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An Atlanta police vehicle on fire. AP Photo/Mike Stewart

I wonder.  What is the collective noun for riots? I also wonder where is this all heading?

We are seeing a spontaneous uprising in the USA protesting another killing of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.  Unquestionably, long-standing racial prejudice in the USA and the lack of economic success experienced by this demographic group has played a part.  I would also argue that COVID-19 is in the mix – the people being most impacted are from this same demographic.  These are the ‘essential’ workers who nevertheless earn very little, survive hand-to-mouth and are being killed at a faster rate by the virus. Do Black lives matter as much?

There are relatively recent examples of similar events to call upon to try to see into the future: racially-inspired riots in 1965 in LA, 1967 in Newark and Detroit, nationwide after Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, 1980 in Miami, 1992 LA again, 2001 in Cincinnati, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, 2015 in Baltimore and 2016 in Charlotte being just the more significant of recent history.

But it goes further.  America is a society where protest and physical violence against authority is endemic, maybe because of the lack of a social security safety net, perhaps because of a ‘wild west’ gun culture, or the end product of a philosophy that pays homage to everyman ‘having the chance to succeed and to hell with the rest’ that underpins the right-wing politics of the nation.

You can go back further than the 20th century to see racial and economic tensions playing out …   In 1874, a major economic depression had resulted in changing attitudes and the Republicans finally lost control of the House (the first time since the Civil war).  Three years on, the nation still suffered. Then, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut wages for the third time in a year, the balloon burst.  A strike by railroad workers sparked a coast-to-coast conflagration as workers driven by despair and desperation battled troops in the streets of major U.S. cities with ‘foreigners’ being widely blamed by those in power for this unprecedented, collective expression of rage against economic hardship and injustice.

The West Virginia governor sent in troops but this was unsuccessful largely because the militia sympathised with the workers. With reports of looting and attacks on the police, the Governor called on the White House for support and Federal troops were sent in. This restored the peace but was controversial.  A striking worker was reported to have said that he, “might as well die by the bullet as to starve to death by inches.”  A few days later, more protests had spontaneously occurred in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri.

As a result of the depression, railroad building crashed across the South, leaving most states with unsustainable debt and the populace facing heavy taxes to repay the debt load.  Retrenchment was the common policy in the South and, in response, one by one, Southern states fell to the Democrats. 

The economy slowly recovered aided by the economic boost of WWI until the next Great Depression of the 1930s threw everything back into despair.

As I say on my cover page, “Ignore history at your peril”.  Indeed, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

The post A Conflagration of Riots first appeared on David Cairns of Finavon.

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