5 Famous Riots and the Art They Inspired

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With the chaos in the streets of London this week, we've been reading up on other riots in history. One thing several had in common: in addition to wreaking general havoc, they've inspired hit singles, feature films and more.

1. The Zoot Suit Riots

That swinging, eponymous Cherry Poppin’ Daddies song that was all over the radio in 1997 borrows its name from the real Zoot Suit Riots that flared up in Los Angeles during World War II. The riots were born in a smoldering tinderbox of racial tensions at the time, with U.S. servicemen accusing young Latinos, decked out in their “Zoot Suits”—boxy and lavish mobster-style get-ups—of not carrying their weight during wartime. When a young Latino was killed in a mostly Mexican neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1943, it was enough to spark citywide riots, which quickly spread across the country, tripping through Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and New York before burning out.

2. The 1992 L.A. Riots

For those of us who grew up with Sublime, Dr. Dre and 2Pac singing about “April 29, 1992,” the six-day riots that tore through downtown Los Angeles in the early ‘90s can seem almost mythical. But with widespread looting, arson and murder resulting in fifty-three deaths and more than $1 billion in damage, they were all too real. The riots began the day a jury acquitted four white L.A. police officers of beating a black man named Rodney King—an incident that was famously caught on videotape.

The ultra-violent riots later inspired several documentaries, scenes in feature films, references in television shows, and scores of hit singles by, it seems, basically anyone with access to an instrument. Ice Cube, Snoop Dog, Tom Petty, Billy Idol, Tori Amos, Bad Religion, Rancid, Machine Head, Offspring, Garth Brooks, M.I.A., Lil Wayne, Ben Harper, The Black Eyed Peas and Rage Against the Machine, among many others, have all written songs about the riots.

3. The Battle in Seattle

Sparked by the World Trade Organization Conference in 1999, the famous Seattle riots began as a peaceful protest by students and activists who believed corporate globalization was unethical, but took a turn for the anarchic. A few hours into this one-day riot, the police began firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas into the crowd of protesters, many of whom had begun smashing windows, burning dumpsters, and vandalizing storefronts—thus furnishing all those famous images that later served as the backbone for documentaries, video games and songs inspired by these riots. A 2007 feature film, Battle in Seattle, loosely chronicled the events that November day, starring Hollywood luminaries like Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron and Ray Liotta.

4. The New York Draft Riots

These four-day riots in 1863 were the largest civil insurrection in American history up to that point, apart from the Civil War itself. The riots were sparked by a new military draft aimed mostly at the working class and new immigrants, who couldn’t pay the $300 fee to get out of the war. But what began as a draft riot in midtown Manhattan quickly turned into a racist bloodletting, with gangs of Irish immigrants and white “natives” burning down churches, beating up police officers, and lynching black men, who became scapegoats for the working class’s economic troubles. Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York, ends just as the 1863 New York Draft Riots are beginning, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s 2004 novel, Grant Comes East, describes the riots as part of the unfolding drama.

5. Shays’ Rebellion

This eighteenth century farmers’ riot wasn’t immortalized by either Hollywood or the music industry, unfortunately, but it did lead to the writing of the Constitution of the United States. The short story is this: Daniel Shays, a poor farmer from Massachusetts came home from fighting in the American Revolution to discover that he—and all of his neighbors—were financially wrecked due to bad fiscal policies and a lack of government regulation following the Revolutionary War. After attempting legal appeals, Shays and about seven hundred of his closest friends marched on the state courthouse, leaving pandemonium in their wake.

While many of the Continental muckity-mucks weren’t particularly alarmed by the violence—Thomas Jefferson famously dismissed it, saying, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure”—they later convened the Constitutional Convention to discuss, among other things, enlarging the central government to address the financial issues facing poor American farmers like Shays.

August 10, 2011 - 6:24pm
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