How To Riot

Riots (excuse me, “protests”) are the history of labor in the US. Probably pretty much of the rest of the world, too. In the US, we’re not taught about them in school – instead we are taught that the police are basically great people, who are here to protect us, and the national guard’s job is to pull cats down from trees when there’s a flood.

None of that is true.

Most of you who read this blog, or any history, or pretty much anything to do with the history of labor in the US, know that that history is bloodstained indeed – mostly with the blood of workers. Most of you have probably heard of Shays’ rebellion and the whiskey rebellion; those were two early pivot-points when the newly declared United States confronted the fact that government lives by taxation, and all that “no taxation without representation” didn’t mean a hill of beans to an oligarchy whose oligarchs didn’t want to spend their money running a government. By the time the US had been independent for 3 years, the citizens were paying higher taxes than they would have if they had remained with England; the taxation was lopsided, of course.

It’s probably not entirely fair to summarize the history of industry and taxation in the US as: “paying the workers the least, while applying taxation as broadly as possible to the lower tiers of the financial pyramid, and sheltering the investor and speculator class from working, or paying their fair share.” The system was very much set up so that the rich got rich and had ways of pulling the ladder up after them, so that they could shelter themselves and maintain a solid lower class that did all the actual bleeding and sweating. Of course when slavery was part of the picture, that was obviously baked into the system, as well: there is no better way to maintain a lower class to do all the work than chattel slavery, and racializing it was an obvious “divide and rule” move. After the revolution, the new US didn’t have an army, until it needed one to suppress Shays’ rebellion and the whiskey rebellion – one a result of allowing predatory speculation and lending, and the other an effect of Alexander Hamilton’s trying to invent a system of taxation that didn’t inconvenience the investor and bourgeois class by making small-time distillers pay much more tax than the corporations who did large quantities of distilling. Shay’s rebellion and the whiskey rebellion resulted in some deaths and many misfortunes and violence, but we sort of stop learning about insurrections and other problems  until the civil war. Because, you know, the industrial revolution started to happen, and the gilded age, and the railroads linked the whole country together, and everything was great.

The history of the industrial revolution in the US is the history of labor in the US, and it’s almost entirely abusive. There were constantly strikes (“riots”) because the factory bosses were able to negotiate with labor thus:

Shift Boss: “OK men, we’re changing the shift schedules. Instead of doing 3 shifts of 8 hours, we are going to do two shifts of 12 hours. Because of the new machinery we’ve added to the mill, production targets remain the same or will go up slightly.”
Workers: (grumbling)
Shift Boss: “If you don’t like it, you can go work somewhere else.”

Homestead in 1892

In the big steel mills run by Carnegie, new machines were added constantly, to improve output and reduce labor costs – but the workers didn’t see a dime of the profits from increased production; Carnegie simply lied about production and paid the men what amounted to 15% or sometimes 30% less than they had earned. And that was their already reduced wages. Meanwhile, Carnegie wrote The Gospel of Wealth which said, in a nutshell, that god helps the really greedy bastards and because god is helping them, they deserve it. Carnegie, meanwhile, held a job that mostly consisted of counting money and screwing the workers out of their wages. He appears to have felt some remorse for being such a traitor to his class, so he became a philanthropist and gave away a substantial amount of money trying to impress his new class. Anyhow, that’s all some background.

I knew about the battle of Homestead; Homestead is a mud-flat outside of Pittsburgh, where the big steel mills were. Today, there is a group of stores (most of which are going out of business now) and a megaplex theater (ditto). But once upon a time it was unsafe, dirty, and as close to hell as Carnegie ever wanted to get. Homestead was where a pitched battle was fought between workers’ unions and Pinkertons’ men and eventually the national guard. It doesn’t matter if you call them “Pinkertons” or “Blackwater” or “DHS” – they were and are the same thing: armed ex-military or professional bullies who are there to keep the peace by knocking strikers unconscious. [There is a full description of the battle of homestead here] The short form is that Carnegie wanted to keep unions out of his mills and decided to shutter the mill rather than meet labor’s demands. When the workers responded with a more general strike, Carnegie and Frick called in reinforcements and Carnegie fortified the steel mill (!) with high walls and turrets like a castle’s. Events came quickly to a head: an armored steamboat towing two barges containing a total of about 300 Pinkertons was met by several thousand steel-workers who were angry enough to kill. And, they did. There are various accounts of who started what, but the strikers got the upper hand fairly quickly (the Pinkertons’ strategy was: walk in and start busting heads) when some large fire-bombs and a few shots from a cannon made the Pinkerton’s hunker down on their barges. Exact casualty counts are unavailable but it was a dramatic scene and the humiliated Pinkerton’s evacuated by train and their ships were burned.

