When you think violence and civil unrest, America could be the first or last country that comes to mind. On one hand, the U.S. is emblematic of the so-called “First World”; a beacon of peace and prosperity, a superpower, a hallmark of civilization. But America is also the very portrait of rebellion; an empire born out of revolutionary war, built on promises of emancipation, individualism and right to dissent (not to mention their historical war-making abroad). In many ways, the nation persists on this seemingly contradictory set of ideals—each citizen an empowered, self-determining individual with every right and conviction to challenge authority and fight for what’s theirs, but bound by the utmost reverence for collectivity, peace, power and the rule of law.
But that’s not exactly limited to the U.S. of A.—you could say most, if not all, societies struggle to maintain that balance. Perhaps it reflects some persistent tension between our individual, animalistic desires, and the rational boundaries of the greater whole. Aren't we just freakishly smart primates, using social compromise to get along with each other while we try to feed ourselves and maintain fulfilled lives? That could be what makes a riot, or any form of mass urban violence, so breathtaking—it’s that same unspoken compromise and civility caving in before our very eyes.
Indeed, history has willed it so that every so often the fragile balance between civility and savagery, and the precariousness of the status quo, come to light in even the most developed nation states. Though far from a common sight in developed countries, the sudden eruption of urban violence throughout America’s history might have the pessimist in you believing that peace is but a thin veneer, and a well of chaos flows just underneath waiting to erupt at the right trigger.
All faith in human ideals aside, the biggest casualties of these civil disorders are people and property; unsurprisingly, history keeps close tabs on how much was lost by these events. The monetary damage done by a riot is often revealing, so we’ve ranked the 10 biggest riots in America by estimated insured losses of property damage, adjusted for inflation, as reported by the U.S. organization Insurance Information Institute. In other words, the biggest American uprisings by-the-dollar.
It's worth noting however that the lessons of these events extend far beyond the bottom-line. Knowing how and why these 10 chaotic disturbances happened is equally, in fact far more important and fascinating than the sheer level of their destruction alone. One key to the prevalence of urban violence in America is certainly in the fact that almost all these events are, in some form, racially charged. The history of 20th century American rioting is in many ways the history of a civilization trying to come to terms with its own changes and practices, as oppressed groups struggle for fairer treatment under the law. In that sense, these are the 10 biggest events of what some economists might call “creative destruction”, where death and tragedy sewed the seeds of progress for American civil society:
10 1968 Holy Week Uprising, New York City: $26 million
What was going on in 1968? You might have heard of one supremely popular and influential dreamer by the name of Martin Luther King Jr, spearheading huge developments in black equality and social justice. Dr. King was probably the most important activist and civil rights leader in America at the time, but his legacy today is rife with hapless ironies; for one, the FBI considered the nonviolent preacher an extreme radical and went to great lengths to perturb his efforts (not limited to sending him violent, threatening letters). But the greater irony of his story spreads across four separate entries in this list...
The peaceful preacher’s mysterious assassination occurred just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968; New York City promptly deployed five thousand cops and firemen by nightfall as outrage and violence exploded across more than 100 U.S. cities. For various reasons, the Big Apple managed to avoid the worst of it, with insured damage estimates of $26 million from mob vandalism, looting and arson over the following days. Unlike the remaining entries on this list, the event recorded no deaths.
9 1968 Holy Week Uprising, Chicago: $86 million
By the second day of the MLK disturbance, 10,500 policemen, 6,700 troops from the National Guard and, by president order, 5,000 U.S. army troops occupied the streets of Chicago. Their target: violent mobs targeting white-owned stores on Madison Street, looting, breaking and burning with variable discretion, sending black smoke curling through the boulevards. By day's end the mayor, who later decreed his law-enforcers “shoot to kill” all arsonists, imposed curfew for all under-21s and closed all streets to automobile traffic. Most of the chaos subsided by day three, but not before hundreds of arrests and nine Chicago citizens—all of them black—died in the night. Total insured property losses reached $82 million.
8 1968 Holy Week Uprising, Baltimore: $92 million
As Chicagoans raged on Friday, it was strangely quiet in Baltimore. The streets seemed unusually peaceful well into day three, with a solemn crowd gathering around noon for a two-hour memorial service for the cherished MLK. By the next morning however, the White House received message of some 300 fires, 400 arrests and five deaths in the city. The full-fledged riots began late Saturday afternoon, with first reports of looting at a drycleaners; local police stood their ground. By evening, the entire city was placed under curfew, and the National Guard and U.S. army muscled in the next day. Burning, looting and destruction persisted over the course of the following week, culminating in six deaths by fire, automobile and gunshot, over 5,700 arrests, and estimated insured damages of $92 million.
7 Newark Riots, 1967: $103 million
Less than a year before the King assassination riots erupted, social strife had reached its breaking point in Newark. The city’s highly segregated black community had long borne the brunt of racial profiling, poor education and low-tier jobs, and resentment towards municipal corruption and police brutality was ever-rising. All it took was the traffic arrest of a single cab driver—one John Weerd Smith—and the subsequent rumour that police had killed him, for violence to explode. Chants of “police brutality!” echoed the streets between July 12-17, amidst clashes between mobs and law-enforcers that killed 26 people, including a ten-year-old child, and injured 1,000 others. The Insurance Information Institute places insured property losses for this sad period in New Jersey’s history at a staggering $103 million.
