Academic journal article Independent Review

"Burn, Baby, Burn": Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s

Academic journal article Independent Review

"Burn, Baby, Burn": Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s

Article excerpt

On August 11, 1965, a routine arrest of a drunk driver in the Watts section of Los Angeles sparked a riot that lasted five days and took the lives of thirty-four people. African American rioters looted and set fire to stores, as bystanders chanted the slogan of a popular disc jockey, "Burn, Baby, Burn!" The Watts riot ushered in four "long, hot summers" of mayhem. Between 1965 and 1968, more than three hundred riots occurred, resulting in two hundred deaths and the destruction of several thousand businesses (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997, 158-61; Graham 1980, 12). In this article, I examine the effect of the riots on small business, an issue neglected by government officials, who embraced an ideology that focused sympathetic attention on rioters but ignored their victims.

The Riot Ideology

As America's inner cities burned, contemporary observers searched for answers to the question, "What do the rioters want?" Black militants and their white sympathizers considered the "rebellions" a form of political violence designed to force concessions from governmental authorities. In that view, the doters were "political dissidents" who targeted "hated examples of outside oppression and exploitation" (Feagin and Hahn 1973, 44, 47).(1) The media publicized the views of militants, such as Stokely Carmichael, who characterized the riots as "uprisings" against poverty and white racism.(2) Black radicals argued that by rioting, the masses were abandoning racial integration in favor of separatism. They also maintained that the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement had failed to produce real economic gains for the inner-city poor.

The "fire in the streets" lent credence to this militant interpretation. The rioters resisted peaceful overtures from moderate civil rights leaders. Watts residents booed Martin Luther King Jr. when he appeared in their neighborhood in the aftermath of the riot (Crump 1966, 21). Likewise, during the Detroit riot of 1967, African American congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) rushed to the streets in a vain attempt to calm the crowd. Surrounded by an angry mob, Conyers beat a fast retreat to safety and told reporters, "You try to talk to those people, and they'll knock you into the middle of next year" ("Explosion in the Cities" 1967).

Surveys of African American public opinion confirmed elements of the militant "protest" interpretation. Most white Americans blamed the riots on criminals or communists and thought that looters should be shot. African Americans, on the other hand, were much more sympathetic. A large majority thought that the riots were caused by a lack of good education, jobs, and housing. Nearly half of African Americans American respondents cited police brutality as one of the reasons for the riots, though only 7 percent thought that it was the "main cause" (Erskine 1967, 664, 666, 673-75; Thernstrom and Thernstrom 1997, 164).

There were, however, many problems with this interpretation of the riots. The "rebellions" resembled giant shopping sprees; most of the looters appeared to be in the melees "for fun and profit." Their targets often included stores containing goods that could be easily consumed, such as liquor, cigarettes, drugs, and clothing. Looters generally avoided stealing goods that would have to be sold. The rioters stole clothes from dry-cleaning establishments and merchandise from pawn shops, property that belonged to black residents. These facts fit the conservative interpretation of the riots as an outbreak of mass criminality (Banfield 1968; Gilbert 1968, 180). Liberal sympathizers explained away these facts by inventing a corollary to the militant interpretation: the looters were acting out the acquisitive impulses of the larger society. According to one writer, the looting was "a statement about the nature of our consumer society [rather] than an expression of the lack of morality" (Gilje 1996, 159). Deprived of the opportunity to own desirable goods, rioters were "redefining property rights" by rejecting the "norms of private property" (Gilje 1996, 159; Quarantelli and Dynes 1970, 168-82; Feagin and Hahn 1973, 176; Fogelson 1980, 87-88; Fine 1989, 346). …

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