The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

All Issues
NOV 2022 Issue
Field Notes

Lancaster, So Much to Answer For

Our Lancaster brethren, they just don’t have that kind of fight in them.

–Local Man, Witness

On the foggy morning of September 11, 1851 Edward Gorsuch, a Maryland slave owner, along with a posse he had organized, crossed into Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in pursuit of four runaway slaves. Lancaster, just north of the Mason-Dixon line, was a hub of abolitionist organizing and an important stop on the underground railroad. When a more repressive Fugitive Slave Act passed the year before, Lancaster’s Black community began to form armed self-defense and mutual aid groups, under the leadership of William Parker, a former slave. These groups pulled off a number of notorious attempts to prevent the capture and return of runaway slaves to the South.

By the time Gorsuch and his party arrived in the small town of Christiana, scouts had made their presence known. At the house where the escaped slaves were suspected to be hiding out, they were met by an armed guard and refused entry. When a warrant was read by a federal marshal who accompanied Gorsuch, Parker responded that he “didn’t care for America and didn’t care for you.” A tense standoff followed, broken by the occasional gun shot. The sound of a horn coming from the second floor of the house alerted the neighbors. Soon dozens of free Blacks armed with shotguns, cob-cutters, scythes or whatever else they could fashion into a weapon were gathered outside. When the dust settled after the ensuing chaos, Gorsuch lay dead. The rest of his party had taken flight, some seriously injured. Parker fled to Canada soon afterwards, along with some of his comrades. Nearly the entire Black population of Lancaster County was later arrested and tried for treason. They were all acquitted.

The Christiana Riot, as these events became known, captivated the country. The front page of the first issue of what would become the New York Times, featured an article in which an editor expressed dismay about the riot.1 More than any event besides the raid on Harper’s Ferry some years later, this one September day in Lancaster brought America to the brink of civil war.2

The city of Lancaster has a way of briefly inserting itself in the center of moments of violent upheaval spreading across the country. Something about this seems almost foreordained: the city’s namesake in England was a hub of the Luddite movement and has a long history of riots and labor unrest. In 1946, a strike of transit workers spilled over into a riot which inspired a city-wide general strike. This, along with similar general strikes in Rochester, Stamford, and Oakland, was one of the peaks of the post-war strike wave, “the closest thing to a national general strike of industry in the twentieth century,” according to Jeremy Brecher.3

During the long summer of 2020, Lancaster again briefly found itself in the center of the vortex. On September 13, Lancaster police shot and killed a Puerto Rican man, Ricardo Muñoz, outside of his mother’s house. This inspired a night of rioting, in which proletarians clashed with police in their neighborhood, attacked the main police station, set barricades on fire, and briefly looted downtown.

Much like any great drama, the George Floyd uprising unfolded in three acts. First, there was the riot in Minneapolis, culminating in the burning of the Third Precinct, and the wave of riots that washed across America in the following days. Second, there was the immense non-violent social movement that followed in the wake of the uprising, accompanied by the toppling of statues and the spread of autonomous zones. Third, there was a sequence of late summer riots, during which nearly every week a different city held center stage in this national drama: Atlanta, Chicago, Kenosha, Rochester, Lancaster, Louisville, Philadelphia. The scenes set in Lancaster took place at the closing of the third act, just after the visceral anti-climax set in Kenosha. Lancaster provides us with a window into how this long, hot summer was experienced in America’s small cities and towns. The events there were in some ways an anomaly. But they nonetheless give us a glimpse of one moment of this unfolding phenomenon.

Lancaster is the hub of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, better known as Amish country. Lancaster is perhaps best known today as the location where Harrison Ford’s character agoes underground in the 1985 film Witness, in which the Amish are drawn into a conflict with corrupt Philadelphia cops. Otherwise Lancaster’s recent history tells a familiar story. Once a manufacturing hub, deindustrialization brought with it economic devastation, job loss, and a decline in the overall population, which peaked in the 1950s. With this came a change in demographics. Each new census recorded fewer whites and more people below the poverty line.