The national guard was called in and – for reasons I don’t really understand – the strikers thought that they were going to be fairly treated. Instead, they found themselves looking at formed military units that were much more professional than the Pinkerton’s, They were advised to take whatever deal Carnegie offered them (big surprise) and that was pretty much that. The event was scored as a pyrrhic victory for labor, because they showed that rental cops are not all-powerful, but Carnegie broke the strike, and eventually broke the unions out of all of his and Frick’s factories. From then on, “big steel” and the steelworkers’ unions fought an endless battle that ended only when the steel industry put itself out of business by not reinvesting in processes and allowing foreign production to mechanize further, driving the cost down to the point where US-made steel was too expensive. But, that took until the 1980s.

Then there was the railroad strike. The railroad strike took place before the battle of Homestead, but these events were all connected. Unions were trying to organize, and corporations were doing everything they could to prevent it from spreading. Waves of immigrants from Europe allowed corporations to drive down the price of labor, and there was a bitter amalgam of economic distress from the civil war, migration of workers from the shattered south, and corporate greed. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) started the ball rolling with three aggressive wage-cuts against their workers, who responded by shutting down the train services at Martinsburg, WV, and not letting any traffic through. The governor sent the national guard in to shoot some strikers and break the strike but the guardsmen, being local, refused to fire on friends and neighbors.


In Baltimore with the famous Fifth (“Dandy Fifth”) and Sixth Regiments of the former state militia, reorganized since the war as the Maryland National Guard were also called up by 37th Maryland GovernorJohn Lee Carroll, (1830-1911), in Annapolis at the request of powerful B. & O. President John Work Garrett, (1820-1884). The Fifth marched down North Howard Street from their armory above the old Richmond Market (at present North Howard and West Read Streets) in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood and were generally unopposed heading south for the B. & O.’s general headquarters and main depot at the Camden Street Station to board the waiting westward trains to Hagerstown and Cumberland. But the unfortunate Sixth assembled at their armory at East Fayette and North Front Streets (by the old Phoenix Shot Tower) in the Old Town /Jonestown area and had to fight their way west through regular sympathetic Baltimore citizens, rioters and striking workers which erupted into bloodshed along main downtown commercial thoroughfare of Baltimore Street to get to Camden. It was a horrible scene reminiscent of the worst of the bloody “Pratt Street Riots” of the Civil War era disturbances of April 1861, over 15 years earlier of the “first bloodshed” of the war. When the outnumbered troops of the 6th Regiment finally fired volleys on an attacking crowd on Baltimore Street, they killed 10 civilians and wounded 25. The rioters injured several members of the National Guard, damaged B. & O. engines and train cars, and burned portions of the train station at South Howard and West Camden Streets. The National Guard remained trapped in the surrounding Camden Yards, besieged by armed rioters until July 21–22, when the 19th President Rutherford B. Hayes sent federal troops and the U.S. Marines to Baltimore to restore order.

Yes, now you see what the “well-regulated milita” is for? They’re supposed to be for settling things and – when they can’t – there’s the Marines. The workers of Pittsburgh took it on the chin, too – and I’m sure it had something to do with their willingness to resist at Homestead:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the site of the worst violence of related strikes. Thomas Alexander Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad, described as one of the first robber barons, suggested that the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” As in some other cities and towns, local law enforcement officers such as sheriffs, deputies and police refused to fire on the strikers. Several Pennsylvania National Guard units were ordered into service by Governor John Hartranft, including the 3rd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel George R. Snowden.

Burning the Union Depot (Homestead was just across the river)

On July 21, National Guard members bayoneted and fired on rock-throwing strikers, killing 20 people and wounding 29. Rather than quell the uprising, these actions infuriated the strikers, who retaliated and forced the National Guard to take refuge in a railroad roundhouse. Strikers set fires that razed 39 buildings and destroyed rolling stock: 104 locomotives and 1,245 freight and passenger cars. On July 22, the National Guard mounted an assault on the strikers, shooting their way out of the roundhouse and killing 20 more people on their way out of the city. After more than a month of rioting and bloodshed in Pittsburgh, President Rutherford B. Hayes sent in federal troops as in West Virginia and Maryland to end the strikes and strife.

Got that? Bayonets and live ammo. “A rifle diet.” And federal troops sent in to end the fighting, because just killing a few people didn’t do it.

This is why I’m not as upset about the events in Portland, as I probably should have been. For one thing, the “militia” did not appear – that is to say, historically, the armed goons who throw in on the side of the corporations would be the “boogaloo bois” and professional strike-breakers. Historically, those guys would be using live ammunition on the crowd. And, historically they’d be ripped apart for their pains, because only absolute idiots attack at odds of 200 versus 1 city.

Everyone seems to be playing their usual roles: the federal troops are there to offer potentially over-the-top violence (by which I mean the National Guard, which Trump called up in DC) and the Pinkerton’s goons are there, too.

