Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A new book traces the “citymaking process” of riots and rebellions since the era of Dutch colonization to the present.
There are many ways to tell the history of a city—through its architecture, its local politics, its waves of immigration, even its rats. In a new volume, Don Mitchell, an emeritus professor of geography at Syracuse University, uses a unique lens to chronicle New York City through the centuries: its protests.
Revolting New York: How 400 Years of Riot, Rebellion, Uprising, and Revolution Shaped a City spans the era of Dutch colonization to Trump’s inauguration, and argues that protests are not merely destructive, but are also productive. “We often think of riots as moments of extreme violence that destroy, but they produce new worlds,” said Mitchell, who co-edited the volume with the late geographer Neil Smith. “This is not to advocate for urban violence, but we need to pay attention to riots’ shaping force, not just the havoc they wreak.”
That said, Revolting New York doesn’t claim that protests produce extensive or rapid change; Mitchell says an apt way to think about the workings of protest is not the upending of a system, but incremental movement up or down a coil spring. “After mass protests, you end up in a slightly different place than you did before,” he said. “Though the power structure is reasserted and cultural life returns to many of its norms, there has been a bit of a shift.”
CityLab spoke with Mitchell about how the nature of riots and rebellions has changed over the centuries, New York’s place within the history of protest, and how Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side has always been a hotbed of defiance.
The book discusses New York’s ritualized, carnivalesque revolts of the 18th and early 19th centuries. What makes a riot “carnivalesque”?
Across the Western world in the preindustrial era, rioting was part of the social structure. It was a common way for the underclasses to express discontent. Rioting was typically against property, even if individuals were implicated. Proto-working class people would, for example, burn officials in effigy or dismantle housing. They might take furniture out of a home and burn it in a bonfire.
While this expressed dissatisfaction, it served as something of a safety valve: When the unrest wound down, the existing order would generally reestablish itself. Such rioting was often associated with the liturgical calendar or pagan holidays, such as Halloween.
But in tandem with carnivalesque rioting were uprisings by African Americans—both slaves and those who were free—as well as attacks on blacks by white rioters. These attacks exceeded the bounds of the ritualistic; they constituted out-and-out racist violence.
How did New York’s revolts change in the 18th and 19th centuries, and why?
Ritualistic riots started to fade in the first decades of the 19th century with the rise of industrialization, and the changing nature of the city brought this about. The growth of a large working class, mostly comprised of immigrants, created a new way of protesting. By the 1830s and 1840s, workers were revolting against capitalists.
However, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we see aspects of ritualized, carnivalesque protests reappear. In fact, these types of riots faded but never really disappeared; we have always seen them, for instance, in the rioting that occurs after sports events. Protesters such as the New Yorkers who demonstrated against the World Economic Forum in 2002 and the Republican National Convention in 2004 made a conscious effort to revive the theatrical aspects of protests, such as by using Guy Fawkes masks, street theater, and effigies. They are eye-catching strategies.
Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side provides a good example of the 19th-century shift in protest. How?
The space, which was developed in the 1840s as the city expanded to the northeast, was originally called Tompkins Square. It was a large military parade ground where the militia would muster and train. It was also just a big, open space in a crowded neighborhood where people liked to gather. It became a site of organizing and protest for radical European exiles and workers in the mid- to late-19th century.
In 1874, it was the scene of an explosive riot during a deep depression, when people were protesting rent-gouging and demanding that food prices be lowered. On a cold day in early January, thousands paraded into the square. The police panicked, attacking and injuring hundreds. In an effort to neutralize the open space, the city remade the parade ground into a park, with playgrounds, fences, and trees. Yet the park remained a space of organization. Communists coordinated rent strikes there in the 1930s, and marches challenging capitalism would leave from it. It also remained a refuge for the very poor, and this continued to the 1990s.
What happened in the 1990s?
In the 1960s, Tompkins Square Park became a place of refuge for people who were getting priced out of their housing. By this time a relatively permanent group of homeless was already living there. This trend increased as the Lower East Side was more heavily disinvested in the 1970s. By 1984, we see the beginnings of gentrification, and Mayor Ed Koch made it a policy to retake and sanitize the city’s parks—to “clean up” Manhattan. The aim was to push out the homeless and squatters in the buildings surrounding the park.
The park began to serve as a central place of organizing to retain homeless and squatters’ rights and fight gentrification. In August 1988, the city enforced a curfew in the park, and police failed to break up a protest against it. Many people saw the park as liberated. The graffiti of the time made reference to the riots of 1874, with such slogans as “Tompkins Square everywhere.”
Though there’s a lot of organizing that follows, gentrification continues, and the AIDS epidemic breaks up communities as many longtime activists die. Resistance efforts weaken further in the 1990s, and the city uses the opportunity to push people out, build a fence around the park, and rebuild it as we see it today—the same kind of reaction we saw in 1874. But this doesn’t entirely succeed; though the park is more sanitized today, it’s still more open to different classes and to the homeless than other parks in Manhattan, such as Bryant Park or Union Square. It’s still a contested space.
Is New York unique in terms of telling the history of a city through protest?
New York is both unique and not at all unique. New York has always been a city of immigrants and a place that is more entrenched in the political currents of the moment. But the ongoing struggle between different factions and different classes is a real citymaking process in any urban context. And the violence—police violence, white racist violence, regressive violence—is always present everywhere.
What must be kept in mind when chronicling a city’s history through this lens?
The danger in writing the history of a city through protest is that we miss all the organizing that goes into a moment of unrest, and we miss the day-to-day politics that are just as important in shaping a city. Protests also need to be understood in the global context. The Tompkins Square riots of 1874, for instance, were influenced by European revolutions, such as the Paris Commune of 1871, and the global depression of 1871 and 1872. In many ways there was already a global economy at that time.
Today we’re seeing a number of new protest movements emerging, often in response to the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies. What does the historical research on urban riots reveal about the current climate of protest in the U.S.?
The current protests didn’t come out of nowhere. The demonstrations of the 1960s set the stage in that afterward, the social structures didn’t just reestablish themselves. Though we saw the rise of conservatism and neoliberalism in response, authority was reasserted in a slightly different way. Then if we consider the period from the Seattle uprisings in 1999 against the World Trade Organization to the Occupy [Wall Street] movement of 2011, we see a time of anti-globalization. Much of that organizing led to other reactions, such as the anti-Iraq War protests of 2003. It also laid the ground for Occupy; many of those who were involved in Occupy cut their teeth in the anti-globalization protests. And now inequality has become a political issue. People are organizing around it.
With Black Lives Matter and similar current organizing efforts, the relationship between race, class, gender, and sexuality is getting rethought in important ways. There’s a greater sense of how these elements are intertwined with each other. Any anti-racist struggle has to be a class struggle, and so forth. There’s a lot of potential for transformation coming out of these streams.