Yet more recently Lancaster has been treated as a success story in the pages of New York City newspapers: a decaying Rust Belt city that was able to turn things around and experience an economic revival. It has been called “the new Brooklyn” and a “punk rock kind of city.” And indeed, the sterile streets of its downtown are now lined with boutique shops, craft cocktail bars, art galleries, and concept hotels. The town is also home to the largest mall in the area, a destination shopping center, also newly renovated. If you were blindfolded, driven around, and dropped off downtown, you might think you were in Providence, Rhode Island or any of a dozen other gentrifying northeastern cities.

What often goes unmentioned in the glowing profiles of Lancaster’s recent revitalization is that it is perhaps the most surveilled city in America. A network of 165 CCTV cameras constantly monitors swaths of the city. In the refreshingly self-aware words of the former local police chief, "Years ago, there's no way we could do this... It brings to mind Big Brother, George Orwell, and 1984. It's just funny how Americans have softened on these issues."4

The security cameras, though, are not monitored by police or government employees but by the staff of a local nonprofit organization, Lancaster Community Safety Coalition (LCSC). The name could easily be mistaken for that of an abolitionist collective. In a way, the LCSC CCTV network provides us with a plausible vision of a world in which police have been defunded, and rendered to a degree superfluous, because all of the citizens have been put to work monitoring and reporting on each other.5 The LSCS staff spend their days in a strip mall basement scanning rows of screens and reporting any suspicious behavior. This often means petty crimes committed by the city’s poorer residents which otherwise would have gone unnoticed. It is no coincidence, then, that this camera network was first installed just as the city began its campaign of downtown revitalization in the mid-2000s.

“But for all its progress digging itself out of a deep hole,” the New York Times reminds us, “racial divides and policing issues are alive in Lancaster, just like in other cities.”6 The unemployment rate in the city, which is 40 percent Puerto Rican and 10 percent Black, is well above that of the surrounding county. Thirty percent of the city lives below the poverty line, reaching 50 percent in certain neighborhoods.

Wildfires are only able to spread where there is fresh tinder. As with any city that experienced unrest that summer, there was a local history of mounting tension with the police. In 2018, a video went viral of a white Lancaster police officer tasing a black man who was sitting down at the time and did not appear to be resisting arrest. This inspired a protest of nearly 300 people, a not insignificant-sized crowd for a small city.

The day after the burning of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis, a Facebook event calling for a protest in Lancaster was circulated by a random group of high-school students. Thousands showed up at the Lancaster police station the next day. This was the largest demonstration in Lancaster in living memory. The following day a crowd gathered near the police station and began to block traffic. Officers from nearly a dozen neighboring municipalities were called for backup, arriving in riot gear. After some arrests and a brief scuffle, riot police pepper-sprayed the entire crowd. The mood changed immediately. Much of the crowd, ranging from rowdy teenagers to elderly women from the neighborhood, began chanting “blood for blood.”

These protests may not have mirrored the intensity seen elsewhere in the country, but they set the stage for what was to come. Weekly demonstrations were held outside of the police station for much of the summer. But demonstrations also spread to the surrounding county, which is much less progressive than the city itself. In one nearby town a protest was met by members of a local militia who positioned themselves in front of storefronts and on rooftops.

Out of this movement emerged a handful of new groups. While not the largest, a group of activists calling themselves "Green Dreamz” played perhaps the most active role. Some of their members called the first protest in Lancaster that summer. The Stoop Kids were an informal group that got their name from hanging out on a stoop across from the police station every day. There they drank liquor, smoked weed, and discussed politics. They began providing security for demonstrations and organizing mutual aid. As the Kids developed a shared perspective, they began to print a newsletter, full of manifestos and analysis, that they would distribute at protests. Both of these groups were active in the events that would follow.

On September 13 2020, Ricardo Muñoz, a 27-year-old Puerto Rican man, was having a mental health crisis. Muñoz had a history of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and was off of his medication. Overwhelmed, his sister phoned a local crisis intervention group and a non-emergency police number. “I called to find out what the procedure was to get him some help,” she later told journalists. A police officer was dispatched to Munoz’s mother’s house. Munoz was dead within seconds of the officer’s arrival. In footage from the officer’s body camera, Munoz can be seen emerging from the house holding a knife in his hand and then being shot several times. Munoz’s body was then left uncovered on the lawn in front of his mother’s house for the next four hours.

