On January 25, 2011, the people of Egypt took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest the government of President Hosni Mubarak, who has kept the nation under a state of emergency for three decades. The riots have continued unabated into the month of February, and it’s anybody’s guess when the disorder will end.
The United States has endured its share of civil unrest as well. Some riots have been carefully planned in advance to protest government policies, and some have begun spontaneously in communities plagued by poverty and unemployment. But while riots start for many different reasons, they usually end the same way, with mass arrests, loss of life and damage to public and private property.
Click ahead to see a list of some of the most costly riots in US history.
By Daniel Bukszpan, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 1 Feb 2011
In 1863, citizens were drafted to serve on the Union side in the Civil War. However, a loophole existed, and anybody with $300 could pay a commutation fee and avoid conscription. In today’s dollars, that fee would be equal to over $5000, a sum of money far out of the reach of poor and working-class people.
Resentment at the situation eventually resulted in rioting, but those taking part soon targeted African-Americans, and large numbers were lynched in the streets and had their homes destroyed.
President Lincoln sent militia regiments to pacify the city, and by the fourth day the uprising was crushed decisively. But to this day, no one can agree on the number of people killed in the rioting or in the military action that suppressed it. Figures vary between 120 and 2000 people killed, and damage was estimated as between $1 million and $5 million, a huge sum of money for the time.
The World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 was scheduled to take place in Seattle on November 30. The low-ball estimate is that a record 40,000 anti-globalization activists showed up to protest the meeting, and shut it down entirely if possible.
Activists blocked traffic at major intersections, thereby preventing delegates from getting to the conference, and police responded by firing tear gas, pepper spray and, eventually, rubber bullets, to disperse the crowds and get delegates through.
Protesters responded by destroying storefronts, pushing flaming dumpsters into intersections and slashing the tires of police cars. Utimately, 600 people were arrested, chief of police Norm Stamper stepped down and the vandalism caused $20 million in damages.
On the evening of July 13, 1977, New York City went dark. This had happened before. The city had suffered a blackout in 1965 as part of a regional outage affecting the entire northeast, and it was relatively free of major incidents. The 1977 blackout, however, was the exact opposite, and when the smoke cleared, a congressional investigation concluded that over $300 million worth of damages had been incurred.
The 1977 blackout, which affected only New York City, was marred by pervasive arson and looting. When power was restored on July 14, much of this activity made the evening news, and the sight of wild-eyed young men emerging from shattered storefronts with new television sets was a common one. All told, over 1,600 stores were damaged, over 1,000 fires were reported and 3,776 people were arrested, the largest mass arrest in city history.
The largest urban riot in the United States since the 1992 Los Angeles riots took place in Cincinnati in 2001. It was a reaction to the fatal police shooting of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas, who was attempting to escape from police officers on foot.
On the third night of rioting, Mayor Charlie Luken issued a curfew, and the riots stopped. However, the riots stopped not because of the curfew but due to an unforeseen factor --- rain. The precipitation stopped the violence in its tracks and limited the damage to $3.6 million.
Early in the morning of July 23, 1967, vice squad officers raided an unlicensed speakeasy in Detroit’s notoriously rough Near West Side. Rumors of excessive police force made the rounds, and it didn’t take long before a seething mob had congregated on the street. At 5am, a bottle was thrown through a police car’s rear window and the situation escalated, prompting the police to respond with large numbers of additional personnel.
By the time 3pm rolled around, there were almost 400 police officers trying to restore order to the neighborhood, and their efforts were met with a barrage of bottles and rocks. Firefighters responding to rapidly spreading blazes were also subjected to a hail of deadly projectiles. When the violence dissipated five days later, property damage was estimated to be between $40 million to $80 million.
When civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, it touched off riots in more than 100 major American cities. One of the affected cities, Chicago, saw a full 28 blocks inundated with looting and arson, prompting Mayor Richard Daley to mobilize more than 10,000 police officers and impose a curfew on anybody under the age of 21.
Arson was so extensive that the fires exceeded the capabilities of the city’s fire department, so many buildings burned to the ground. Many that didn’t were so badly damaged that they had to be torn down, rendering hundreds of people homeless and costing more than $10 million in damages.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the city’s notorious south side was spared much of the violence, thanks to the efforts of the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side Disciples, two warring street gangs who joined forces to protect their neighborhood from vandalism.
The 1965 riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts were the worst in the city’s history at the time. Watts was a predominantly low-income community with a large African-American population, many of whom felt that in addition to high unemployment, poverty and racial discrimination, its residents were regularly on the receiving end of police brutality. These sentiments fueled a bitterness and resentment that wouldn’t need much prodding to turn violent.
The riots were touched off on August 11 when a California Highway Patrol officer pulled over a drunk driver, and a small crowd watching the routine traffic stop grew into a rock-throwing horde. The situation degenerated into widespread violence that didn’t fully die down until six days later, at a cost of $40 million and 34 lives. The unrest would stand as the worst such case in Los Angeles history until the 1992 riots 27 years later.
One of the worst prison riots in US history took place at the Oklahoma State Prison at McAlester on July 27, 1973. The facility had opened in 1911 with a capacity for 1,100 inmates. That number was exceeded in less than a decade, and by the 1970s it had doubled. The overcrowding was accompanied by a woefully inadequate number of correctional officers, and when two of them were attacked in the prison cafeteria, things spiraled out of control.
Twenty-one prison officials were taken hostage, and it wasn’t long before the inmates turned against one another. Five hours after the initial incident, the facility was in flames. Officials were unable to regain control of the prison until August 4, and all told the riots had caused over $20 million in damages. Despite addressing many of the conditions that had caused the violence in the first place, officials saw another riot at the prison in December 1985.
The 1967 riots in New Jersey’s largest city were triggered by a rumor. On July 12, two white police officers had stopped an African-American cab driver for improperly passing them and somehow, a story got out that the officers had killed him while he was in custody. The account proved to be false, but the rioting took on a life of its own regardless, and persisted for six long days, resulting in 26 fatalities and $10 million worth of property damage.
The unrest in Newark also inspired similar violence in the nearby city of Plainfield, which had its own riots at the same time as the events in Newark unfolded. Although the Newark riots are more infamous than those that occurred in Plainfield, the city of Newark’s image has recovered somewhat, while Plainfield was so stigmatized by the violence that many of the businesses destroyed in the rioting remain vacant to this day.
In 1991, four Los Angeles police officers had brutally beaten Rodney King, an African-American motorist, after a high-speed pursuit. The incident was caught on videotape, and the footage was aired repeatedly on television news for an entire year. The use of force seemed so excessive that many people believed the officers could never walk away from the trial as free men. However, on April 29, 1992, all four officers were acquitted.
Thousands responded to the verdict by engaging in widespread arson, assault and looting, killing 53 people and injuring thousands more. The unrest went on for six days and did not die down until the National Guard was deployed to the area. When it was all over, more than 1000 buildings had been destroyed by fire, and most assessments of the damage put its cost at almost $1 billion, making it the costliest episode by far of civil unrest in United States history.