in thinly veiled--or not-so-thinly-veiled--racial terms. The governor sends in the National Guard to repress the uprising with overwhelming force.

All that happened again, 50 years later. The difference now is the social, economic and political context. The 1960s rebellions took place as the mass Southern civil rights movement had reached its high point, and amid a full-employment economy. The Baltimore revolt is a product of the rollback of the gains of those earlier struggles.

Today, African American workers are suffering from the long-term decline in industrial jobs, the catastrophic collapse of Black wealth as a result of the housing bust, cuts in social services and the mass incarceration of African Americans.

Baltimore takes a stand for Freddie Gray
Baltimore takes a stand for Freddie Gray (Aaron Petcoff | SW)

And while the 1960s militants would say they were taking on "The Man," referring to the racist white power structure, the youth of Baltimore today confront an African American woman as mayor: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the most prominent local member of a national Black political establishment that includes the current and former attorney generals and the president of the United States.

Thus, the Black Lives Matter movement must contend not only with the legacy of centuries of racism and the worst economic inequality since the 1930s, but also with class divisions that separate the Black working class majority from the African American political establishment and the small but influential layer of Black business owners and top executives ensconced in Corporate America.

Of course, many prominent Black political figures are sincere in their outrage over police violence and the attack on civil rights. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement half a century ago, was clearly pained during the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013 as he spoke of the U.S. Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act.

The question, however, isn't Lewis' individual intentions, but whether the Black establishment shares the same class interests as the mass of African Americans. When Baltimore Mayor Rawlings-Blake denounced Black youth as "thugs" and Rev. Al Sharpton compared Black Lives Matter militants in Ferguson, Missouri, to "pimps," they're making it clear that they have a stake in the existing social order.

THE DIVERGENCE between the politics of the Black Lives Matter movement and the relatively conservative African American middle class is more visible than ever.

But it isn't new. The class divide in Black America was on sharp display during the urban rebellions of the 1960s that led to the formation of Black Power-era political formations, such as the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

The Black street rebellions erupted in Northern and Midwestern cities in the mid-1960s as the Southern civil rights movement reached its climax with the passage of federal civil rights and voting rights laws.

While sparked in most cases by police violence, the riots were also an expression of the political radicalization of the African American majority outside the South. In the Midwest and North, African Americans likewise experienced segregated housing and schools and disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty, despite the greatest economic boom in U.S. history.

In these explosive conditions, racist police terror--the descendent of 250 years of slavery and the lynching that enforced Southern apartheid for another century after that--was the detonator. In the summer of 1964--the year that the Civil Rights Act finally passed Congress--there were riots in a series of Northern cities, from Philadelphia to Rochester, New York, to New York City's Harlem, the cultural and political capital of Black America.

The Black revolutionary Malcolm X, interviewed while in Egypt, attributed the New York City riot to police "scare tactics" intended to intimidate Blacks. "This won't work, because the Negro is not afraid," he said. "If the tactics are not changed, this could escalate into something very, very serious."

The 1964 rebellions differed from race riots--such as those in 1919, when racist whites toting clubs and guns attacked Black communities until they were repelled by African Americans who were also armed. African Americans were squaring off against police in battles that widened to include property destruction and looting businesses seen as taking advantage of Black customers.

But in the context of the mass civil rights movement, the clashes in the North had a social and political dimension as well.

THAT DYNAMIC became obvious the following year during the Watts riot in Los Angeles, the biggest urban rebellion in U.S. history to that point.

It began, like previous uprisings, over the issue of police brutality. But the scope, scale and character of the rebellion marked the Watts riot as the transition from a Southern-based civil rights movement to a Black Power revolt. Plus, Watts saw the beginning of the right-wing, "law-and-order" policies pushed by LA's race-baiting Democratic Mayor Sam Yorty, as well as the Republicans.

In fact, the electoral success of the California right laid the groundwork for the Watts rebellion. Voters passed a referendum in November 1964 that gutted the state's fair housing laws, making it clear to Black workers that the supposedly liberal state was entrenching racial segregation, even as it was outlawed in the South.

The following month, a U.S. Department of Commerce study, "Hard Core Unemployment and Poverty in Los Angeles," detailed the crisis of housing, the high incidence of disease and other issues. In March 1965, five continuous days of civil rights demonstrations outside the Federal Building pointed to an increase in Black activism in the city.

This was the political background to the Watts uprising. The police harassment of a Black motorist was only the trigger.

Beginning on August 11, 1965--just days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act--the Watts rebellion stunned the nation because of its unmistakably insurrectionary character. By August 17, the riot had covered 46 square miles and left 34 people dead, only one of them white. Another 1,032 were wounded. Police arrested 3,952, and property damage was put at $40 million. Over 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed. At the peak of the riot, 13,500 National Guard troops patrolled South Central LA.

Watts was an indication that popular Black consciousness had gone beyond the framework of the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King and activist-entertainer Dick Gregory traveled there in the days following the riot, Black workers heckled King, who had criticized the looting. A sniper shot Gregory in the leg as Gregory used a police bullhorn to urge people off the street.