Almost as soon as the shots rang out, neighbors began to gather at the scene. As one neighbor, who recognized Munoz from the neighborhood but did not know him by name, recounts: “I was in the house and heard the gunshots and I ran directly out. I heard a siren right away. I ran out because it was too close, so I ran out and ran straight up to the street. I heard his mother cry ‘you shot my son’ ... I got about a foot away from him and I saw him not breathing. Then the cop pushed me away.” Officers from several municipalities arrived. A line of police formed to block both sides of the streets surrounding the house. The growing crowd started to confront them. Lancaster is a small enough town that many of the officers were known on a first name basis. “Hey Officer Smith, fuck you. You arrested my brother,” and similar remarks could be heard shouted from the crowd.

That the shooting happened in this neighborhood is significant. King Street, which divides Lancaster in half, was historically the red line. South of King Street is where many of the city’s Black and Puerto Rican residents live, the poorest neighborhood in the city. Two years earlier, when another Puerto Rican man was shot by police, much of the neighborhood poured into the streets. The crowd felt like it was on the verge of a riot, according to people who were there. There has been tension in the air ever since.

With few details available until a statement was made by the mayor later that night, various rumors spread about what had happened. Among the most popular was that the person who had been killed was an autistic Black 16-year-old. Tension built while the crowd grew. When an ambulance finally arrived to carry away Munoz’s body, the mood of the crowd boiled over. Teenagers began jumping up and down on the hood of police cars. Then the windows of two police SUVs were broken. For the next fifteen minutes there was a staccato chime of broken glass.

Half of the crowd marched on the police station, about a mile from the site of the shooting; the rest stayed in the neighborhood, where more confrontations took place. There some young people threw rocks at the police. The feeling in the neighborhood was electric. Everyone was outside. If they weren’t in the street, they were on their porch. Everyone was talking about what was happening. The mood was as celebratory as it was angry. Once at the station, the crowd blocked the ramp descending to one of the building’s main entrances. This tactic had been tried several times over the summer, but never with the same energy. Riot police began to assemble.

The crowd swelled to its peak of around three hundred. It was a mix of people from the neighborhood, who might have known Munoz or his family; activist types, some with megaphones, others dressed as medics; students; clergy and community “stakeholders” who tried to calm people down; among others. The racial composition seemed to reflect the city itself, although the most energetic people in the crowd were non-white. As the night got more chaotic, white people tended to leave.

The mayor released a statement at 11pm. It expressed remorse for Munoz’s death, announced an ongoing investigation into the shooting, and called for calm. At the same time, the Lancaster Police Department released the body camera footage from the incident. It appeared to show Munoz charging at the officer with a knife. Departments are often reluctant to release footage of incidents of police use of force, especially high profile ones. The city seemed anxious to get ahead of the narrative in light of national events. People watched the video while blocking the entrance to the precinct. This was the first time that most of the crowd was aware of the name and identity of who had been shot, that he was Puerto Rican, and that he was neither a child nor autistic.

A tense standoff ensued between demonstrators and police clad in riot gear. Many in the crowd locked arms in a manner reminiscent of early Civil Rights marches. The standoff was broken when police launched tear gas canisters into the crowd in an attempt to clear the rampway. The canisters were promptly thrown back, but the crowd, unaccustomed to teargas, dispersed around the area. Many regrouped in front of the precinct as the gas cleared, while others remained scattered along adjoining streets.

This began a period of waiting. Anyone who has been in a riot before is familiar with the stretches of milling about between periodic clashes. A riot, to paraphrase Baudelaire, is an oasis of violence in a desert of boredom. Louise Michel recounts in her memoirs that the communards read Baudelaire aloud to each other at the barricades in the lulls between street fighting. But while Louise Michel found poetry in these pauses, Louis Auguste Blanqui thought they spelled the death of any riot or insurrection. What was needed, he thought, was ceaseless, energetic activity.

During these lulls, a mood of paranoia can set in. Rumors began to spread throughout the crowd, which was already growing smaller. This was soon after the deadly shooting in Kenosha, so people were particularly on edge. People playing with laser pointers were accused of having guns with laser scopes set on the police. This fantasy seemed far-fetched at the time, and the rumors were dispelled. But a few weeks later at a protest in Louisville someone would step out of the crowd and open fire on the police.7

The anti-police riot is a dance between two subjects. For its dynamic to unfold, the rioters need to continue drawing the police back into an engagement. Often this entails crossing a new threshold of violence.

