Rightwing Riot Theory, from Newark to Ferguson: The Riot Makers (1971)

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Q: What caused the urban unrest in Newark, 1967?

If your answer involves the systematic economic, educational, and political disfranchisement of black Newarkers, persistent housing discrimination, and constant, unrelenting police violence against people of color, well, that would put you in the company of such flaming revolutionaries as the New Jersey Governor’s Commission on Civil Disorder, the presidentially-appointed Kerner Commission, and that subset of the broader public possessed of some modicum of knowledge and/or empathy.

If, on the other hand, you attribute urban rioting to criminal thuggishness, the greedy desire to loot stores for luxury goods, unmotivated anti-white racial animus, or Communist conspiracies, there’s a good chance that—like the white folks in St. Louis currently brushing aside the unrest in Ferguson as “bullshit”—you’re a genuinely awful person, but I do have a film recommendation for you.

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Here is a short 16mm film made for law enforcers in 1971, to illustrate, as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service somehow puts it without affixing an asterisk to note that this is literally insane:

“how such riot makers as Vladimir Lenin, who stated that mass movements must be artificially created, influenced agitators during the 1960’s. It terms modern day activists ‘leninoids’ or graduates in social demolition and argues that Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, H. Rap Brown, and other agitators have been studying the tactics of Lenin and Hitler. The tactics of these 1960’s agitators included targeting specific groups for recruitment in urban areas (the poor) and on college campuses, where their aim was to monopolize student expression, create a climate of hostility, and incite crowds to riot. The film depicts the manipulation of urban discontent in Newark, N.J., and other civil disturbances of the 1960’s by using actual footage made by the news media and other sources. The film is designed to aid law enforcement personnel who are largely unfamiliar with the phenomena of violent social unrest.”

Setting aside the question of where one might find law enforcement personnel in 1971 who were unfamiliar with social unrest, violent or otherwise, this is actually a largely accurate summary of the film. It begins with a world-historical survey: Marc Antony overthrows Caesar with riots; 1789, Robespierre, and that damn Terror; LENIN! “the evil genius” who pioneered “exploiting every trace of discontent” as method; Hitler, then Rennie Davis and Students for a Democratic Society.

Wait, what? But here you have it, in irrefutable montage form:

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To be sure, not ALL riot-makers are communists–“some are compulsive revolutionists … others are modern-day nihilists.” Ah, so it’s a diverse crowd of criminal rabble-rousers!

Newark serves as a case study for the film. As our narrator explains, white college radicals like Tom Hayden showed up, carrying visions of violent Maoist uprisings. “To set the stage, minor disagreements were escalated out of all proportion.” “Routine arrests” were exploited to generate dissent; “inflammatory leaflets” were posted around the city.

Here is the film’s vision of an inflammatory leaflet:

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As crude rightwing propaganda, The Riot Makers hits all the required notes, fashioning a feverish, paranoid theory of history in which Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Tom Hayden, and H. Rap Brown all blend together into a unified mass of Evildoers bent on . . . well, doing something bad, that much is certain. As is to be expected, the film includes virtually no testimony from the black majority of Newark, and contorts itself into M.C. Escher lines of logic to avoid acknowledging the persistent, absolutely undeniable pattern of police brutality toward black Newarkers that made it seem so plausible arrested (and badly beaten) cab driver John Smith had been killed by Newark police that night in July 1967 that sparked the uprising. The Newark police had done a pretty good job of creating that “climate of hostility” before Hayden and the white radicals ever arrived in town, but this history is wholly absent from The Riot Makers.

So, this is Big Lie tactics at their most obvious, hardly exceptional given the four centuries of genocide-masking American triumphalism that continues to undergird our national narratives, aside perhaps from its oafishness. The Riot Makers does, however, contain some vivid footage of barely-post-riot Newark.

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I’m not sure exactly where this footage comes from—local television, presumably, though all we get from the credits is an acknowledgment to reporter Harry Stathos for “local assistance.” For that matter, it’s also a little unclear where The Riot Makers itself comes from. It was “Produced for Spectrum of Washington by Norman Bishop,” but unless my Google skills are failing me, there’s not much info out there about this organization. Narrator Fergus Currie is presumably not the composer born in 1961, so you’ve got me there, too.