According to historian Gerald Horne, "[A] remarkable consensus had developed, crossing even class and racial divides: Black leadership was too middle class and had lost touch with the masses." King himself reached a similar conclusion. In a statement to the press in August 1965, he offered an analysis:

After visiting the area of the recent riots and talking to hundreds of people of all walks of life, it is my opinion that these riots grew out of the depths of despair which afflict a people who see no way out of their economic dilemma. There are serious doubts as to whether the white community is in any way concerned or willing to accommodate their needs. There is also a growing disillusionment and resentment toward the Negro middle class and the leadership which it has produced.

This ever-widening breach is a serious factor, which leads to the feeling that they are left alone in their struggle and must resort to any method to gain attention to their plight. The nonviolent movement of the South has meant little to them as we have been fighting for rights which theoretically are already theirs.

Watts compelled King to develop a new strategy. In the next two and a half years, activism by Black workers--including more street rebellions--would reshape King's political agenda, from his fight for open housing in Chicago to his organizing for the Poor People's Campaign at the time of his assassination three years later.

THOSE STRUGGLES were punctuated by other riots. In 1966, Cleveland's Black ghetto of Hough rose up in response to police violence. A wave of Black political activism followed, opening the way for Carl Stokes to become the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city. But Stokes, who enjoyed backing from the corporate liberal establishment, found himself facing a challenge from a militant Black nationalist organization.

Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, two young African American activists, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, made racist police violence their immediate organizing priority when they formed the Black Panther Party--but they linked this issue to an agenda for Black liberation in a 10-point program that called for full employment for Black workers and demanded reparations for slavery.

The year 1967 saw new and massive Black uprisings. Again, the detonator was police violence. But other grievances came into play. In Newark, New Jersey, Black workers were protesting a racist Democratic political machine that blocked African American political representation. A few days later, Detroit--then the center of the U.S. auto industry--exploded in response to police violence.

As the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence demonstrated in its report, most participants in the rebellions were not part of some unemployed "underclass."

Although participants came from a cross-section of the younger population of the ghettos, they weren't, by and large, "marginal"--meaning those who had dropped permanently out of the job market. In the case of Watts, according to the report, "the great majority" of rioters were "currently employed," despite the fact that 25 percent of high school graduates in the area were unemployed.

In Detroit, the commission reported:

the typical rioter was a teenager or young adult, a lifelong resident of the city in which he rioted, a high school dropout; he was, nevertheless, somewhat better educated than his non-rioting Negro neighbor, and was usually underemployed or employed in a menial job. He was proud of his race, extremely hostile to both whites and middle-class Negroes and, although informed about politics, highly distrustful of the political system.

The uprisings were often successful in wresting concessions from local, state and federal authorities--such as a pullback from aggressive policing or greater spending on social services. The Independent Socialists, a predecessor of the International Socialist Organization, called this dynamic "collective bargaining by riot."

SOON ENOUGH, the militancy of Black workers found expression at workplaces where workers did have collective bargaining rights.

By 1968, the United Auto Workers (UAW) estimated that nearly half the auto plant workers in the Detroit metropolitan area were Black. In May 1968, African American workers at Chrysler's Dodge Main launched a wildcat strike and a new organization, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).

As the book Detroit: I Do Mind Dying documents, this was not a spontaneous act, but the product of years of organizing that had accelerated in the wake of the 1967 rebellion. DRUM gave rise to a wider network, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Like the Black Panther Party, the League blended revolutionary Black nationalism and socialism. However, distinct from the Panthers, the League argued that Black workers in particular had a unique interest in a socialist transformation of society and the social power to achieve it. As one of the League's leaders, John Watson, put it in an interview:

We oppose the idea that the solution to our problem is the establishment of a new economy, in which you have Black capitalists, Black factory owners, exploiting Black workers the way white people have. We see the solution to the problem as not simply one of establishing a nationalist community, but one in which all forms of exploitation and oppression are eliminated within that community.

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was the era's most politically advanced Black union caucus--rank-and-file formations that had a significant impact on the labor movement. Concentrated in key sectors of unionized industry; confronted with employers that typically pushed them into the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs; and frustrated by union officials who didn't consistently defend their interests, militant African American workers also took up issues that concerned white workers--many of whom participated in Black-led wildcat strikes and other actions. This activity was central to the strike activity of the 1970s, which reached its highest level in decades.

AFTER THE assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, the militancy of the Black working class went beyond the workplace into a direct confrontation with the state in the biggest civil unrest since the Civil War.

Historian Clay Risen noted that riots swept 125 cities across the U.S. "In Washington, Chicago and Baltimore, it took tens of thousands of regular army soldiers and Marines" to suppress the uprising, he wrote. "When they were over, some 39 people were dead, more than 2,600 injured and 21,000 arrested. The damages were estimated at $65 million--about $385 million today." In Washington, protesters got within two blocks of the White House.

