The Milwaukee Riots

Riots seem shocking to modern Americans, but college students riot with almost predictable regularity in this country.
Protestors march during disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016.
Protestors march during disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016.

I live in Milwaukee, and over the past day or so, I’ve gotten calls and text messages from friends and relatives elsewhere wanting to know what’s happening in Milwaukee. The riot that broke out on the night of Saturday, August 13 has made headlines around the planet.

This blog isn’t about politics. But I’m a scholar, and at the moment, my professional research is focused on student violence at the University of Oxford in the Middle Ages, so I tend to notice things about riots these days. And while I’m a medievalist and not a scholar of contemporary America, I think I have something to add to the discussion about the riots in my home city. So I hope you can forgive me for digressing from my normal topic of historical movies for a post. As a scholar, I feel I have a duty to offer the perspective my research provides on contemporary events.

Urban riots seem shocking to modern Americans. At least up until the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in August of 2014, there was little discussion of them in the media, and you might be forgiven for thinking they rarely happen in the U.S. In reality, however the United States experiences at least a half-dozen riots every single year, because college students riot with almost predictable regularity in this country. Let me demonstrate with a survey of just the past two years.

The media seems to be suggesting that the lives of black citizens are less important than university students’ right to be upset about a football game.

In March of 2014, several hundred students at the University of Arizona mourned the loss of a NCAA tournament game by throwing fire crackers and beer bottles at police.

In April of 2014, students at Iowa State University  rioted during the university’s annual Veishea celebrations. Students flipped at least three cars, pulled down three lamp poles and a number of street signs, and threw things at police. One man was knocked unconscious when he was hit with a light pole. Rioting is something of a tradition during Veishea; previous riots happened in 1988, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2012 (when a student fell to his death). In 1997, a student was murdered during Veishea. 

The same month, University of Connecticut students celebrated a basketball victory by lighting fireworks, flipping cars, smashing the windows of businesses and at least one academic hall, and pulling down a street light. The defeated University of Kentucky students rioted in Lexington, KY, lighting at least 38 fires, including 19 couches, 18 trash cans and a vacant house. Similar riots happened in Lexington in 2012 and 2013. The 2012 riot involved a reported 10,000 students and at least one shooting.

Also in April of 2014, about 200 students at Colorado State University shouted and threw objects at police after a party spiraled out of control. No injuries or property damage was reported.

Also that same month, a crowd estimated to be about 15,000 UC-Santa Barbara students (and others) tore down at least 6 traffic signs, lit small fires, attacked a car, and threw things at the police. Several dozen people, including 6 officers, were injured. This was to celebrate the university’s Deltopia Spring Break event.

Trash from weekend partying sits in a dumpster on Sabado Tarde in the aftermath of the riot that broke out last Saturday nigh
Trash from weekend partying sits in a dumpster on Sabado Tarde in the aftermath of the riot that broke out last Saturday night at 'Deltopia,' an annual, unsanctioned spring break event in Isla Vista next to UC Santa Barbara on April 7, 2014. six cops were injured 46 others hospitalized and 100 plus were arrested.

In October of 2014, University of New Hampshire students rioted during Keane’s annual Pumpkin Festival. Students set fires, tore down street signs, tried to flip a car, and threw rocks, pumpkins, skateboards, and bottles at the police. At least 30 people were injured.

The same month, about 5,000 students at West Virginia University caused an estimated $15,000 worth of property damage by starting fires and pulling down street signs and threw things at police and firefighters. WVU students are famous for doing this after athletic victories. In the past 15 years, athletic events have provoked 1,799 street fires and 633 dumpster fires. In 2012, they lit cars and light poles on fire.

On Nov 1, a series of Halloween parties in Berkeley, CA got out of hand. An estimated 3-5,000 students rioted. At least three people were assaulted, a car was vandalized, and someone drove a car into a lamp post. 

In May of 2015, an argument at a formal night event at Plymouth State University turned into a riot of about 300 people when students began throwing things at police who arrived to break up an argument.

In January of 2015, students at Ohio State University rioted to celebrate a football victory. A  crowd of around 8,000 started a dozen small fires, lit several dumpter fires, forced their way into the stadium after the game, and tore down a goal post.

This list leaves out riots that developed out of political protests of various sorts. If I had included those, the list would have been much longer. And I could easily have gone back further than 2014. When I was a graduate student at UW-Madison in the 1990s, the annual Halloween party often reached near-riot levels, with windows on State St being smashed and cars tipped. My husband has told me about the annual St. Patrick’s Day riots at UW-Oshkosh; that a decades long tradition was only ended when the university changed its Spring Break to coincide with St Patrick’s Day. Ohio State has a tradition of arson accompanying games against rival Michigan; in 2002, a single game triggered 10 dumpster fires. And as I’ve noted, some of the riots on this list are part of a tradition of rioting going back years. 

The Milwaukee Riots 

Now let’s talk about the Milwaukee riots. Let me say that I have no first-hand knowledge of these events; my knowledge comes entirely from the local news media and a few discussions on Facebook. So I am reporting the facts as best I know them, but some of the details may be wrong, because the reporting on the events is still developing.