So while the details of the film’s production remain murky to me, its intellectual (well…) genesis is more transparent. Based on a 1970 book of the same name by Eugene Methvin, The Riot Makers fits squarely into a somewhat under-recognized genealogy of victim-blaming that runs from the early civil rights movement (or even earlier, the labor movement) through Watts and Newark, and all the way to Ferguson in 2014.

Methvin worked his way up from rural Georgia to the Reader’s Digest, according to his Wikipedia bio (the best source out there, though I’ll bet this oral history taken in 2011 and held at the University of Georgia—which also apparently holds his personal papers, probably worth digging in—is pretty fascinating; edited to add: hot damn, it’s on YouTube!). In 1965 his article “How the Reds Make a Riot” won awards, and clearly Methvin saw how his bread was buttered.

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The Riot Makers expands the logic of that article title into bloated book-length form. Weighing in at 500+ pages, it begins with a long chapter on Newark. From the very opening paragraph, Methvin works hard to blame black Newarkers for their situation; his opening image is of two Newark police officers “haul[ing] a cursing, struggling Negro from their cruiser.” Because Hayden and his fellow provocateurs from SDS and the Newark Community Union Project created a “Reservoir of Hate,” as one section is called, local “resentment tended to focus on that handy lightning rod, the policeman.” The notion that this anger might be legitimate isn’t even conceivable to Methvin; though Ron Porambo later detailed the long history of police violence in Newark, to Methvin it is simply axiomatic that police are always right, and black anger is always unfounded.

Such claims echoed those of the John Birch Society, whose founder Robert Welch had published an essay (helpfully preserved by the King Center) in 1967, “To the Negroes of America,” imploring African Americans not to riot by telling them how good they had it (amazingly, its urge to “wake up, my misguided friends,” from the “shameless liars like M.L. King, foreign trouble-makers like Stokely Carmichael, perverted characters like Bayard Rustin” failed to resonate!). Indeed, the 1965 Bircher agitprop “documentary” Anarchy U.S.A. effectively anticipated Methvin in its communist-dupe outside-agitator analysis of the civil rights movement (the same line future Christian Right leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell were also parroting at the time).

Anarchy U.S.A. found a receptive audience among white Newarkers, as seen in this flyer:

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I doubt they had vegan food at Thomm’s. from the New Jersey State Archives, courtesy Mark Krasovic

Mark Krasovic also notes in his fantastic dissertation “The Struggle for Newark: Plotting Urban Crisis in the Great Society” that the New Jersey State Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association set up its own Committee of Riot Study and Investigation, specifically to exonerate the police from their violent show of force in Newark, which left approximately two dozen dead. To no one’s surprise, the 1968 report, The Road to Anarchy, blamed everything from (unproven, likely imaginary) black snipers to “inflammatory literature purportedly printed in China.”

Clearly there was a massive white audience for theories that would displace the anger and frustration of Black America, and substitute excuses for structural inequality that mostly relied on simply denying its existence, or engaging race through barely-coded dog whistles. This story has been thoroughly covered by historians, and just as thoroughly disregarded by most white Americans; it runs from “forced busing” to “welfare queens” to Ronald Reagan commencing his successful presidential campaign talking about states rights at the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered while engaged in civil rights activism in 1964. It’s a history as plain as day to anyone willing to see it—but most (again, white) Americans still are not.

The relative subtlety (and I do mean relative, obviously) of this white conservatism that has structured both the modern GOP and the sad “centrism” that dominates modern Democratic politics eventually drove off the John Birch/George Wallace/etc frothing-at-the-mouth crowd, holding it to the margins of modern conservatism. But not before Methvin wrote one more epic, The Rise of Radicalism: The Social Psychology of Messianic Extremism, in 1973. It was more of the same, with chapters like “Plato: The First Totalitarian?” Methvin scored a positive review from a fellow high-strung anticommunist in the American Bar Association’s journal, but was brushed aside by Kirkus Reviews. Naturally, there was only one place for a crazy rightwinger to go: President Reagan appointed him to his President’s Commission on Organized Crime in 1983. Of course.

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the works of Eugene Methvin: bigger than a cat, and dumber too

The direct afterlife of The Riot Makers has been modest, at best. The film is extremely rare, held in only a few libraries and largely forgotten, as far as I can tell.

