We’ve been studying and discussing the history and nature of urban rebellions, particularly the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, the 2009 Oscar Grant riots in Oakland, and the recent Anaheim riots. How do revolutionaries understand these explosions of rage against authority, especially against police power?
The following chronology was compiled in support of a longer analysis we will publish at a later date.
A Short Chronology of Anti-Police Riots in Philadelphia (1938-1964)
In 1938 in Darby, a close suburb of Philadelphia, a mass action occurred in response to a white policeman forcefully removing Florence Slater from the “white only” section of a 10-cent movie theater. When Florence refused to leave the “white only” seating, the policeman threw her on the ground, and kicked her. Slater retaliated by scratching the officer’s face. As the officer dragged her out of the theater others followed after her. After Slater was brought to the local “lock up,” a large crowd began surrounding the tiny building. Those in the gathering of about two hundred people openly threatened to riot if Slater did not receive a fair sentence. William Linvill, the local Justice of the Peace, tried Florence Slater for assault and battery and disorderly conduct on the spot, hoping to release her as soon as possible and avert a crisis. The charges against Slater were ultimately dismissed after the white manager of the theater agreed to pay for all costs of the trial. Several police escorted the manager back to the theater.i
Clashes between black community residents and white police occurred in Southwest Philadelphia on July 18, 1940, when a mob of one thousand confronted a group of white police on motorcycles, who had fired ten shots at three black boys. The boys had taken off running after a black officer told them to stop throwing pebbles and were consequently chased by nearby white police who then shot at them. The boys were not hit by the bullets, but were beaten after the policemen caught up with them. As the beating was taking place a massive crowd from the neighborhood of 20th and Fitzwater Street surrounded the officers, threatening them with violence. The boys ended up being released without charges. Not only did spontaneous street actions like this one result in small, defiant victories, but they also spurred broader organizational developments. In the aftermath of the near melee a coalition was formed between the NAACP, the Philadelphia Youth Movement, and the Allied Civic Clubs, while Superintendent of Police, Howard Sutton, launched an investigation of the beating.ii
In July 1960 a small riot occurred in North Philadelphia at Broad and Dauphin Street in response to the police beating of a black man who had tried to “make a pass” at a white woman. The official police story was very different from that of eyewitnesses interviewed by the Philadelphia Tribune. After police attacked Curtis Graham, who was accused of sexually harassing an unidentified white woman, two other black men, Herbert Hirshfeld and Ernest Davis, tried to defend Graham against what grew to be fifty policemen.iii Six people who were caught up in the police riot were sent to Temple University Hospital for injuries, five of whom were charged with assault and battery on officers. Many victims were bystanders like Mary Fletcher, who was struck in the face with a police club and lost four teeth after she objected to the ruthless beating of Delcine Kendust, another pedestrian who was assaulted by the officers. Edward Byng was arrested at the hospital for trying to call the relatives of one of the injured women. The white woman who made the allegations of “molestation” never ended up pressing charges against Graham.iv This incident evokes the history of lynching and riots against black people in defense of the “purity” of white womanhood. In September of that same year four policemen and four participants in a mob of one hundred were injured in South Philadelphia after the large crowd tried to de-arrest Kenneth Reynolds from the custody of two highway patrolmen.iii
In December 1962 a young black man named Elmer Ricks was murdered by a white officer who had fired into a crowd of people near a dance hall in Chester, a suburb of Philadelphia. That night a rebellion of five hundred people erupted on the streets as they threw bottles and bricks at thirty police who tried to disperse the crowds.v In 1963 there also were several moments of near-riots as large groups of people in Philadelphia surrounded police who were engaging in brutal beatings.iv
In May and June 1963, during a campaign to desegregate the construction of a school building at Strawberry Mansion in North Philadelphia, hundreds of black protesters formed picket lines around the construction site located at thirty-first and Susquehanna Street, resulting in violent clashes with police and white construction workers who tried to break the picket lines in order to enter the site.v
In October 1963, a mob of seven hundred people hurled bricks and bottles at twenty police officers and fifteen squad cars after William Simpson was arrested for refusing to clear the corner of Ridge Avenue and Jefferson Street. At the end of the riot six people were arrested and the windows of a stalled out police car were smashed.vi A few months after this, in December, the police shot and murdered Willie Philyaw, a handicapped black man, as he fled, and also shot a bystander. This incident sparked a week-long rebellion in North Philadelphia where mobile gangs of youths fought against hundreds of policemen and looted the stores of white merchants along Susquehanna Avenue. Local ministers tried unsuccessfully to persuade the crowds to disperse. The District Attorney’s office claimed that the killing was justified, clearing the police of all charges.vii
In the summer of 1964 black urban rebellions spread like wildfire through the United States, starting in July with Harlem, New York, and eventually coming to North Philadelphia on August 28th. As usual, the spark that exploded into an uprising began as a routine occurrence. Two officers, one black and one white, tried to pull a black woman out of her car and on the spot people in the neighborhood began fighting back. This incident escalated into pitched street battles that lasted for three days. Roaming groups looted and burned white owned businesses, as had occurred in 1963. Cecil B. Moore and other official leaders fruitlessly tried to disband the angry masses.viii Of the 339 people reportedly injured during the rebellion, 100 of them were police.ix
The strength of the street actions listed above is derived from proletarian self-activity: the ability of the oppressed to advance their collective interests without relying on self-appointed representatives and official avenues of reform. And as this history of riots and uprisings shows us, the practice of people protecting each other from the police suggests immediate tactical operations. The prospect of revolt is not a distant and far-off abstraction, but a moment that revolutionaries must prepare for in the present. To transform the spontaneous riot into an organized insurrection, to support it in making a far reaching impact on society, a patient and well prepared revolutionary force must be organized around a revolutionary class of people which can seize such moments, effectively intervening in favorable conjunctures of circumstances.x