(Photo: Erin O’Brien)

If you join a protest these days and find yourself among hundreds or thousands marching through an otherwise empty Times Square, you may get the sense that something distinctly new is happening. When else in history have demonstrations taken over the streets of almost every major city in the country?

And yet, New York is a city built out of social conflict. Hardly a decade goes by without a protest or riot that upends the city’s normal rhythms: Occupy Wall Street, the Tompkins Square police riot of 1988, the blackout of 1977. In the eyes of geographer Don Mitchell, who co-edited Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City with his late colleague Neil Smith, unrest may actually be the norm. “It is almost as if social peace is the exception,” Mitchell writes in the introduction, “a small island of calm in an always-churning sea.”


Bedford+Bowery called up Mitchell to talk about the legacy of past uprisings and what they may tell us about where the current moment is leading.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

How are these protests similar or different from other big New York City protests? Since looting and property damage have played a huge role in the media narrative of these protests, I’m particularly curious about how that has played out in the past.

If you think about New York City’s history, there are the draft riots of 1863, or the Tenderloin riot of 1900, or the police pogrom in 1902. There’s a whole range of them where it was white people attacking black people. 

But if you look at [black-led] events that are called “race riots”—because something has happened, usually a police killing or something close to it, like the Harlem riots in 1935, 1943, and 1964—it has almost exclusively been attacks against property. There are some slight exceptions. The Crown Heights riots of 1991 were different, when there was a real conflict between blacks, Afro-Caribbeans mostly, and Jews. And there have been some attacks on [non-Jewish] white people, but it’s very rare. 

There is a really long history in New York City, and lots of other places too, of looting and attacks on property. The 1977 blackout, for example, where instantly when the lights go out, there’s looting all over the city. Some of the reports that arise out of that point out that there are a couple things. One is that there is this pent-up frustration. This is just after the city goes bankrupt. There’s been decades of disinvestment in the industrial parts of New York and in the ghettos. There’s a lot of building abandonment. There’s been a wave of arson across the city, often sponsored by building owners themselves to get insurance payments. 

A number of the reports that come out of this say, “Look, what is happening here is that people see this as a moment for redistribution, right? Where they can finally get what they think they deserve.” If you look at the looting that happened in the early hours of the blackout, it tended to be people getting stuff they needed, in the poorer parts of the city. (There’s looting in the wealthier parts of the city, too.) People getting what they needed: diapers and canned food and roach spray, probably a TV and a radio. But then the looting becomes much more organized as time goes on. There are groups of people, criminal gangs, mafia types, who are getting stuff to resell in New York or in Pennsylvania. But there was this redistributive moment that was a piece of it. 

That was also true during the Harlem riots. After the riots of 1935, a mayor’s commission says that it was a chance for the people of Harlem to finally “seize what rightfully belonged to them but had long been withheld.” And this is an official commission. This is not some of the Harlem radicals. It was an official mayor’s commission. There’s this redistributive piece that happens, and I think some of the looting that’s going on now shows that. 

There’s also been the attacks on the high-end shops and on symbols of capitalism, and that also has history in New York City. None of what I’m saying is meant to minimize the purpose of the protests, the original reason that people are out, the utter oppressive violence of the police that people are fighting against. But there is an ongoing shift that I think also happens: some of the protesting becomes a little bit “carnivalesque.” There is an overturning of the world that’s going on.

So we’re talking about something like in medieval Europe: people flooding the streets, suspending the social order, and indulging their sins before Lent.

In New York City, there’s a lot of that from after the Revolutionary War to the beginning of industrialization. There was a lot of very ritualistic riot. It was often on holidays, the 4th of July or Guy Fawkes Night—spring holiday times. There would most often be a trigger that would take care of this: someone who had been hauled off to the stocks, or there’d been an arrest of some sort, or someone was killed. The popular classes would often move en masse to the wealthy parts of the city and do things like completely dismantle the houses of the governor of New York, or create giant bonfires out of the fences. They’d haul all the furniture out, light it on fire, and do all this good stuff. It was an overturning of the social world. And it was definitely a blowing off of steam.

The problem with the carnivalesque is that it’s momentary; order was often restored right afterward. But there was a very clear set of symbolisms to it, which included attacking the property of those who were seen to be the elite or the ruling classes. And that, I think, is being echoed in some ways. When you go off after the high-end stores in Soho, that’s some of what it is. I mean, these are symbols of the capitalist world, right? They’re also symbols of power and inequality and so forth. And the attack on those is an upending or an overturning, if only momentarily.

There’s another piece to this, to over-intellectualize it all way too much. There’s a really interesting scholar in California by the name of Joshua Clover. He’s written a book called Riot. Strike. Riot. What he argues is that, if you look at the preindustrial era, the dominant form of social unrest was rioting. And if you look at the industrial era in the West, the dominant form of social unrest was the strike. It’s organized around the workplace, it’s organized around a working-class, capitalist struggle.