The crowd began to gather again on the ramp, blocking the precinct’s entrance. Barricades were built on the ramp using traffic barriers, large planters, trash cans, street signs, and other objects. Then, people on and around the ramp began to throw “water bottles, glass bottles, rocks, bricks, gallon jugs of liquids and parts of plastic road barricades” at the line of police.8 Unsettled with the results, some tried to escalate things further. The windows of a jeep parked outside, presumed to belong to an officer, were smashed. Then the windows of a county government vehicle. Bricks were thrown through the front doors and windows of the police station and then the post office. This was at a time when liberals, worried about Trump’s campaign to defund the post office, were anxious to express their love for an institution that has earned the disdain of nearly all urban proletarians.

Officers finally gave a dispersal warning and attempted to clear the gathering with rubber bullets and another round of tear gas. The crowd threw back the canisters and as many bricks as they could before retreating. As the cloud settled, people began to gather in the street a block away. Some teenagers started breaking up paving stones and stacking them. The abundance of pristine paving stones is one of the few benefits of this particular kind of downtown revitalization. A group of women shouted that they knew Munoz, perhaps they were his coworkers, and that he would not have wanted this violence. Others in the crowd told them to go home, which they did.

A rhythm set in for the rest of the night. The crowd would regroup in the middle of the intersection, wait for the line of police to come close enough, hurl as many bricks as they could, and then retreat in a cloud of tear gas. After some rounds, the crowd began to build barricades at the intersection with whatever material they could find, which, in this sterile corridor of the city, was admittedly not very much. This included street signs, trash cans, a metal bike rack, boards of plywood, wooden pallets, a dumpster. The plywood boards came from an art installation installed in a nearby park early in the summer which involved message boards where protesters were encouraged to list their demands. The dumpster was promptly filled with flammable materials, doused in lighter fluid, and set on fire.

A debate broke out about what to do next. One group argued that the crowd should immediately start looting. The debate seemed informed by an idea, perhaps from portrayal in the media, about how a riot is supposed to take place; that riots tend to unfold through a sequence of escalating tactics: broken windows, clashes with police, dumpsters set on fire, then looting. Were these Lancastrians then simply going through the motions, rehearsing a performance that had already been scripted for them?

The former Situationist T.J. Clark, speaking with a note of melancholy, observed something similar in the 2010 London riots: In video footage, the rioters appeared to him to be simply going through the motions, self-consciously performing for the security cameras. Their sullen expressions indicated that they took no pleasure in what they were doing. “Looting was a job they took on.” Like the rest of us, they were simply constrained to inhabit, with some ironic distance perhaps, the logic of a role assigned to them. In the “unelated looters” of that summer’s “miserable insurrection,” Clark saw a taste of things to come.9 But this perception seems a world apart from the George Floyd uprising. During the looting of the Manhattan neighborhood Soho, the mood could not have been more different than the one described by Clark. The New York City riots, with their elated looters, felt closer to the events described in earlier Situationist writing—1965 Watts or 1871 Paris—as a “potlatch of destruction.”

In any case, if the proletarians in Lancaster seemed to be self-consciously performing a role, it wasn’t with the melancholic detachment or resignation that Clark describes. Rather it was performed with the sense that they had finally stormed the stage of world history, that for a brief moment they were living historic time, that for the first time in their lives their actions might have real stakes outside of the minor dramas of their private lives, and that they were choosing to inhabit the role that had fallen on them as fully as possible. When, in the light of a burning barricade, a masked figure gave a speech about how they were making history and that the whole world would know about Lancaster tomorrow, this was met with sincere, enthusiastic agreement.

The debate about looting continued. But in this expanse of boutique shops, art galleries, and craft cocktails, are the streets really filled with things eager to be held? The same group suggested a sneaker store that wasn’t particularly close by. Just outside of the center of the city is Park City Center, a 170 store mall, the largest in the area. This was revitalized in tandem with downtown as part of the city’s bid to attract commerce. Continuing an apparent theme, this high tech mall was one of the first in the country to be equipped with surveillance cameras.

