The 1960s Urban Uprisings and the Evolution of “Riot” as an American Legal Concept, 1901-2021

Tina Law, CUNY Graduate Center

Research on the role of political elites and local police during the 1960s Black-led urban uprisings has been instrumental in explaining the “punitive turn” in U.S. domestic policy. However, I argue that legal professionals assumed influential yet often overlooked roles during the uprisings by serving as “arbiters of ambiguity” during their work on the legal frontlines in affected cities and on riot commissions. I examine the role of legal professionals during the uprisings and its aftermath by tracing how lawyers, judges, and scholars defined and debated “riots” as a legal concept over time, using historical, network, and qualitative methods to analyze all law review articles about riots published between 1901 and 2021. Specifically, I focus on investigating how legal professionals interpreted “riots” in terms of constitutional rights and crime before, during, and after the uprisings. I find that legal discourse about riots is a relatively new phenomenon that originated with the 1960s Black-led urban uprisings. Moreover, while American legal discourse exhibits a tradition of prioritizing constitutional rights when analyzing the legal implications of riots, concerns about constitutional rights were eclipsed by concerns about crime during the uprisings, particularly concerns about property crime. The findings reveal that the “punitive turn” was driven not only by political elites who sought to thwart Black-led efforts for local self-determination and police departments who stood to benefit financially and politically from such repressive responses, but also by the short-lived and equivocal efforts of legal professionals to strengthen civil liberties protections for Black Americans when they engage in protest and contentious action in their neighborhoods and cities.

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 Presented in Session 209. Urban Displacement: Local Governance and Conflict