Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York

Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York

Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York

Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York


Three weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a New York City police officer shot and killed a fifteen-year-old black youth, inciting the first of almost a decade of black and Latino riots throughout the United States. In October 2005, French police chased three black and Arab teenagers into an electrical substation outside Paris, culminating in the fatal electrocution of two of them. Fires blazed in Parisian suburbs and housing projects throughout France for three consecutive weeks. Cathy Lisa Schneider explores the political, legal, and economic conditions that led to violent confrontations in neighborhoods on opposite sides of the Atlantic half a century apart.

Police Power and Race Riots traces the history of urban upheaval in New York and greater Paris, focusing on the interaction between police and minority youth. Schneider shows that riots erupted when elites activated racial boundaries, police engaged in racialized violence, and racial minorities lacked alternative avenues of redress. She also demonstrates how local activists who cut their teeth on the American race riots painstakingly constructed social movement organizations with standard nonviolent repertoires for dealing with police violence. These efforts, along with the opening of access to courts of law for ethnic and racial minorities, have made riots a far less common response to police violence in the United States today. Rich in historical and ethnographic detail, Police Power and Race Riots offers a compelling account of the processes that fan the flames of urban unrest and the dynamics that subsequently quell the fires.


A riot is somebody talking. A riot is a man crying out
“Listen to me mister. There’s something I’ve been trying to
tell you and you are not listening.”

—Federal Communications Commissioner
Nicholas Johnson (speaking after the 1968
riots in Washington, D.C.)

On the night of July 18, 1964, three weeks after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, New York City police lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed James Powell, a fifteen-year-old black student, outside his high school in upper Manhattan. An altercation had ensued when Patrick Lynch, the white janitor of a nearby building, sprayed black high school students with a garden hose as they left the school. Lynch shouted racial epithets at the boys, and Powell and two other high school students chased him back to his building. Officer Gilligan arrived on the scene, pivoted, and shot Powell three times. The high school students screamed and cursed at the police, some throwing bottles and cans. “Come on,” they taunted Gilligan, “shoot another nigger.” Dozens more police arrived on the scene.

The following day hundreds of Harlem residents gathered in front of police stations but were met with walls of tactical police. Scuffles broke out as police wielded batons and shot into the crowds. Meanwhile residents threw bricks and bottles, pulled fire alarms, overturned cars, looted stores, and occasionally attacked white bystanders. After three days the disorder spread from Harlem to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. More than six thousand officers were called in to quell the disturbances. By the sixth day of what would become the first major urban uprising of the 1960s, more than five hundred people had been injured, including thirty-five policemen, and another black man was dead, of gunshot wounds. Property damages were assessed at several million dollars.

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