Methvin’s book, however, left a small but sustained trail, according to the highly imperfect but nonetheless useful Google Scholar. Looking at its few scholarly citations, one learns, for instance, that The Riot Makers was one of William Luther Pierce’s favorite books as he wrote his landmark racist hate novel The Turner Diaries (as revealed in a very interesting article by Rob McAlear).

But the true shock of following The Riot Makers’s trail is seeing it cited uncritically, as a reputable source, in peer-reviewed scholarship. Abraham H. Miller seems to have built a successful scholarly career upon attempting to refute the widespread social-science consensus on the origins of urban unrest. In articles published in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2001) and Terrorism and Political Violence (2002), Miller uses Methvin to support his arguments—in the latter article, apparently advocacy of even greater police countermeasures (i.e., violence), though he and co-athor Emily Schaen seem hesitant to say it quite so openly. As Miller rather huffily explained in recently bemoaning the existence of Black Studies, “Traditional scholarship is an exhausting and demanding business.” Yeah, apparently so. Sometimes you just need a shortcut, like citing a delusional paranoid journalist to make your, uh, scholarly point. Naturally, Miller, like Methvin, was rewarded for his work with a counterterrorism consulting gig at the National Institute for Justice.

And, to pull this back to Ferguson, where as in Newark nearly a half-century ago, a whole lotta white conservatives seem eager to talk about anything other than cops killing unarmed people of color or the sources of black anger, Miller currently contributes—seriously, for shame—to Breitbart. Though he hasn’t (yet—we can only hope) weighed in on the killing of Michael Brown, the Bircher/Methvin framework of blithely dismissing police violence persists—indeed, Breitbart’s typically terrible coverage invokes outside-agitator tropes, blaming “’outsiders’ from the city of St. Louis for causing the looting and rioting mayhem.” On another conservative site to which Miller contributes, we are reminded, as we always are, that “We know very little about what happened in Ferguson, so we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions about any individual, or group, or the nation’s psyche.”

Well, some of us know pretty well what happened: an unarmed black man was shot six times by a police officer. As Mia McKenzie reminds in a brilliant essay,

“This country has spent the last several centuries systematically killing Black people. Black death is built into the system. Black death, alongside Native American genocide, built the system. Yet, whenever yet another unarmed Black person is killed by police, it’s somehow our fault? We must’ve been threatening/drunk/holding a BB gun/maybe possibly shoplifted some candy? Because after 400 years of never needing a reason, they suddenly need a reason? No. No. They have never needed a reason.”

Look, The Riot Makers isn’t single-handedly responsible for the fact that 406 people on the New York Times could recommend this heartless comment, which perfectly reflects the utter lack of empathy for people of color that defines virtually the entirety of U.S. history:

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But it’s not irrelevant to that sad story, either. The overwhelming preponderance of violence in the Newark riots/rebellion, of course, was inflicted by state agents against black bodies. Whatever property has been damaged in Ferguson, it is again black bodies with bullets in them. It’s infuriating that media narratives devalue black life, engage in apologetics for violence against people of color (stolen cigars! scary hoodies! clearly they bear some blame for being shot and killed!), and efface the decades of mass incarceration and militarized policing that do vastly more harm than good, distributed, of course, along the lines of race and class that correspond perfectly to political power and the lack thereof in America.

The Riot Makers is part of this genealogy of fraudulent knowledge-production (or rather, deliberate ignorance and erasure), and perhaps the Methvin à Miller line is less important than, say, that from another Birch Society affiliate, W. Cleon Skousen, to Glenn Beck, but it’s all part of the same nexus. It gives us angry black rioters, led into a frenzy by malicious white radical agitators, without any recognition of the very real grievances carried by black Newarkers or people in Ferguson. It’s the perfect book and film for a country where George Zimmerman is now some kind of decontextualized celebrity, and the next unarmed black person shot by a cop will once again have his or her life scrutinized in a desperate effort to divert attention and blame.

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further reading for the truly masochistic

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2 thoughts on “Rightwing Riot Theory, from Newark to Ferguson: The Riot Makers (1971)

  1. Pingback: Sterling Brown Speaks 76 Years Later–Ferguson, No Isolated Case | The Dad Poet

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