6 New York City Blackout of 1977: $106 million
Literally and figuratively, one of the darkest events in New York City history began with a lightning strike on the Hudson River, July 13, 1977. The ensuing string of storm activity caused circuit breakers and power lines to fail across the city, and New York, already battling a financial crisis near-bankruptcy, plunged into blackness. In barely 24 hours, over 1600 stores were looted and damaged, and over a thousand fires burned. The ensuing largest mass arrest in the city’s history left the excess of lawbreakers in small improvised holding cells, and some 550 police injuries amidst the scramble. Estimated insured losses reached $106 million before peace and power gradually restored the next day.
5 1968 Holy Week Uprising—Washington, D.C.: $158 million
Our worst and closing chapter of the King assassination riots comes from Washington. Unlike in Baltimore, unrest in the American capital was triggered within hours of MLK’s murder at 6 p.m. on Thursday, as a mob assembled around the commercial heart of the black community at 14th and U Streets Northwest. Demanding all stores close out of respect, the mob brought windows crashing down in the streets and made way for rampant looting over nightfall. The next day rioters clashed with firemen and police; bottles and rocks were thrown, the latter responded with tear gas. As riots neared just two blocks outside the White House, the fed responded swiftly and decisively: 13,600 federal troops and 1,750 from the National Guard—the largest American city occupation since the Civil War.
The pain felt by the death of peaceful visionary Martin Luther King Jr. culminated in violence here, with 1,200 buildings burned, twelve dead, over 1,000 injured, 6,000 arrested, and some $158 million in insured property damage by the time order returned Sunday.
4 Miami Riots, 1980: $181 million
According to one prosecutor, four policemen had cracked Arthur McDuffie’s skull “like an egg” for his traffic violations. Yet after a series of hearings on charges for manslaughter and evidence tampering, all four officers were acquitted by a suspiciously all-white jury…
What began as a high-speed traffic pursuit for one black man turned into a massive cry of public injustice in downtown Miami in May of 1980, and a gruesome three-mile-wide, three-day-long riot complete with arson, thefts, looting and even reports of sniper fire. Some 3,500 of the National Guard were called in to help enforce the city’s barricaded areas and 8 p.m. curfew, before the random violence finally began subsiding.
Years later, the victim McDuffie’s family received a $1.1 million settlement from Miami’s Dade County; a small measure recompense against an injustice costing 18 lives and $181 million in damages.
3 12th Street Riot, 1967: $289 million
Detroit police officers picked the wrong party to crash in the early Sunday hours of 3:45 a.m., July 23, 1967. To their surprise, the target of their raid—an unlicensed drinking club above a print shop on 12th Street—was hosting a party of 82 African Americans, all celebrating the special homecoming of two local GIs from the Vietnam War. The cops tried to detain them all.
A violent mob grew in the streets outside. Police struggled to mobilize in the dark morning hours as vandalism erupted, targeting nearby stores. Objects were hurled through windows; fires ignited; smoke filled the air. Police and firemen could only stand and watch as control of the city was lost. After two days, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a state of insurrection against the government and called in the troops; 8,000 National Guardsmen arrived by land, 4,700 paratroopers by air. They fought alongside the local police against an estimated 10,000 rioters, amidst 100,000 Detroit citizens choking the streets. After five days, 43 civilians died, 7,231 were arrested and insured damages totalled $289 million.
2 The Los Angeles Watts Riots, 1965: $321 million
LA in the Civil Rights era didn’t have by-law racial segregation like the South, but certain rent and property restrictions had long kept its population highly ethnically divided. As in Newark and much of America in the 1960s, black citizens struggled with outright discrimination from state institutions including substandard education, weak employment opportunities and mistreatment by law enforcement. These racial pressures spilled over one scorching LA day in August ’65, when a traffic arrest became a catalyst for violence.
Soon after police arrested 21 year-old Marquette Fry on a DUI suspicion, a mob began sifting through the impoverished Watts neighbourhood in South Central LA. Over the next six days, the streets of Watts transformed from a poor commerce zone to an all-out battleground with overturned vehicles, buildings crumbled and burned, and 14,000 National Guard troops armed to the teeth. The riots claimed the lives of thirty-four people over the course of the week, and $321 million in insured damages, making it the largest urban uprising of the civil rights period in America.
1 LA Riots, 1992: $1.268 billion
Los Angeles is the riot capital of the U.S., no contest. The largest and most expensive urban uprising in U.S. history of insured damages is about quadruple the size of the runner-up, which also happens to be in LA. If we ignore the sheer size, the 1992 LA Riots bear striking resemblance to the earlier events on this list; sparked by one named Rodney King, and the outrage over the acquittal of—again—four policemen, who beat the man near to death.
What made the LA Riots so violent was the level of scandal made possible by the graphic video footage of the beating, shot quietly by an onlooker. Despite claims of intoxication and aggression by officers, King is shown crawling helplessly on the ground as they whip him aggressively for an extended period of time. Media coverage of the incident exploded, and the ensuing acquittal of the police meant terrible tidings for the city.
The six-day LA riots became the most well-chronicled civil uprising in American history, and the largest and most violent since the New York Draft Riots of the mid-19th century. 10,000 National Guard troops and nearly 2,000 local officers deployed to quell random acts of violence, destruction, robbery and mob assault, under Martial Law and a dawn-to-dusk curfew. With security concentrated in the hottest areas, civilians, most notably in Koreatown, assembled their own attack forces to defend their stores and properties; this almost tribal scene of warfare; the closest the city ever came to total anarchy. The LA riots were the peak of urban violence in America, with at least 58 dead (almost all homicides), at least 3700 buildings burned, and 11,000 arrested in the aftermath. Insured damages reached an incredible $1.268 billion.