But the "Martin Luther King riots," as they were known, were the last major uprisings of the 1960s. In the aftermath, the Black middle class expanded rapidly as the number of Black elected officials multiplied, and higher education, government agencies and big business were pressured by the mass movement into adopting affirmative action programs.

Democratic Party politics became a fast track into the Black establishment, drawing ex-revolutionaries like Chicago's Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther. Sometimes, the rise of Black politicians was the result of a deal with the existing power structure. In other cases, those aspiring to join the new Black political establishment had to kick open the doors. Either way, the National Black Political Convention, hosted in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 by the city's first African American mayor, marked the transition for many civil rights and Black Power militants toward the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

It wasn't long before the sharpening class divisions in Black America showed themselves openly. In 1973, Maynard Jackson, the new African American mayor of Atlanta, broke a strike of Black sanitation workers--just five years after Martin Luther King was shot down in Memphis, Tennessee, supporting a strike of Black sanitation workers in that city.

Nevertheless, Atlanta became the model for a new generation of African American politicians, like Harold Washington, who overcame a racist backlash to be elected mayor of Chicago in 1983. Many of the cities that had seen the most intense rebellions of the 1960s--including Newark and Detroit--were now run by Black mayors. At the same time, the living standards of the Black majority continued to decline.

THE NEXT great Black urban uprising came in April 1992 in Los Angeles. This time, the spark was the acquittal of the four cops charged and put on trial for the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King. And the mayor was Tom Bradley, the African American ex-cop who had run LA's City Hall for the previous 19 years.

It was the biggest riot in U.S. history. Sixty people were killed, at least 10 of them by police and/or National Guard troops. Officials reported 2,383 injured, 850 left homeless, and 20,000 jobs wiped out. Insured losses totaled $1 billion, with millions more in uninsured property destroyed by an estimated 623 fires.

California Gov. Pete Wilson ordered 2,000 National Guard troops to Los Angeles--that force soon expanded to 6,000. President George H.W. Bush deployed 1,000 federal agents, including 200 U.S. Marshals and hundreds of Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. Bush ultimately resorted to the U.S. armed forces--4,500 troops in all, including 1,500 Marines.

This overwhelming show of force finally quelled rioting after four days, but it also highlighted the scale of the conflagration. Barely a year after the first Gulf War against Iraq had underscored U.S. military might, Britain's Guardian newspaper ran the headline, "Superpower Takes Second City." Stanley Sheinbaum, president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, put it bluntly: "You have a social upheaval."

While often called a "race riot" because it was centered in African American neighborhoods, the LA uprising was, in fact, a multiethnic rebellion of workers and the poor against inequality and racism. As LA journalist Luis Rodriguez put it:

In cities across the country, all kinds of people led protests against the Rodney King verdict, an issue most Americans agree with regardless of color. Although "race" continues to be rammed down our throats, the issue here is class. Los Angeles' violence was the first major social response to an economic revolution that began years ago.

The "economic revolution" Rodriguez was talking about--the shift in wealth from workers to the rich, the rollback of social spending, and pro-business policies known as neoliberalism--created a sharply different framework than LA's Watts uprising of 1965. The Black revolts of that era took place amid rising expectations in an expanding economy, after a decade of civil rights struggle and wider antiwar and social movements.

But the common denominator was racist police violence and other forms of state repression of African Americans.

IN THE aftermath of the LA Rebellion, the "law-and-order" crackdown reached unprecedented levels. In 1994 in California, voters approved a "three strikes" referendum that imposed mandatory sentences of 25 years to life for anyone convicted of three felony offenses.

That same year, Democratic President Bill Clinton pushed, and a Democratic-controlled Congress passed, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, among other things, led to harsher prison sentences and boosted spending on prisons. "Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools," Clinton said, embracing the coded racial language used by Republicans in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.

Clinton's crime bills led directly to the mass incarceration of African American men and the establishment of what author Michelle Alexander calls "the new Jim Crow"--symbolized by the loss of democratic rights by Black men as the result of imprisonment or post-conviction restrictions on voting rights and employment opportunities.

The mounting social and political pressure on Black America intensified as a result of the Great Recession, which wiped out African American wealth accumulated over decades. The election of the first African American president and the corresponding growth of the Black political establishment have done nothing to reverse these trends.

The Baltimore rebellion is a direct response to those conditions. While the immediate cause, as in Ferguson, Missouri, was racist police violence, the new struggle has raised questions not only about the causes of rampant police abuse of African Americans across the U.S., but the interests of the Black political establishment that runs Baltimore.

Half a century after Martin Luther King saw the Watts rebellion as evidence of "growing disillusionment and resentment toward the Negro middle class and the leadership which it has produced," a new generation is reaching similar conclusions.

That earlier crisis led to the development of the Black Power movement and the growth of revolutionary politics in the U.S. Today's Black Lives Matter movement now faces the challenge of developing its own political alternative in the ongoing struggle for racial justice and liberation.

Further Reading

From the archives