Before Freddie Gray: A Timeline of American Unrest
There are bodies in the streets of Baltimore. Thousands of them. Mostly young, mostly black, protesting for yet another day over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spine was mysteriously broken after he was taken into police custody. The protesters are confronting Baltimore’s abusive police department—occasionally throwing rocks, ignoring calls for nonviolence. They’re on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in America—running, yelling, mouths covered to beat the tear gas thrown their way by officers. They want justice, yes. But more than anything, they’re asserting their humanity, the right to make eye contact with a police officer and not be arrested, the right to roll a cigarette or aid a grandson without the weight of the state being used to break their bones and bust open their lip or sever their spine.
We’ve been here before. Last year, it was Ferguson, Missouri. Before that, it was Sanford, Florida, and New York City. Before that, it was Oakland, California, and Cincinnati. Gray’s Baltimore has become the latest clarion call for black people across America to stand up and fight police brutality. But even before it became a topic of national conversation—before foundations and the White House were forming task forces and investing money in sorting out its impact—American policing was not serving the interests of black communities.
Writing about the 1964 riots in Harlem, New York, James Baldwin took note of the deep-seated trauma inflicted on black communities. “I…know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled,” he wrote in The Nation. “Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?”
Below is a brief timeline of black uprisings in the United States. In many cases, perceived or real instances of police brutality lit the match that caused violence to flame up. This helps give Baltimore some historical context and outlines how pervasive and destructive black America's relationship with the police has been.
1919—Chicago: On July 27, Eugene Williams, a black teenager, went swimming in Lake Michigan. It was an act of defiance; segregation was unofficially enforced at the area’s beaches. The teen was stoned by white teens and later drowned. When police refused to make an arrest, the city’s predominantly black South Side erupted in rage. After nearly two weeks of protests, 38 people were dead (15 white, 23 black), 500 people were injured, and more than 1,000 black families lost their homes because of the damage.
1935—Harlem, New York: On the afternoon of March 19, teenager Lino Rivera was caught shoplifting a 10-cent penknife. A crowd soon gathered and accused the store’s manager of beating the 16-year-old. Rumors spread that Rivera had been beaten to death, and soon residents began protesting against what they saw as a pattern of mistreatment by police. Afterward, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia created the Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, which found “injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation” as the central reasons for the outbreak of violence. Three people died, 100 were injured, and 125 were arrested.
1943—Detroit: Racial tensions had been simmering between black and white residents in Detroit throughout the first half of 1943. By June 20, they reached a boiling point when a white sailor’s girlfriend said a black man had insulted her. Rumors of perceived or real injustices began to flow, and before long black and white residents took to the streets against one another. When it was all said and done two days later, 34 people were dead, 433 were wounded, and $2 million worth of property had been destroyed.
1943—Harlem, New York: On Aug. 1, a black solider named Robert Bandy approached a white police officer who had arrested a black woman on charges of disorderly conduct. The officer eventually shot Bandy, after which a crowd of 3,000 people gathered around as he escorted Bandy to the hospital for treatment. The crowd’s anger spread across two days, leading to six deaths and 600 arrests.
1964—Philadelphia: On Aug. 28, a black woman named Odessa Bradford got into an argument with two police officers after her car stalled on a North Philadelphia city street. Officers tried to physically remove her from the vehicle. After a witness tried to come to her aid, both were arrested, leading to anger and confusion among residents. They took to the streets to vent that anger. In the end, 774 people were arrested and hundreds of stores were destroyed.
1964—Harlem, New York: More than 20 years later, Harlem erupted again after James Powell, a black man, was shot and killed by New York Police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. During the melee, Gilligan also wounded a 15-year-old black teenager in front of his friends and other witnesses. Hundreds of people gathered to demand answers for the officer’s behavior, sparking six nights of violent protests in both Harlem and the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. One person died, 118 were injured, and another 465 were arrested.