None of what is happening now comes close to what was “normal” in the 1880s and 1890s. To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure how to put this stuff in some kind of perspective, because it doesn’t seem possible, to me. One thing: I don’t think that the protesters or antifa is as threatening as the establishment is making them out to be. We just found out today, officially, that the “umbrella man” who broke in windows and started fires in Minneapolis was a fascist biker, pretending to be antifa. Antifa’s kill rate so far is: zero. That puts the “rioters”/protesters and antifa far behind the railway strikers or the steel workers at Homestead. The cops are complaining bitterly about a few fireworks being thrown at them – I wonder how they’d react to a cannon being fired at them, or being doused in burning tar, like the Pinkerton’s at Homestead. The Pinkerton’s had Winchester repeating rifles, the AR-15 of its time, and it didn’t really help them at all; what they did not have was the courage of desperation that the strikers had in plenty.

I’ve mentioned before that I mostly grew up in Baltimore (and the B&O train museum was a favorite place to visit!) – I used to bicycle down Pratt St to get to the library. It’s a bit hard to picture in a pitched battle. Of course it was hard to picture Druid Hill avenue being turned into a “riot” after the Baltimore police murdered Freddie Gray. I guess people in many cities in the US are feeling that, now.

I’m guardedly optimistic. I don’t want to sound like Stephen Pinker or “this is the best of all possible worlds” but it seems like there’s a long way to fall before we hit bottom – and, we’re better equipped these days. So, are they. I guess the main thing I am feeling is that everyone is showing more restraint than they probably think they are. And, I think I know why; this is all marking time (100 days and counting) till a national referendum on whether or not this is going to go all the way down to its logical conclusion, or whether we’re going to try to collectively unwind it and see if we can repair things a bit. I suspect that the “boogaloo bois” are not actually starting their stupid race/civil war because they know they will be wiped out by all the other sides involved in the situation. I suspect that the Blackwater/Pinkerton’s/DHS goons aren’t using live ammunition because they know there will be serious consequences: police violence is an “issue” right now and they’d be on the wrong side of it. There has to be an inkling down in their lizard brains that “hey, people are charging cops with murder right now, maybe this is not the time…” Also: they are afraid. They want to live. They know that if they really act up, they won’t be dealing with leaf-blowers, they’ll be surrounded by people with hunting rifles and propane tanks.

We don’t riot like we used to, and that’s a good thing.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    But Marcus, this is the Libertarian utopia you’re describing!

    Seriously, nothing bugs me more than Randites who seem to think that removing all government checks and regulations on industry, or having a weak government that is supine to big capitalists, would be an amazing experiment that has never been tried before. On the contrary, we know exactly what it would look like, because that’s exactly what we had during the decades you describe. Read Dickens; read Zola; read Engels if you prefer non-fiction.

    They say that we leftists want to recreate Venezuela or Communist Russia — but they themselves don’t even realize what the society they want to create would look like.

  2. komarov says

    That comparison of the Pinkerton’s repeater rifles to AR-15s doesn’t really work. Automatic weapons are a huge step up. Tsarist Russia turned machine guns on protestors to great effect. In the short term, not the long term, but machine guns don’t deserve all the credit or blame for that.
    AR15s aren’t machine guns but the US seems to be running a big study on how much damage one man can do with an automatic rifle. 200 (semi-)professionals with coordination and a crowd of targets conveniently gathered nearby could do a lot worse. They wouldn’t “win”, necessarily, but it would still be a bloodbath that should easily outstrip the Pinkerton’s most heroic efforts.
    Trump is also the sort of man who would have no compunctions to sign off on machine guns and the likes against protestors if he felt genuinely threatend. Luckily he’s probably not self-absorbed enough that he’d consider doing it as a distraction from all the other fires he’s ignoring or hoping to boost his poll numbers. Nothing screams “law and order” quite like a humvee gunner opening up on peaceful protestors, not even a US president on twitter. And the latter is all about ratings and headlines.

  3. says

    Someone asked me, offline, what the point of this posting is. I’m not sure – unless it’s that we are mostly unaware of the constant high level of violence directed at the working class. Black people, of course, have always been aware of it.


  4. Jazzlet says

    You may not have intended this meaning, but one thing I take from this and other tales of resistance is that if they had not resisted then things would be much worse now. There are so many things that we have because of workers uniting and demanding them that we forget are due to their efforts, the weekend being a hugely important example. For me the lesson is that to make things better in the future we have to resist now.

  5. says

    And now, there’s a sophisticated and ubiquitous surveillance apparatus at their disposal:

    DHS compiled ‘intelligence reports’ on reporters it says published leaked documents on agency efforts at Portland protests

    Homeland Security analysts used a system for disseminating information about terrorist threats to document the work of reporters covering unrest in Portland, Ore. Current and former officials called DHS’s action an alarming use of a government system that was never intended to report on activity protected by the First Amendment. DHS said in a statement that the reports were produced under “a rigorous process to include legal and intelligence oversight guidelines.”

    Read more


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