And if we look at the postindustrial era—so post-1973, the neoliberal era—it’s riot again that’s the predominant form of unrest and protest. He has a much more complicated analysis than that, but I think there’s also something to that. Part of what we’re seeing going on here reflects the fact that there are not organized institutions of the working and marginalized classes in the ways that there were during the industrial era and particularly the Keynesian era. 

So then the way that that protest is organized becomes different than it was in that previous period. And I think we are reaching something of a climax or an apogee at this moment. That’s too simple of a history, but I think there’s something there.

I’m also curious about the figure of the “outside agitator,” which I know is not a new concept, but it is interesting to see it play out on the streets, to see protesters fighting when someone tries to break a window and someone else tries to stop them. That’s happened partially in response to the media narrative that’s developed around the protests, about Antifa and other groups. Is the “outside agitator” concept being expressed in a new way now? Or is it just the same old stuff that we see every time?

I think it’s the same old stuff. The discourse of the outside agitator is meant precisely to detract from the core interests of what’s going on, and to suggest that some of those who are protesting, and certainly those who are rioting, are illegitimate. Right? They don’t belong to the community, they’re foreign, they’re outsiders— all those sorts of things. It’s a language that is used to both build consent within a place for the forces of order, that it’s only those “bad people” out there. And it’s used to demonize the very people who have real grievances. You can’t possibly have a real grievance if you actually live in this area. 

There’s a long history of this, if you look back at the history of the Industrial Workers of the World, who in the western United States were migratory workers. They were constantly going from one place to another. Whenever there was a free speech movement, or a labor strike, or anything like that, there were always called “outside agitators.” The good local people would never do this. But their jobs required them to go from place to place.

Or in 1973, during Wounded Knee. The Congress passed what was called the Rap Brown Act, which basically defined in law who “outside agitators” were. The language was tighter than this, but they were essentially anyone who traveled across a state line to support or aid a protest. This is the time of the Wounded Knee occupation by the American Indian Movement. They had caravans organized in California to drive to South Dakota or other closer states to bring food and supplies to the people that had occupied the reservation. And the law was used the first time, in a big way, against these caravans and others who were coming to support this occupation. They were all “outside agitators.” There was no way that they could be supporting an occupation by militant native Americans who were seeking to reclaim some of their land in a legitimate way.

They were defined as outsiders by law. And the name [of the act] was no accident either. H. Rap Brown was one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. So it’s a tool, right? This notion of the outside agitator is a tool that allows for certain kinds of ideological work to be done, and then for certain kinds of policing to be done. 

But there are also provocateurs, either on behalf of the authorities or people who have other political agendas. In the present moment, where there are a lot of just spontaneous gatherings, it becomes a very fraught political situation. 

Is looting, or violence against property, a good tactic or not? 

I actually have no answer to that, but there are a lot of different people with a lot of different interests that are at work, and things can be very dangerous and very fragile.

This notion that there’s the good protesters and the bad protesters can be important for those who are protesting because it allows them to legitimate themselves and also to know where the boundaries are that they don’t think should be crossed. And it can be valuable, of course, to the authorities, because they can use the bad protesters as the means to shut down a rally.

There was this great longtime activist, writer, and lawyer in California called Carey McWilliams, who edited The Nation magazine for a long time in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He wrote a very famous book about migratory farm labor in California called Factories in the Field. Somewhere in it, he says that whatever notions you may entertain about the use of violence in the midst of the labor conflict he’s looking at, it cannot be denied that workers in California have only made gains when they’ve been militant. He’s making a very, very important point there. That it’s sometimes the very unruliness of workers—or, these days, oppressed minorities, alienated people—that will get the authorities to respond not only with violence—they will, of course—but possibly with reform or transformation. They’re not going to do it otherwise, right? 

I’m curious about the development of the police response to rioting and protests over the course of New York’s history. It feels quite bad right now, but I imagine in terms of brutality it was much worse 100 years ago.

One of the things that was shocking while working on the Revolting New York book was just how deadly the rioting in the 19th century was, just how many people died. There’d be sectarian battles between Catholic and Protestant Irish immigrants on the streets of New York, the stuff in Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York, and 70 people would get killed. It’s just stunning. Again, I’m not going to minimize police violence or police murder, but the policing of protest is less deadly than it was say an 1848 or 1856 or 1863. It’s less deadly now—it remains exceedingly violent.

But there’s also a very interesting history of reform that’s at work here. One of the things that we discovered in that book was that a lot of the big events, and some of the smaller ones too, really did lead to police reform. Or sometimes temporary reform. Sometimes the reforms would cause new problems, but they always led somewhere. 