1965—Watts, Los Angeles: On Aug. 11, Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old black man, was pulled over in his mother’s car for reckless driving. When his mother arrived at the scene, she and Frye were arrested along with Frye’s brother Ronald, who was a passenger in the car. A crowd formed, outraged at another incident of what they saw as police overreach. Over the next six days, between 31,000 and 35,000 took to the streets, leading to 34 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, more than 3,400 arrests, and $40 million in property damage. A report later found that high unemployment, poor schools, and few job opportunities led to the unrest.
1966—San Francisco: On September 27, a white police officer shot and killed a 17-year-old black teenager after he fled the scene of a stolen car. A crowd gathered and grew—angry residents threw rocks at officers and set buildings on fire. The protests lasted for another three days before winding down with no deaths.
1967—Newark, New Jersey: On July 12, two white police officers, John DeSimone and Vito Pontrelli, arrested a black taxi driver named John Weerd Smith for a traffic violation. Witnesses later said they saw Smith’s incapacitated body being dragged from the police car, sparking rumors that the officers had killed the man. Anger spread across the city’s black neighborhoods, leading to six days of rioting that killed 26 people and injured 725. Fifteen hundred people were arrested, and property damage exceeded $10 million.
1968—Chicago: On April 4, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, setting off unrest in black communities across the country. More than 100 cities experienced some form of civil unrest, but the violence was worst in Chicago, where grieving residents took to the streets for days of angry protests. Eleven people died, 48 were wounded by police gunfire, and 2,150 were arrested.
1991—Brooklyn, New York: On Aug. 19, seven-year-old Gavin Cato was struck and killed in the Crown Heights neighborhood by a car that was part of a motorcade for Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a Hasidic Jewish leader. A volunteer ambulance arrived to care for the Hasidic Jews who were part of the accident, followed by a New York City ambulance. Black residents who witnessed the accident were enraged that the boy, who later died, was left at the scene before a city ambulance arrived. Three days of rioting followed, resulting in 38 civilian injuries, 152 officer injuries, and 129 arrests.
1992—Los Angeles: On Aug. 29, four Los Angeles Police Department officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating case of Rodney King, a black motorist. Six days of civil unrest unfolded in front of national news cameras, resulting in 53 deaths, 2,000 injuries, and 11,000 arrests. There was also $1 billion in property damage, making it one of the deadliest and costliest urban uprisings in modern history.
2001—Cincinnati: On April 9, Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year-old black man, was shot and killed by police officer Stephen Roach after being pulled over for a traffic violation. The shooting lead to widespread outrage and protests, which spilled out into the streets and turned violent. The four days of rioting were the largest and costliest uprising since the Los Angeles protests in 1992 and cost the city between $1.5 million and $2 million.
2009—Oakland, California: Early on New Year’s Day, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by transit officer Johannes Mehserle. Video the shooting soon went public, inciting long-simmering outrage at law enforcement’s treatment of black residents. Mehserle was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and given a two-year prison sentence. Residents, upset at what they saw as a light penalty, took to the streets. One hundred people were arrested.
2014—Ferguson, Missouri: On Aug. 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed after an interaction with police officer Darren Wilson. Photos of Brown’s lifeless body soon flooded social media. Crowds gathered in Ferguson, followed by angry clashes with riot cops in the streets. Months later, when a grand jury failed to indict Wilson on criminal charges, protesters clashed with police again. A Department of Justice report later documented systemic racial discrimination.
2015—Baltimore: On April 12, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, made eye contact with a Baltimore police officer and, for unknown reasons, ran away from him. The officer chased Gray, arrested him, and put him in a paddy wagon. Civilian video of the interaction showed Gray being dragged into the vehicle, his body seemingly limp. Roughly an hour later, Gray was rushed to a local hospital with a severed spine, an injury that killed him on April 19. Shortly after Gray was hospitalized, residents began protesting a pattern of police violence that had already cost the force $5.7 million in lawsuits since 2011. After Gray’s death, the protests escalated and turned violent.