One of the things that really stuck out in Monday's reporting on the unrest in Baltimore was a statement by Daryll DeSousa, the chief of patrol.
He said in a press briefing that Baltimore was seeing "unprecedented" levels of violence. That's just not true.
You see, Baltimore has a proud history of seeing widespread rioting over the deep divisions between citizens of the city. Maybe not a proud history, but certainly a long one.
The very first riot recorded in Baltimore was in 1807, when a doctor for what would become the University if Maryland School of Medicine saw a school he'd built burned to the ground. A man named John B. Dalvage had built a small operating studio to teach young surgeons about human anatomy through the dissection of Cadavers. A similar riot occurred in New York, in 1788, and like the Maryland riot was carried out by poor whites, whose families bodies were being stolen for medical research.
When the local community heard about this, they freaked out about the desecration of bodies, and were afraid of "Body Snatching" so they burned the school down. Later, the state built a full-on European style operating studio, which included a domed roof with an oculus window to shine natural light onto a cadaver so that students in the stadium-style seating could see what was going on. You can read more about that interesting bit of Baltimore history (including stories of the University of Maryland smuggling bodies to schools in other states in barrels of Whisky) at travel blog
It should be noted that Slaves bodies were often donated, but when simply buried, were a favored target for body snatching. Slaves weren't exactly allowed to join riots and protests over the theft of their families bodies, so the people doing this medical research knew that there would be no repercussions for the theft. Think about that for a moment: the chattel slavery system in the US was so horrific that you couldn't even die to escape the humiliation. Consider too, that even by 1807, Baltimore had a growing population of free Blacks, and you can see where a lot of tension over body snatching came from.
The next riot was probably the most destructive event in the United States prior to the civil war. The Bank Riot of 1835.
On March 29, 1834, the Bank of Maryland failed. This was almost entirely due to fraud, speculation, and corruption on the part of the bank directors. The Maryland public lost millions of dollars, not adjusted for inflation. Millions of 1854 dollars.
The people of Baltimore and Maryland proper waited 17 months for a financial settlement, which never came. Meanwhile the bank directors were still living large in their mansions, their own wealth very well protected. On August 6th, 1835, a small group of angry Baltimoreans threw bricks through the windows of Reverdy Johnson, who was intentionally obstructing the process of providing a financial settlement in order to protect his personal fortune. The Mayor ordered thirty armed horse troopers to guard Johnson's house the next night. They successfully blocked a mob from reaching Johnson's home.
So the mob went to the home of Bank-Director-and-Judge John Glenn, who was helping Johnson obstruct a settlement. Glenn feared for his own wealth, as well, and had an interest in preventing any settlement from going through. The mob partially demolished his home before the horsemen arrived to intervene. There was a tense standoff which lasted the rest of the night. On Sunday, the 9th, the mob returned again, and it had grown to a group of hundreds, if not thousands. They quickly overpowered the guards, and tore down Johnson's home, piling his property in the street, and setting it alight.
With the tacit support of the majority of the population who refused to interfere, or aided the mob, they took complete control of the city of Baltimore, destroying the property of other bank directors, until Revolutionary war hero Sam Smith, then 83, was able to assemble a force of 3,000 militiamen and restore order. Federal troops arrived a few days later, but Smith had things under control.
The leaders of the mob were Jailed, the bank directors were compensated to the tune of $100,000 because of the state's failure to protect their property. Reverdy Johnson went on to become a pro-slavery Senator and US Attorney General under both Zachary Taylor and Millard Filmore. It seems a corrupt banker is exactly who you want becoming chief law enforcement officer in the US. The rigorous enforcement of the "Fugitive Slave Act" by the federal government, as well as the blind eye turned to free blacks being kidnapped into slavery, was in part the doing of Reverdy Johnson, one of the great unknown villains of American History.
Next came the Know-Nothing riot of 1856. And 1857. And 1858. And 1859. Gangs of ethnic nationalist, anti-immigrant lunatics who are the spiritual and political ancestors of the tea party were the main forces involved in this particular series of riots and counter-riots.
The "American Party" as it was called, and the gangs that supported it, were involved in a number of violent confrontations with Democratic Party supporters, who responded to being violently attacked by gangs with an enthusiastic violence of their own. Rioting, assassination, murder, the destruction of ballot boxes and the intimidation of voters continued for four years until the fervor of the Know-Nothings finally petered out.
Remember, the Democratic Party was the pro-slavery, pro-wealth right wing party of this particular era. The Know-Nothings were proto-fascist and ethnic nationalist radicals who were well known for their attacks on Irish Catholics, and Germans of any religious persuasion. It was a scary time in American politics. The Know-Nothings would eventually fold in with the Republican party, to that Party's permanent detriment.