In other late summer riots, proletarians were able to organize themselves in caravans to loot suburban shopping centers.10 But it is no surprise that a city the size of Lancaster lacked the organization and numbers for such an audacious leap in tactics. Tired of the deliberations, the pro-looting group announced that they were going to the sneaker store and began walking with determination in that direction. But when they realized that nobody else was with them, they turned back. Unsure how to push the situation further, the crowd was back to milling about while stockpiling bricks as they waited for the police to engage them.

The next appearance of the police felt different. From behind a vehicle, officers appeared to be reviewing footage from a screen and pointing at particular people in the crowd. After another round of tear gas, police charged into the crowd to make targeted arrests. Seven were arrested in these chaotic final moments. One group had decided that this dispersal was the right moment to start looting. Some of them were arrested at the sneaker store. One had a gun on him. Five more were arrested at their homes or on the street the next day. Everyone was charged with a number of felonies, including arson, institutional vandalism, and riot. At least one person was also charged with “loitering and prowling at night.” Bail was set at one million dollars each.

Surveillance camera footage had been used in identifying each of the suspects, according to a police statement.

The next day there was a feeling that everybody knew something was about to happen. College students milled about downtown in groups, casually holding on to protest signs, waiting. Local news cameras were everywhere. Liquor stores and other businesses hired heavily armed security guards. That evening a crowd of about a hundred gathered at the police station, more composed of the town's middle classes than the proletarian element of the previous night. The crowd held signs, occasionally listened to speeches, but mostly waited around. The charged tension of the night before was replaced by paranoia. Rumors circulated constantly: about the arrests earlier that day, which turned out to be true; about right-wing militias staging nearby, which turned out to be false; and about whether certain people dressed in fatigues were undercover, which turned out to be inconclusive.

At the center of the proceedings was a multiracial, college-aged group dressed in mostly black tactical gear, complete with walkie-talkies. They alternated between secretive huddles and public announcements, often a refrain to the crowd that they loved them and would die for them. This group was Green Dreamz, formed in the aftermath of the initial George Floyd protests in late May. Green Dreamz seemed certain that they had a central role to play in this unfolding drama but were uncertain of what it was. This left them performing a spectacle of activism: the gear, the urgency, the love, the willingness to die.

In the late 1960s, as images of the Black Panthers in Oakland spread around the country, groups inspired by the imagery and ideas formed nearly everywhere. One can imagine that the new activist groups, with their militant aesthetic, as well as the crews of mostly Black men that participated in riots, are the kind of people that might have flooded into the Black Panther Party in a different era. But whether by fortune or misfortune, they were born into an era absent of any revolutionary organizations, public figures, or ideas. Like lost children, the generation shaped by the uprising is left to figure things out on their own.

Lancaster had played its role in the larger American drama to the best of its ability. Now the curtains had closed on that scene.

Lancaster may not have captured the world’s attention, but the events there made a great impact on those who participated. Within a few weeks, the chief of police was forced to resign. The summer had brought out a divide between the progressive city government and the local police. The former chief would later give an interview defending how he handled the protests, which had become the subject of controversy. He was convinced protests intended to storm and burn down the police station, as they had in Minneapolis. He pointed to an “after action report” published in Crimethinc as proof of this.11 His role was to prevent Lancaster from becoming the “next Portland.”

The night of the riot was closely covered by the Lancaster Patriot. Some of this coverage was later picked by national news outlets. The Patriot was a new local news website that intended to launch a print publication in the coming weeks. These plans were thwarted and the website shut down in the aftermath of the riot when the local paper of record published an expose revealing that the editor of the Patriot was the host of an alt-right podcast associated with Mike Peinovich’s notorious The Right Stuff network.

A number of the groups that formed during the uprising dissolved in the months that followed under the weight of repression and internal conflict. Members of Green Dreamz and Stoop Kids were arrested during the riot and now faced decades in prison. One of them would write a book about their experience while awaiting trial under house arrest.12 The next year, the LCSC ran a successful fundraiser to improve and extend the city’s surveillance network.