The Milwaukee riot started on August 13, when police officers pulled over a car in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Sylville Smith, a black man who was reportedly carrying a gun, fled the car on foot, but apparently was cornered in a back yard by a pursuing police officer (who is black), who fired two shots into the man and killed him. The incident was reportedly caught on the officer’s body camera, but the footage has not yet been released. A crowd of about 100 black protesters gathered later that day, and the protest escalated into violence. Several cars were set on fire, a gas station was looted and set on fire, three other businesses were set on fire, and at least one other business was looted. Objects were thrown at police officers, shots were fired, and at least four officers were injured.

On August 14, a peaceful protest occurred at the police station, and a large group turned out to help clean up the damage from the previous night. That night, there was more violence, with rocks being thrown at police and shots being fired; four more officers were wounded, as well as a young man. Governor Scott Walker activated the National Guard on Sunday night but it was not actually deployed. Here is a summary from Wikipedia, which links to numerous news stories on the riots.

Police guard a burned gas station after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. Aug
Police guard a burned gas station after disturbances following the police shooting of a man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S. August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Comparing the Riots

What does this have to do with student rioting? On the surface, nothing. So far as has been reported, the Milwaukee protesters were not university students. The cause of the riot was something far more serious than student athletics. At least two businesses were looted and shots were fired, neither of which seems to have occurred during any of the riots I’ve noted above. The student riots tend to be one-day but often semi-annual events, whereas the Milwaukee riots happened two nights running.

But the scale of the Milwaukee riots is far smaller than the student riots I’ve mentioned. The crowd was 100 or so people, whereas the smallest of the student riots was 200-300 people, and the Santa Barbara riot was an estimated 15,000 people. These student riots tend to be much larger in scale than the rioting we see around various police killings of black men.

When white, middle-class college students riot over trivial things, it’s nothing serious. ... When a comparatively small group of black people violently protest a very serious issue, it’s treated as world-level news.

While the looting of businesses does not typically happen during student riots, buildings certainly get vandalized, fires are lit, city property destroyed and police officers are assaulted. Most of these riots triggered dozens of arrests.

Now here’s the key point of my post: You’ve probably never heard about most of these student riots. They get local news coverage, but most of them don’t make the national news. The only one that I recall seeing a major news outlet cover was the Ohio State riot. So the media treats student riots as minor affairs, even when they involve thousands of people, multiple fires, cars and other property being destroyed, and police officers being injured.

The impression this gives is that when white, middle-class college students riot over trivial things like football games or Halloween parties, it’s nothing serious. It’s just students being students. A little student violence is nothing to get worked up about, even if it perhaps results in the death of a student (as in Iowa), flipped or torched cars (many of these riots) or arson (most of these cases). In fact, news organizations are sometimes reluctant to call these events riots; sometimes the word riot is put in quotation marks, suggesting that these aren’t really riots, no matter what they look like.

But when a comparatively small group of black people violently protest a very serious issue, the killing of a motorist, it’s treated as world-level news. The governor thinks seriously about calling out the National Guard. The national news media suggests that the whole city is in flames (as I said, I’ve gotten worried messages from friends and relatives who were concerned for my safety).

Milwaukee-area police have killed at least four black men in the past two years. In April of 2014, a police officer shot the unarmed, mentally ill Dontre Hamilton 14 times during an altercation in a public park, killing him. In July of 2015, police in suburban Wauwatosa fatally shot a mentally-ill black man who was brandishing a sword. In June of 2016, Wauwatosa police fatally shot Jay Anderson, who was sleeping in a car in a parkway at 3 a.m.; he reportedly had a gun. And now this weekend, Sylville Smith.

Somehow it is the black riots over police violence that are seen as unacceptable, and not the student riots.

Regardless of whether any of these shootings were justifiable or not, many black Milwaukeeans are concerned about police violence toward their community, and the tendency of police officers to kill black men during traffic stops and for minor crimes like selling cigarettes is obviously an issue of serious concern nationally. And yet somehow it is the black riots over police violence that are seen as unacceptable, and not the student riots.

As a scholar, it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion that there is something seriously out of balance in the way people respond to these two very different sorts of riots. When white people riot over small issues, it’s barely news, no matter how large the crowd of rioters may be. When black people riot over a genuine issue of human lives, it’s treated as an alarming offense. Middle class white people apparently possess some unnamed right to engage in rioting that black people don’t possess.

That is not in any way to defend or justify this weekend’s violence. The destruction of businesses and the injuring of police officers and ordinary citizens is a serious matter, and those who committed crimes should be prosecuted. Nor is this to deny that some of the student rioters were prosecuted for crimes and suspended or expelled; typically these riots seem to produce one or two expulsions. My point is entirely about how we as people and the media as a body respond to these events in drastically different ways.

Because right now, the media seems to be suggesting that the lives of black citizens are less important than university students’ right to be upset about a football game.

Next time, I promise I’ll get back to posting about something far less important.

A version of this post originally appeared on aelarsen.wordpress.com.

Follow Andrew Larsen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/historyatmovies.

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