Photo: Hayk_Shalunts/Shutterstock

11 of History's Biggest Riots and Why They Happened

by Jason Wire Aug 10, 2011
From Constantinople to LA, riots have been with us as long as human civilization could raise a fist. Here’s eleven worst case scenarios come true.

WIKIPEDIA TRIES TO BOX riots into different categories: police riots, prison riots, student riots, Quiet Riot. It’s true that riots take their origins from a great variety of incidents and reasons, and like most violent confrontations, the original problem never seems to get solved.

Yet no matter what the reason for the uprising, when the smoke clears and human beings have become reduced to statistics, it’s clear that the cause of a riot almost never justifies the cost of senseless brutality.

11. Chicago, April 5, 1968

Injured: 48
Dead: 11
Damages: ~$10,000,000
Why?: At 6:01 PM on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in his hotel room in Memphis. Throughout the United States, black Americans took to the streets in protest and anger, bringing riots to Baltimore, DC, and Chicago, which experienced the worst of the three cities. By the following afternoon more than 30 blocks had become consumed by the riot, transformed into a burning sprawl. In the weeks that followed, Chicago experienced one of the worst food shortages in recent history.

10. Los Angeles, April 29, 1992

Injured: Thousands
Dead: 53
Damages: $1,000,000,000+
Why?: It’s 1992, and there’s a video that’s been going around of two police officers clearly beating a defenseless black man while a few other officers stand by like they’re watching Sportscenter re-runs. About two months later, the verdict is being read to the offending officers: clearly, they must be guilty. It happened in plain sight!

But then it comes. All of them walk. And within a half an hour you and a few hundred others are outside the LA county courthouse. Three hours later, stores are looted and the car behind you is on fire. It’s snowballed from outcry to outrage to all-out anarchy.

9. Hong Kong, May 1967

Injured: 800
Dead: 51
Damages: Millions
Why?: After pro-communist demonstrations and clashes against the British-ruled Hong Kong began, the ensuing riots set off a wave of bombs and violent skirmishes that included a seven-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother killed by a bomb wrapped like a birthday present. While the leftists’ called the original actions by the government as “facist atrocities,” their own tactics, such as killing reporters of dissenting opinions, did nothing but create chaos and belittle their initial calls for free speech.

8. Tulsa, May 31, 1921

Injured: 800+
Dead: 39
Damages: $21,000,000, and 10,000 left homeless
Why?: In a story that seems taken from a book or movie, an alleged sexual assault of a white female elevator operator by a young black man escalated from a lone manhunt into a 16-hour warzone that left more than 10,000 people homeless and set fire to over 35 city blocks. How did things get so out of control?

Well, once a great number of racists and enraged white men formed a lynch mob outside the courthouse, members of the black community took to supporting the alleged sexual assailant and the two groups found themselves staring across the same pavement. It doesn’t take an eye witness to imagine what happened next. No one could imagine, though, how far the carnage would go, which included aerial bombings from retired war planes.

7. Detroit, July 23, 1967

Injured: 1,189
Dead: 43
Damages: More than 2,000 buildings destroyed
Why?: As Saturday night passed into Sunday morning in Detroit on July 23, all the bars closed their doors and windows–except for “blind pigs,” those unlicensed, after-hours operations. A few police units rolled up onto 12th street, one of the harder areas of town, expecting to bust up the bar and a few patrons. Instead, they found almost 100 people holding a homecoming party for two Vietnam veterans. Understaffed, they decided to call for backup and book them all anyway.

Drunk, confused, and upset, those who weren’t immediately arrested began protesting, and as police numbers dithered, a few began smashing clothing store windows. It was at this moment that things spiraled out of control.

It’s hard to understand how the angry mob mentality- the collective hue of red vision–spreads so ferociously. The pastor of a nearby church reported seeing a “gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of buildings,” and rioters wouldn’t even listen to a Detroit Tigers player calling for calm on top of a demolished car in the middle of the street.

In less than 48 hours, the National Guard came to assist, along with military troops and more police, but it would take five full days to put out the force of the riot, arresting over 7,000 people.

6. Sao Paulo, October 2, 1992

Injured: Hundreds
Dead: 111
Why?: About 20 years ago, the Sao Paulo House of Detentions–known as Carandiru and built in the 1950s–was originally designed to house up to 3,500 inmates. At the time of the riot, it held more than 8,000.