Over the course of 2020’s long summer, a new riot seemed to erupt in a different city nearly every week. This rhythm gave some consistency and momentum to a national movement that otherwise might have decomposed. Each new event had its innovations, which were then taken up elsewhere. Crowds found new ways to stay ahead of the police. Disruptive tactics also spread to new layers of society. A way was found over or around every new impasse. It seemed the long summer might become endless.

But the wave had to crash eventually. Kenosha seems to be the moment when the party of order regained the initiative. Each riot that followed it was an opportunity for the state to test its own innovations. At this point, the mood in the country had clearly changed. Confronted with the life or death stakes of the struggle, many people were no longer looking for an excuse to take to the streets but an excuse not to. The late summer riots continued. But the crowds were often smaller, more homogenous. Creative solutions could no longer be found to get around the impasses.

The events in Lancaster took place just as the tide started to turn. But because Lancaster occurred at this threshold, just below the crest of the wave, it is hard to distinguish whether the peculiar features of this riot were anomalies or new precedents. This will, of course, only be clarified with future waves of struggle. For now, Lancaster leaves us with an uncertain snapshot of the future.

Lancaster was the first riot in this sequence that did not last longer than a night and had little national resonance. The explanation for this is, in part, fairly simple. The city was anxious to avoid becoming the center of national events. The city government played their cards well and their wager paid off. Their strategy, a combination of the carrot and the stick, ultimately worked and will likely set a precedent. In this, the tension between the progressive city hall and the regressive police force turned out to be an advantage.

The city was quick to get ahead of the narrative, with the mayor giving a statement that appeared both transparent and sympathetic to the family of the deceased and the protesters. The city government and police made a decision to release the body camera footage early on, breaking with precedent. This footage, and the narrative around it, was unsettling and portrayed a less unambiguous tragedy than the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. The shooting of Munoz lacked the sense of an uncomplicated moral injustice, which may have meant that it was harder to mobilize around. At the same time, the repression likely worked to discourage anyone else. The wave of arrests, the seriousness of the charges, and the amount of bail all seemed unprecedented.

Anti-police riots, of course, often do not last longer than one night, outside of the context of a national wave. It is possible that this is simply all of the energy a city the size and composition of Lancaster could muster.

What does it look like to riot in America’s surveillance capital? It is well known that the role of surveillance is often as preventative as it is punitive. Knowing one may be under surveillance, one tends to act as if they are. But while this functions in times of social peace, it tends to break down during a riot.

Surveillance cameras then tend to be used as part of the campaign of repression in the aftermath of a riot. Thousands of people were identified from surveillance camera footage and arrested in the months that followed the 2010 London riots. This of course is as much a political problem as a technical one. Following the 2020 riots, the NYPD announced that they would establish a task force to comb through surveillance footage of the looting in Manhattan. But that task force was disbanded before any arrests were made.

The role of Lancaster’s actively monitored surveillance network seems novel then. Cameras were used to identify suspects on the spot, particularly those taking the most initiative, allowing the police to make targeted arrests while the riot was still unfolding. It also allowed the police to arrest people the next day who they could plausibly charge with a number of serious crimes. This would have had a dampening effect on any else who might have considered participating. This seems unique in the course of the 2020 riots, but might be particular to the dynamics of a small town.

Over the course of 2020’s long summer, Lancaster was the only riot not sparked by the shooting or death of a Black person at the hands of police. Was this an anomaly?

Latinos are disproportionately killed by police as well, at rates second only to Black people. Although 124 Latinos died in interactions with police between late May and early November of 2020, none of these incidents, apart from Lancaster, resulted in riots or significant protests. Lancaster was itself a case of mistaken identity. Many participants in the riot thought at the time that Munoz was Black. But Black struggle in America tends to act as the detonator for wider social explosions. The years following the George Floyd uprising might see an increased frequency of anti-police riots in non-Black neighborhoods. This would not be without precedence. During the 1960s, a wave of anti-police riots in Black neighborhoods was closely followed by similar riots in Latino neighborhoods. These most frequently took place in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, especially ones in Northeastern cities that had already experienced riots.13

In recent decades, there has been a wave of Puerto Rican migration to smaller Rust Belt cities scattered around the Northeast. Lancaster then may offer us a glimpse of a possible new geography of anti-police riots; a future in which riots increasingly take place in non-Black neighborhoods in smaller cities along the Rest Belt.