The way that policing of protest was done from World War II to the 1960s was known as “escalation of force.” If the police were met by taunting or people chucking stones or whatever—water bottles didn’t really exist then—they would “escalate” their “force.” Which would then provoke the protestors even more. Then they’d escalate their force again, which became very, very bad and sometimes deadly. 

In the wake of the uprisings of the 1960s, a whole series of organizations, including the United States Army, began to think differently. There was an international movement to think differently about policing protests, and it began developing a model that was called “negotiated management of protests.” So often, before a rally, there would be a negotiation over the permit. And then there would be negotiation over how arrests were going to happen, who would get arrested, and what they would be charged with. All of this would be negotiated. There were mechanisms for negotiating on the front lines, too. So rather than escalating force, you’d negotiate what’s going to happen between the cops and the protesters.

It was never followed through all the way, but it would become the dominant model during the seventies, the eighties, and into the nineties. To the point where, during some research I did with a colleague of mine, Lynn Staeheli, we talked to a guy in the ACLU in Washington DC in the spring of 2001, so before September 11th. And he said that the negotiating of protests and stuff has become so common and controlling that he now advises activists to not protest. It’s just totally ineffective, it’s all been negotiated. The cops get to control everything. 

We were there interviewing him right in the wake of a very big protest, and then a violent response by the police, at the IMF and World Bank meetings. Beginning with Seattle in 1998, and then moving through that whole series of anti-globalization protests in the early 2000s, there was the beginning of a shift in policing strategy. This is what the New York sociologist Alex Vitale calls “command and control” policing, where it’s not negotiated anymore. It’s now the cops telling activists and groups how they can protest. And the cops’ goal is always to maintain control, to always command the “battle space,” if we can quote the Secretary of Defense. It’s become much more heavy-handed. And you can see that during Occupy, the anti-war protests of 2003, and other kinds of protests across the country. And that’s what happened at the White House at the Lafayette Park, where the police will be as aggressive as they have to be to control the whole place. The response to that has been total outrage. 

So I’m guessing there will be a rethinking again—not very quickly—of how policing operates. It could become an even more heavy-handed, violent kind of response, or it could go back towards a more negotiated-management response. I think it’s an open question right now.

This is kind of a cheesy question, but what are the lessons from history that could help us come to some sort of resolution?

That’s not a cheesy question, that’s a hard question. I’ll just go out on a limb a bit here. I actually don’t think there will be a resolution. There will be an exhaustion, and there will be a standing down. Something like an uneasy truce or peace—that’s what we’ll see first—where people are just exhausted. The question is whether it’s the cops or it’s the people on the streets who become exhausted first. Chances are it’ll be people on the streets, which is not to say that that will be a defeat at all. 

Given the current political situation the U.S., I don’t see any room for any kind of rational set of negotiations, but to the degree that there’s any positive or progressive or transformative outcome from this—whether we’re just thinking about changes in policing practices so they kill a few fewer people, or a broader settlement around how our political economy operates—then it will only be when the active phase of unrest winds down. If momentum is maintained and built upon, to form organizations to push for this or to reinforce organizations that are already at work. Even the “good-meaning” Democrats are not going to do anything unless they’re forced to, and that force can take a lot of forms. The shock of what’s happening right now is one of them, but there’s also the pressure that follows from that. 

There was one thing that struck me as we were finishing the Revolting New York book. I had just moved here to Sweden in 2017. I’m sitting here, and I’ve got to find a way to end the book, because, you know, the history keeps going. I’m trying to write the afterword just as the airport protests happen in February. Trump is going to ban all Muslims, and there’s this immediate reaction. People just fled to the airports, where all the research that I’ve done has shown you cannot protest, and they protest there anyway. (I love being wrong like that.) And Michael Moore says that these protests came out of nowhere. I’ve just been putting together this book about close to 400 years of riots. So, no, they come out of 400 years of history, right? 

But more immediately, they came out of the 2006 immigrant rights uprising in New York City, and a whole series of initiatives and activist organizations that developed or were reworked in the wake of those protests. That meant there were a lot of people who were ready and knew what to do and how to behave when this happened, who could head off to JFK. There was a continued organizing of immigrant rights organizations and supporters that allowed for this immediate response.

So the fight isn’t over, even when the protests stop.

Yeah, the protests are like the opening shot, or at least I hope so. My favorite line that we came across during the Revolting New York project is by the Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke, who said that revolts are a “revealing flash of lightning” that momentarily expose the world around you. 

This is what they do. Lightning, as we all know, is destructive, but it’s also life-forming. I think it’s a really important insight that he had. We’re in the midst of a lightning bolt right now, and what it’s exposing is there for everybody to see. But it’s a flash, and we’ll have to then remember what we saw and figure out how to make it look different next time.