It’s tough to say what will start a riot. From the entries on this list, it looks like all you need is the right combination of unhappy people, unfortunate circumstances, and an anger at society or the system at large that has been allowed to simmer to the boiling point. American history is dotted with these explosions of violence, whether motivated by politics, racism, or just plain discontent. Here are ten of the worst:
1. New York draft riots (July 13-16, 1863)
The backdrop: New York stood with the Union when the Civil War broke out in 1861, but the high body count meant the North’s soldiers were dwindling. In 1863, Congress passed the United States’ first conscription act, though men drafted for service could pay a commutation fee of $300 to get out of service. That financial inequity led to unrest among the lower classes who couldn’t afford to avoid the war the way rich men could.
The final straw: When the draft lottery began, riots broke out and ran for three days. Historians dispute the casualties, estimating that between 120 and 2,000 civilians were killed. The brawls were featured in part in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York.
2. Newark riots (July 12-17, 1967)
The backdrop: Running almost a week in 1967, these New Jersey riots wound up killing 26 people and injuring hundreds more. Black residents of the city had grown tired and angry at repeated incidences of police brutality, as well as a growing feeling of being disenfranchised.
The final straw: A pair of white cops arrested a black cab driver for improperly passing them and took him to their precinct building, across the street from public housing. Residents of the project saw an “incapacitated” black man being dragged inside, and though the driver was taken to a hospital, rumor spread that he’d died in police custody. With that, the civil unrest tipped over and erupted into a week of riots. The 2007 documentary Revolution ’67 examined the events:
3. Riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 1968)
The backdrop: The killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the heat of the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a dark moment among the many from that era. King was a leader for a generation, and his death angered and saddened millions.
The final straw: King’s assassination instantly gripped the nation and sparked riots in more than 60 cities. Washington, D.C., rioted for four days, with mass looting and injuries, and the swelling crowds at one point spread to within two blocks of the White House. Baltimore exploded into a riot, as well, and 5,000 soldiers from Fort Bragg deployed to the city to maintain order. Citizens in Chicago rioted and spread out over almost 30 blocks along West Madison Street, and the Illinois National Guard came in to assist police. Nationwide damages were well into the millions.
4. The Rodney King riots (April 29-May 4, 1992)
The backdrop: Rodney King, a black man on parole, led officers on a high-speed chase through Los Angeles before being caught and beaten. The beating was captured on the officers’ car cameras, and all four were charged with using excessive force. After a week’s deliberation, all four were acquitted of assault and three of the four acquitted of the excessive force charge.
The final straw: The verdict sent local black and Hispanic communities into a frenzy at the perceived injustice, and riots started to break out the evening of the verdict’s reading and lasted for days. There were many retaliatory attacks, including Reginald Denny, a white truck driver whose vicious beating was captured by a live news camera from above. All told, the riots killed 53 people, injured 2,000, and cost close to $1 billion in damages.
5. Stonewall riots (June 28, 1969)
The backdrop: Gays and lesbians were routinely shut out from mainstream society in the middle of the 20th century, from the denial of employment to being diagnosed by the American Psychiatric Association as having a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” New York’s Greenwich Village became one of the nation’s foremost gay-friendly areas, including the Stonewall Inn, a bar on Christopher Street.
The final straw: Police raids on gay bars to harass patrons and arrest drag queens were regular, but the one in the early hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall didn’t go as planned. Customers refused to cooperate or disperse, and eventually the confrontation turned violent as the sides attacked each other. The fracas led to greater protests and a higher profile for the gay rights movement.
6. The Chicago riots at the Democratic National Convention (August 28, 1968)
The backdrop: Following a year of assassinations and political disappointments, protestors from various groups had grown tired of the Johnson administration’s handling of the Vietnam War and the growing divide in society. Many promised to show up in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention to show their displeasure.
The final straw: Tens of thousands of protestors descended on the city, and the biggest conflict occurred on August 28 as protestors and police began fighting. Law enforcement officers used tear gas and Mace to subdue countless civilians. When it was all over, seven people were charged with conspiracy to incite the riot, and they became known as the Chicago Seven. Some were acquitted while others were fined, but all convictions were overturned in 1972.
7. The Battle in Seattle (November 30, 1999)
The backdrop: The World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 was held in Seattle for three days in November that year. Leading up to the conference, delegates couldn’t agree on an agenda and admitted that the attempt to launch new trade negotiations was being hampered by constant disagreements. The meeting was a target for participants in the anti-globalization movement, which stands in opposition to global capitalism because of its perceived abuse of the worker.
The final straw: On November 30, the Direct Action Network, an anarchist group, led activists to take control of major intersections and converge on the city to effectively shut it down. The move prevented delegates from reaching the convention center, but some began looting and smashing windows, which invited blowback from police. More than 600 people were arrested, some beaten in the process, and the WTO ended the meeting and reconvened it in 2001.
8. The Attica Prison riot (September 9-13, 1971)
The backdrop: Prisoners in New York’s Attica Prison were made to enjoy low standards of living in 1971, including one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper every month. Their unrest continued to grow.
The final straw: In August 1971, a prisoner at California’s San Quentin Prison was killed attempting to escape. In response to that and other turns, almost 1,000 Atttica prisoners rioted in September in an attempt to demand better living conditions. They took 33 guards hostage and began negotiating for their demands. Eventually, state police hit the building with tear gas and fired into the smoke, killing some hostages and inmates who weren’t resisting. In the end, nine hostages and 48 inmates were killed, either by state police or inmates.
9. Cincinnati riots (April 2001)
The backdrop: Racial tensions in Cincinnati had been growing for years, exacerbated by the regular deaths of young black men killed by police or in their custody. Of the 15 men who died this way between 1995 and 2001, three were unarmed. A 19-year-old black man named Timothy Thomas was killed running from police on April 7, 2001, and it was revealed that the officers acted improperly in the situation, including failure to give Thomas time to respond to the cops’ commands.
The final straw: The night Thomas was killed, almost 200 residents showed up to protest at a city council meeting, and protestors assembled outside city hall. After being dispersed, they began rioting, which triggered more outbreaks of violence and vandalism across the city. The riots lasted for days, becoming the largest disorders of their kind since the Rodney King riots nine years before. The officer who shot Thomas was eventually tried and acquitted in a criminal trial.
10. Watts Riots (August 11-15, 1965)
The backdrop: Race relations were strained all over in the 1960s, and Los Angeles was no exception. Growing tension between blacks and whites and between police and civilians added fuel to the fire.
The final straw: A white California Highway Patrol officer pulled over and arrested a black man for driving drunk, but the growing crowd of witnesses soon turned antagonistic. The mob grew angry, and when the CHP officer wound up arresting the man’s brother (also in the car) and mother, full-flegded riots broke out in the Watts section of town. Fires, violence, and looting were rampant for days, and the riots would be the biggest in L.A. history until those in 1992. The National Guard eventually came in to help. At the end of the spree, 34 people were dead, more than 2,000 injured, and almost 4,000 arrested.