Lancaster would find itself again playing a minor role in a major drama the following year. The riot wave in the summer of 2020 was followed by a rising tide of labor unrest that would peak in the autumn of 2021. On October 5, nearly 400 workers would go on a strike at a Kellogg’s factory in Lancaster. They were joined by a total 1400 workers at four Kellogg’s plants across the country. This coincided with strikes at John Deere plants across the country, as well as of nurses in New York, coal miners in Alabama, and at a bourbon distillery in Louisville.

Despite their differences in geography and industry, these strikes shared certain commonalities. The main point of contention for many of the strikes, including at Kellogg’s, was the company’s two-tier wage system, in which newer hires receive lower pay and less benefits than “legacy” employees. As these strikes dragged on, workers often grew skeptical of the union leadership, worrying that negotiators had grown too distant from the rank and file.

A number of strikes that year took place in cities that experienced significant unrest the previous year. There were no obvious resonances between the riot and the strike, at least in Lancaster. But both clearly emerged out of a set of conditions made particularly combustible by the pandemic. These post-Covid strikes reflected a new assertiveness on the part of American workers. After risking their lives to keep production going, allowing Kellogg’s to report record profits, workers felt entitled to a bigger share. They knew that the ongoing labor shortage and the crisis in the supply chain shifted the balance of power in their favor.

This assertive mood among workers was reflected in the Great Resignation and the rising popularity of r/antiwork, a subreddit that quickly garnered over two million active participants. Lancaster became the site of an encounter between these two trends. The strike there was closely monitored on r/antiwork. Threads about the strike were often at the top of the page, acquiring tens of thousands of upvotes and thousands of comments. This was the first time participants in r/antiwork moved beyond discussion to attempt to actively intervene in a struggle. For example, when Kellogg’s began advertising scab positions, r/antiwork participants flooded the company’s website with thousands of fake job applications until the site crashed.

An agreement was finally reached in late December. This agreement, according to the union, meant there would be “no permanent two-tiered system” and no plant closures for the next five years. The new contract also included pay increases, cost of living adjustments, and better benefits across the board. After nearly three months on strike, workers returned to the Kellogg’s plant in Lancaster.

  1. WM. F. Johnston, “Fugitive Slave Riot in Lancaster, Co., Pa.,” New York Times, 1851. See aso David W. Dunlap “1851 | Born Into a Racial Turmoil That Has Never Ended,” New York Times, Sept. 18, 2017.
  2. On the Christiana riot, see William Parker, “The Freedman’s Story,” The Atlantic.
  3. See Jeremy Brecher, Strike, page 230, Straight Arrow Books, 1972.
  4. See Bob Drogin, “Keeping a close eye on itself,” Los Angeles Times. Available here:
  5. For more on this, see Inhabit, “Dignity,” Territories, June 29, 2020. Available here:
  6. See Thomas L. Friedman, “Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up,” New York Times, July 3, 2018. Available here:
  7. See Anonymous, “Breewayy or the Freeway,” It’s Going Down, October 15, 2020. Available here:
  8. See Matt Miller, “‘A heartbreaking day for our city:’ Police use spray on protesters as Lancaster mayor calls for calm,” Available here:
  9. See T.J. Clark, “Capitalism without Images.” Available here:
  10. See Gilets Jawns, “About to Explode,” It’s Going Down, November 12, 2020. Available here: See also, Anonymous, “Breewayy or the Freeway,” It’s Going Down, October 15, 2020. Available here:
  11. See Anonymous, “The Siege of the Third Precinct in Minneapolis,” Crimethinc, June 10, 2020. Available here:
  12. See Dylan Davis, From Protestor to Political Prisoner in 2020, 2022.
  13. For more on this, see Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., “Forgotten Latino Urban Riots and Why They Can Happen Again,” Latino Rebels, May 6, 2016. Available here: See also, Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., “An Interactive Map of Latino Urban Riots and Social Unrest,” Latino Rebels, July 12, 2016. Available here:


S. Prasad

S. Prasad is a writer living in New York. Their work has appeared in Ill Will, Endnotes, and elsewhere.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2022

All Issues