Riot Control

My current research concerns riot control, specifically the role of the volunteer militia, known today as the National Guard.

While I have spoken on this topic at the Library of Congress, George Mason University, and various scholarly conferences, I have not yet published any portion of my work. For now, I offer the following prospectus for a book tentatively entitled, The Militia and the Mob.

The Militia and the Mob: Prospectus

In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky defines a free society as a place where “a person [can] walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm.” Certainly the growth of American democracy has depended on such expression, from the Stamp Act riots to twentieth-century demonstrations in favor of collective bargaining, woman suffrage, and civil rights. But crowds can suppress liberty as well as nourish it, and democracy also depends on a level of law and order. As Abraham Lincoln warned in 1838, “whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”

Understanding this danger, all governments reserve the right to disperse crowds they consider riotous, using the threat of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm against those who disobey. In the United States, the same Constitution that guarantees the right of the people peaceably to assemble also guarantees the states protection against “domestic violence,” and many a town square has been forcibly cleared of citizens expressing their views.

Scholars have studied in detail the composition and behavior of crowds, but for the most part we lack good accounts of the other side: the forces of order. In the United States, this has included municipal police, sheriff’s posses, state police, private police and detective agencies, U.S. marshals, the federal armed forces, and even fire departments. While all of these have interesting histories, for much of American history the critical group was the volunteer militia, known today as the National Guard. So to understand the place of riots in American democracy, I am writing a book tracing the history of the militia’s role in urban riots as it evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Militias are attractive forces of order for several reasons. They have often deployed with battlefield weapons—from bayonets to cannon—that can overawe or, if necessary, decimate a crowd armed only with bricks, stones, and pistols. They also, at times, have brought an impressive discipline to riots, acting with a restraint and neutrality beyond the ability of a sheriff’s posse or a squad of special police hastily recruited from among civilians. Unlike professional police forces, they are not paid full-time, but lie mostly dormant until the rare emergencies when they are needed. And unlike regular soldiers, they are—in theory—composed of the local citizenry, and therefore unlikely to oppress the rights of the people.

But those very strengths of the militia are problems as well. The lethality of the militia’s weapons have made them too terrible to use, or have led to bitter controversy when the militia has fired on crowds. The responsiveness of the militia to local concerns made some troops sympathetic to the rioters they were supposed to control. And the part-time nature of militia service has left most militiamen untrained for the delicate task of riot control. Finally, militiamen have always identified themselves as soldiers, not policemen, and were reluctant to perform riot duty. So rather than preparing to control crowds, guardsmen dressed, drilled, and armed themselves for war in the field. But while the warrior can regard with pride a heap of enemy dead; for the militiaman who has slain his fellow citizens, a casualty list can be a mark of shame.

As a result, each major militia action against crowds has led to contentious debates. Americans have argued about who should have the authority to order troops into action, about when militiamen should behave as independent citizens and when as loyal soldiers, and about the level of force appropriate for riot suppression. All three debates tested the limits of democratic self-governance.

None of these debates were ever resolved, and the history of riot control by militia is not a happy one. For a period of about 140 years—from Providence, Rhode Island, in 1831 to Kent State in 1970—Americans suffered the recurring nightmare of mobs daring militiamen to fire, and militiamen taking the dare. Yet though this pattern endured, it also evolved. Cities changed, riots changed, and, most dramatically, the militia evolved from one generation to the next. My goal is to trace that evolution, finding both change and continuity in militia responses to urban riots. I would like to know how militias got into the business of riot suppression in the 1830s, how they got out of that business in the 1970s, and what happened in between.

In order to cover such a long period without losing detail, I plan to devote one chapter to each of eight riots: Baltimore in 1812, Philadelphia in 1844, Pittsburgh in 1877, Chicago in 1894, East St. Louis in 1917, San Francisco in 1934, Newark in 1967, and Los Angeles in 1992. No riot is typical, but each of these riots tells us something important about the relations between militias, mobs, and other actors in the story: legislatures, courts, police, federal troops, and bystanders. And all are well documented. During a fellowship at the Library of Congress, I wrote first drafts of the Baltimore and Philadelphia chapters. At Stanford, I would take advantage of archives and experts by concentrating on the two California riots.

Today, the National Guard is far less likely to be deployed for riot duty than it was for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the legacies of those centuries endure. Americans still disagree about how much authorities can restrict protest without stifling democratic expression, about when vigorous law enforcement crosses the line to excessive force, and about who has the right to make those decisions. This study will offer no simple answers to these questions, for previous generations never discovered a perfect riot. But it may illuminate the options available as citizens seek both peace and freedom.