The next riot was carried out by the Democratic party, as well as (as far as we know) Confederate spies. The Riot of 1861 was one of the deadliest riots in American history, and the final spark which set the nation on the path to all-out civil war.
Baltimore had at this time one of the largest populations of free blacks, around 25,000, as well as a huge Abolitionist population, as well as pro-slavery Unionists. In response to the tensions, these groups organized themselves into the "Minutemen," while the Confederate Sympathizers called themselves "National Volunteers."
The tension came to a boil just days after the bloodless battle of Ft Sumter. It began when Pro-Slavery Democrats and Confederate sympathizers attacked the 6th Massachusetts infantry as it was leaving a train station to march to the defense of Washington. While the battle of Ft Sumter saw no deaths on either side, the Baltimore Riots saw the first deaths of the civil war.
Ambushing the infantry column from alleys and barricades, firing pistols and throwing stones, the Confederate sympathizers killed six Massachusetts infantrymen, and wounded 36. The infantry responded with their rifles and bayonets, killing 12 Confederate Sympathizers, and wounding an unknown number.
Militias at the time were primarily used by states for Union Busting and the restoration of order during times of civil unrest. Some of these soldiers had experience in street fighting, and all of them had the training to deal with it. They very quickly dispersed the crowd, once they'd recovered from the initial attack.
This riot, ultimately, was what propelled North and South into all-out war.
No one had died at Ft Sumter, and so a peaceful resolution was still possible, and still being sought by Lincoln and others. But in the Baltimore Riot, people on both sides had died. The Confederates called it a Massacre. The Unionists an ambush, an act of terrorism. Passions ignited, and the civil war itself began.
Running street battles between Confederates and Minutemen began, until Martial Law was declared and the Maryland militia marched in to restore order. Maryland begged Lincoln not to send any more troops through Baltimore. Which was ridiculous, as Baltimore was the main railway hub by which Washington DC and the south could be reached. There was no way for Union Soldiers to take up defensive positions along the Potomac without crossing through Maryland.
Lincoln started routing soldiers through Annapolis, by Sea hoping to avoid the unrest in Baltimore. The first soldiers to land in order to reach Annapolis Junction were the Massachusetts 8th militia, another veteran militia unit. Both the Mayor of Annapolis and the Governor of Maryland protested, and attempted to stop the soldiers from landing in Annapolis. General Benjamin Butler, the Union commander, responded by saying that he had to land, because his soldiers were hungry. The Mayor responded that no one in his town would sell them anything to eat. Butler responded that Armed men didn't necessarily need to purchase food. The veiled threat ended the standoff.
Eventually, Union troops were marched into Baltimore, and the state officials attempting to prevent the passage of soldiers were arrested, including the entire Baltimore Police Department, who had disabled train lines through Baltimore by order of the Mayor.
Baltimore remained under martial law for the duration of the war. The officials and police were released without charge.
There was rioting in Maryland during the national railroad strike of 1877, which saw riots in New York and Pennsylvania as well, and the destruction of railroad monopoly property. Similarly, there were riots in 1968, after the assassination of MLK. Both periods saw some of the larger and more sustained times of unrest in Baltimore, compared to other parts of the country.
So that's the history of Rioting in Baltimore. There were armed gangs fighting over elections, attacks on deeply corrupt public figures, destruction of body-snatching operations, and a deadly act of civil violence which ultimately started the Civil War.
And yet, in this city which should be famous for some of the worst street violence in American History, and the beginning of the Civil War, the police have the gall to call a few broken windows and a few fires "Unprecedented" levels of violence. This isn't true.
Poverty in Baltimore has always been an extreme problem for the city. From the theft of corpses, to the theft of bank deposits, to the theft of votes, to Union busting, to the discriminatory housing practices of the 20th century and the predatory lending practices of the 21st, Baltimore Maryland has always had the problems which led to the most recent period of unrest. It has always been this way, and the citizens of Baltimore at various points in history, both white and black, have revolted at the situation they've had to deal with.
Knowing this history, and knowing the economic reality of the United States, I don't honestly have a lot of hope that this trend is going to change anytime soon. There are too many deep divisions and disagreements on housing, on taxes, on whether the founders really meant what they said when they put that line about providing for the national welfare in the Constitution. We probably wont agree on these questions any time soon.
But maybe we can all at least agree that the police need to stop murdering young black men. The murder of American children by the state is really something we ought to all come out against.
Comments are closed on this story.