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rioters

A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union Army soldiers in New York City.

The Writers Almanac taught me that during this week in 1863 the New York City Draft Riots began. I will admit to not even knowing such an event had occurred. It was the bloodiest riot in American history.

Hearing about these riots that happened more than 150 years, a lot of the details seemed much more modern, even contemporary.

The rioters were working-class white men against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln. The draft was the visible reason for the riot, but there was more going on.

There is something about a long, hot summer that seems to feed riots.

The only riots I have ever experienced were the 1967 Newark, New Jersey riots. They happened this same time of summer (between July 12 and July 17). It was four days of rioting, looting, and destruction. It left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

The Newark riots took place in a time of police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs. That sounds contemporary.

On that 1863 hot summer during the height of the Civil War, the richest New Yorkers were making money off the war. Poor people were poorer than usual. There was huge inflation.

A good number of working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up to serve in the Union Army. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken.

There were many “sensational” newspapers then and their stories heaped the blame for everything bad on Lincoln, black people, and the new Emancipation Proclamation. With the kinds of stories that always occur before war and revolution, newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would now be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They claimed that black men were breaking the strikes.

But the Union Army needed more soldiers. Congress authorized the nation’s first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat.

But the wealthy had an out. For $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. In a time when the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day, it was the 1% versus the 99% of its time.

A group of  firemen who were drafted decided to protest. They showed up at the draft office with their firetruck full of rocks and threw them through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who worked there. Thousands gathered around the firemen and mob mentality took over.

They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists and attacked the offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune. 

Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans and their businesses and homes owned by blacks and places associated with them, including the Colored Orphan Asylum. At least 11 black men were murdered.

The Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began, and on July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to put down the rioting. About 6,000 federal troops were eventually there and the riot ended.

The official death toll was conservatively listed as 119. About 20% of  African-Americans left New York City for Brooklyn or beyond the boroughs because of the riots.

That long, hot summer of 1967 caught fire in Newark when two white Newark policemen arrested a black cabdriver. The cabbie was beaten by the officers and taken to the 4th Police Precinct where he was charged with assaulting the officers and making insulting remarks. Local residents saw the cabbie being dragged into the precinct. A rumor started that he had been killed while in police custody.

Actually the driver, John Smith, had been released in the custody of his lawyer. But police rushed out of their station wearing hard hats and carrying clubs and residents gathered there in protest began to throw bricks, bottles, and rocks. The protest moved to City Hall and after midnight false alarms caused fire engines to concentrate on an area along Belmont Avenue in one of the poorest areas of the city. Looters began smashing windows, and threw merchandise onto sidewalks and particularly looted liquor stores.

During this same period, rioting erupted in Plainfield, New Jersey, a city about 18 miles southwest of Newark, that also had a large African-American population and similar conditions.

The riots didn’t improve conditions in Newark, as the NYC riots didn’t stop the draft or improve conditions. The Newark riots began a deeper decline of Newark and its neighboring communities. In the remaining 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, businesses, industry and the white middle class left the city.

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Bright College Years is part of the “Sixties Legacy” series.  It’s a  feature length documentary on the “student revolution” at Yale University.

I recall that on May Day (May 1) 1970 there was Black Panther rally in New Haven, Connecticut with the ‘Chicago 7’ defendants Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and David Dellinger and Panther official David Hilliard.

Peaceful rally that ended up with police and tear gas, bottle-throwing protesters marching from Yale into town. More police and guardsmen.

I was finishing my junior year of high school, thinking about college and being a bit envious that I wasn’t involved in all the protests.

I watched it online this weekend before the inauguration of Barack Obama. A film full of Black Panthers, speeches, protests and rich Yale students trying to either do the right thing or look like they are doing the right thing.

I’m not sure what to think as I watch this today. I don’t feel nostalgia.  Who feels  nostalgia for a protester talking about how Charles Manson is innocent?

It really was a strange trip. It’s a road I don’t mind visiting, but I have no desire to park there for any length of time.

The documentary  won the Gold Hugo, Chicago Film Festival, 1972 and Cannes Film Festival Award for Best First-Feature Film, 1972.

It can be viewed online at an interesting website called snagfilms.com that features documentaries.

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