In the United States, Americans recently commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A large crowd gathered peacefully in the nation’s capitol to hear soaring speeches and searching retrospectives that measured the historical moment, the distance the United States has traveled from the racial politics of the mid-twentieth century, and the difficulty of the road ahead.
There was common agreement that significant progress in racial politics had been secured by the non-violent protests of the Civil Rights marchers. The corollary to this was a casual disregard for black rebellion. Peaceful protest was admired, but outright rebellion was dismissed as rioting. “If we're honest with ourselves,” said President Barack Obama, “we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior.”
If Obama wanted to cite reasons for a stalled civil rights agenda, he would have been more accurate to condemn discriminatory housing markets, opposition to school integration, the dismantling of social safety nets, the mushrooming prison industry, and the general promotion of personal responsibility for society’s lower classes while offering publicly financed safety nets to too-big-to-fail banks and corporations.
Rioting may not have been beneficial to black communities, but the easy dismissal of black rebellion allows politicians like Obama, and those to whom he appealed, to believe that stalled progress in race relations has been the result of indiscriminate eruptions of black frustration. But had the “rioters” really “lost their way,” or had they merely run out of options? Were these “riots” — uncontrolled, chaotic, and irrational — or rebellions with clear intentions, regardless of their ultimate outcome?
How we characterise such outbursts is important, because it is possible the “rioters” knew something that is difficult for most of us to admit. Subsequent years have shown that the gains of the Civil Right years made it possible for the emergence of a broad and thriving black middle class — and allowed a black man educated in Ivy League universities to achieve the highest office in land — but did little to eradicate racial disparities in life chances. There was no social revolution to raise the living standards of the working classes. And the system of incarceration, the largest in the rich world, consumes black men now as never before. It may be that rebellion was the only avenue available for protesting the most fundamental social problems that would not be resolved by “civil” means. In that case, the “rioters” were similar in kind to the violent protesters of the French Revolution or those of other common people throughout history.
Obama’s speech participated in a long tradition of singling out black outbursts as explosions of disorder without justification or clear intention. For example, while some understood the frustration with repressive policing and economic exclusion that lay behind the uprisings in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981, many more people were astounded and resentful, demanding police crackdowns and expanded incarcerations. The same angry confusion has marked the reaction to similar disturbances in America, following the Rodney King verdict in 1992, or in the late 1960s following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Such reactions reach even further back, into the nineteenth century and the reaction to the insurrection scares of the American Civil War or 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. These episodes too were commonly seen as “riots.” Yet contrary to popular belief, many black uprisings have resulted from careful strategy and tactics in response to genuine grievances.
An emerging alliance between historians and mapmakers promises to enlighten public perceptions of black insurrection. We can look as far back as the mid-eighteenth century, when a major slave revolt in Jamaica attacked the heart of the British Empire. In 1760, more than fifteen hundred enslaved black men and women staged a massive uprising in Jamaica, which began on Easter Sunday in April and continued until October of the next year. As with more recent disturbances, people at the time debated whether the rebellion was a spontaneous eruption or a carefully planned affair. Historians still debate the question, their task made more difficult by the lack of written records produced by the insurgents. With the help of cartographers, historians have analyzed this slave revolt by plotting its movements on thematic maps that reveal the political strategies of the rebels. Drawn from cartographic evidence, a new map of the 1760-1761 slave insurrection in Jamaica developed in collaboration with Axis Maps shows that the rebellion was in fact a well-planned affair that posed a genuine strategic threat, not an indiscriminate outburst.
Descriptions of black freedom struggles as riots and rampages provide a handy justification for denying legitimate claims to political participation and rights. Perhaps we can dispel these misconceptions by applying new methods of research. If historians and cartographers can find new explanations for uprisings that happened more than 250 years ago, it should be much easier to understand more recent events, with our newfound access to geo-coded data and mapping software. By tracing the movements of crowds in revolt we might discern their political designs. There may be many uprisings that have no strategic intent, offer no vision of a better society, and encompass no legitimate grievance. However, easy dismissals of black “riots” leave no clear understanding of the frustrations, aims, and aspiration of those in rebellion.
Mapping uprisings can help us to better understand the politics of such events. It will make it easier to distinguish riots from rebellions. And most importantly, understanding black rebellions will make it easier to recognize and address the conditions that compel people to go to war against their own societies.
Vincent Brown is Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, where he directs the History Design Studio. He is the principal investigator and curator for the animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761.