The video above comes from a VBS news documentary about a former employee at Carandiru who witnessed the riot firsthand. There had been many riots before, but on this occasion the guards seemed either especially unable or unwilling to negotiate with the prisoners. After the start of a revolt, which had killed nine from stab wounds, the military police came in and killed 102 inmates with automatic rifles. In the case of the Carandiru Massacre, the tables of the riot turned–the rioters didn’t cause even a tenth of the damage as the police, all of whom survived uninjured.

5. Bombay, December 1992

Injured: Thousands
Dead: 900
Why?: As you’ll see in the video above, the Babri Mosque was destroyed when a political rally turned into a destructive mob 150,000 strong. But this wasn’t just any mosque–it was the largest mosque in Uttar Pradesh, a state of more than 31 million Muslims. Before the damage, the Indian Supreme Court had promised and assured the people that the mosque wouldn’t be harmed. Clearly things were not going according to plan.

What followed was a back-and-forth war of riots and killings between Hindus and Muslims, leaving nearly 1,000 dead in Bombay alone over the course of less than a month. It would also lead to a massive bomb blast in March of 1993, where over 250 were killed and more than 700 injured.

4. Kenya, December 1992

Injured: Thousands
Dead: 800-1,500
Damages: Billions
Why?: It’s difficult to imagine: everyone in your country is carefully watching the presidential election results, it’s gonna be a close one. But at the same time, everyone has a feeling that it’s rigged.

The results come in, and sure enough, the incumbent Kibaki is still president. All hell breaks loose. Over 120 are dead in less than two days. Obviously, this is not a problem with a quick solution–elections are rarely re-tried, and red tape abounds goverment procedures. This gives more riots time to materialize, and by the end of the month more than 800 are dead and over 600,000 displaced from their homes.

3. Gujarat, February 27, 2002

Injured: Thousands
Dead: 1,495
Why?: In 2002, a train full of 58 Hindus returning from a pilgrimage was set on fire by a Muslim mob. If you’ve been reading this whole article, you know the two groups have some history.

Yet lingering bad blood can’t be called the only culprit. The media played a large role in sensationalizing many of the riots and attacks, showing bloody and violent images with bias for whichever group comprised the local majority. The resulting trials and court cases became similarly publicized. The flames of a riot aren’t fanned merely by the rioters themselves.

2. New York Draft Riots, July 13, 1863

Injured: 2,000-8,000
Dead: 120-2,000
Damages: $185,000,000
Why?: Imagine you’re fresh off the boat from Ireland to America, a country that’s not even seen its 100th birthday. You’re broke, starving, and need a job. To make matters worse, you might get drafted to fight in a civil war that everyone seems to think is about freeing slaves, and there are already a number of freed slaves picking up work in your city.

This pisses you and the rest of your thousands of fellow expatriates off. Why fight in a civil war for a country you barely belong to for the cause of helping those who may eventually take your jobs? This was the collective mentality of those in New York in 1863, who ended up killing more than 120 in the United States’ most destructive civil uprising in history.

1. Nika Riots, Constantinople, 532

Dead: 30,000+
Damages: Over half the city lay in burnt ruins.
Why?: The video above, a History Channel re-enactment, tells the story quite well. Back in the days before Yankees-Sox rivalries and football stadium stampedes, chariot racing was the sport that attracted the greatest amount of Hooliganism in the Roman empire. Even the athletes themselves took part in the post-game frenzies, and on one occasion several were arrested and hanged in connection with some murders. However, two escaped, taking refuge in a nearby church and attracting a large mob.

All of this commotion was too much for the emperor, Justinian, who had just raised taxes quite a bit and was dealing with negotiating peace with the neighboring Persians to the east. So, he did the worst possible thing he could: postpone the next chariot race.

By the time the race came, the crowd was pissed and bloodthirsty, and began chanting “Nika!” meaning “Conquer!” and rose to an angry mob, besieging Justinian near the point of exile. In the end, though, the emperor’s retaliation would claim more than 30,000 lives and see more than half of Constantinople reduced to rubble, including major damages to the Hagia Sophia.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.