RIOTS AND CIVIL DISORDER
"People like us give mobs a bad name" (Committee of Public Safety, 1793)
No matter what you call it, a riot is a riot. It is mob action (although crowd is the preferred term). Riots are a violent public disturbance of the peace. Little is known about their causes, dynamics, or patterns. Often the symptoms of the cause are the same as the impact or outcome (for example, protesting an energy blackout results in more blackout). Controversy exists over definition, and of course, terms used to describe the phenomenon. Criminal justice students usually only learn about the legal definitions -- the baseline of unlawful assembly requiring 3 or more persons, or the concept of rout, which involves the movement of unlawful assemblers. Those with more advanced legal training may study the courtroom standard of tumultuous, the legal term closest in meaning to wild or chaotic (hard to imagine a more vague legal term). Police, military, National Guard, and prison officers, of course, learn tactics and techniques of riot control (called disturbance control in corrections), but unfortunately, such training is quite atheoretical and doesn't examine the phenomena in whole. Accurate and complete understanding of the causes, conditions, and consequences of riot is noticeably absent from the scholarly literature. Even the Eisenhower Foundation seems to have moved on, when it was supposed to continue the work of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Riot Commission, formed after the 1960s riots in large cities) and the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (the National Violence Commission, formed after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy).
The study of riot is unfortunately the story of scholars attempting to impress readers with their ability to come up with fancy theoretical terms, or more unfortunately, a complex set of neologisms which they hope can become a theory named after them. We all know intuitively that there are many forms of collective violence, from quarrels to feuds to pogroms (organized persecution of a minority group) to genocides, but riot is a word (or label) we affix with certain meaning. It assumes we are talking about some "criminal" kind of semi-spontaneous collective violence that borders on chaos. Further, the term "riot" connotes some kind of collective loss of self-control, in which people mindlessly get caught up, like zombies, in bad imitative behavior where the sense of responsibility is lost. Also further, the term "riot" connotes some kind of protest or underlying grievance, which like terrorism, is an issue that participants hope to draw public attention to. However, one shouldn't underestimate the role of hate and bigotry. Those things are a big part of riots.
Some Terminology in the Analysis of Riot
| A pogrom
(Russian: погро́м) is a form of violent riot, a mob attack directed
against a minority group, and characterized by killings and
destruction of their homes and properties, businesses, and religious
centers. It originally and still typically refers to 19th- and
20th-century attacks on Jews, particularly in the Russian Empire.
A race riot (sometimes called an uprising) is an outbreak of violent civil disorder in which race is a key factor, and often the inciting incident is a member of a minority group getting injured or killed. Significant race riots have occurred in the United States during the 1890s, 1919, 1921, and 1964-1970, mostly involving Blacks.
A sectarian conflict (also called strife) is an outbreak of bullying and violence where members of one religious of nationalist (ideological) group injure or kill members of another group which it regards as responsible for its decline. Examples include the European wars of religion from 1524 to 1648, the Mormon wars of 1857-58, Catholics and Protestants in Ireland from 1969-2002, the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Iraq Civil War of 2006, and ongoing battles between Shiia and Sunni in most Muslim countries, They are generally considered protracted social conflicts because of deep-seeded identity rifts within a communal context.
A civil disorder (also called civil unrest) refers to acts of obstruction, destruction, or demonstration by a group of people with intent to protest against some major socio-political problem. They can be planned or impromptu, but almost always involve police response by definition whereupon refusal to follow police orders can escalate the sit-in or march to a rebellion, insurrection, or revolution (sometimes called chaos). Examples include the civil rights movement from 1955 to 1968, the WTO and IMF protests of 1999, and the Occupy Wall Street movement from 2011-ongoing.
THE FRANCO-AMERICAN PATTERN
Just as the Committee of Public Safety in France during 1793 used mob action to implement the Reign of Terror, Samuel Adams used mobs alongside legal pretense to start the American Revolution long before the first battle at Lexington and Concord. That's correct -- the American Revolution was founded on riot, not terrorism. The best book on this subject is Ray Raphael's (2003), The First American Revolution. The American Revolution first started during what is called the Massachusetts (Worchester) Revolution of 1774, and it simply erupted, everywhere and whenever, but it all started in the rural, little town of Worchester where 4,722 people assembled from 37 different towns. The mob succeeded, bloodlessly, in driving British royal officials out of inland Massachusetts (rode them out of town on a rail and/or marched them toward the coast thru a gauntlet). Soon, the whole British court and tax system was shut down, and the revolution spread across the land. It is unfortunate that this story is often lost in history, having been overwhelmed by accounts of what happened in Boston and tales of Paul Revere's ride. The story needs to be told because even though riots are ugly things, riots sometimes need to happen.
Now, considering the Reign of Terror (that one year and one month during the onset of the French Revolution), it is true that mass executions and purges were carried out, and as Robespierre misconstrued it, "terror is nothing more than swift, severe, and indomitable justice." The guillotine had already been used against Louis XVI before the terror started, and by the end of it, Robespierre himself met the same fate for promoting "endless bloodshed." Mob action during this period consisted mostly of class warfare (a "people's movement" if you will). However, more important is that despite all the voluminous literature devoted to lessons of the French Revolution (how lofty ideals can evoke bloodthirsty passions), one has to agree with Schama's (1990) analysis that riots always tend to go "off course" and the violence associated with them is not just an "aspect" but a crucial part. In the end, the French Revolution never accomplished its lofty objectives, but the course and direction of French state and culture were forever shaped by that violence. In other words, the consequence or legacy of riot may be more important than the primary cause (which in Durkheimian-Mertonian fashion, has usually been attributed to anomie, or social conditions changing so fast that governments cannot keep up).
THE GHETTO RIOT PATTERN
There is a difference in the sociological study of a "ghetto riot" and the more general phenomenon of collective violence; i.e. "crowding." One is the study of riots, and one is the study of crowds. Stark et al. (1974) have tried to combine theories about riots and crowds, but it is generally considered better not to confuse the two lines of inquiry. However, the notion that riots consist of an assemblage of "mini-crowds" is a sound idea. What riots and crowds have in common are the characteristics that researchers call: milling, rapport, rumor, keynoting, alignment, and assembling. Other than that, the significant difference is that a riot contains some extra "layer" (sometimes called "layered violence") of grievance, anger, or excitement. These emotional layers are often thought to be provocation factors, but they also describe what in more popular terminology is called "mob mentality" (a phrase sociologists hate to use). In actuality, any triggering event can be a provocation factor, such as a fight or police response. Riots are made up of many different kinds of crowd formations, and if the Watts and Los Angeles riots of 1965 and 1992 are any guide, riots do not spread in contiguous fashion, geographically that is, from one neighborhood to the next. Crowds do that. Instead, riots and "mini-riots" pop up in unconnected geographical areas within the urban environment.
A ghetto riot also tends to take place at night, and this suggests that daylight hours are used for other things by rioters, like maybe target selection, planning, plotting, or simply stewing over grievances. Much of riot behavior - before, during, and after - is organized along social lines, which is to say that certain people (experiencing the same social conditions in their life) get together for purposes of justifying criminal activity, carrying out criminal activity, and even cleaning up after criminal activity. All sorts of people participate in riots, not just the criminal element, although participating in a riot may qualify even the best person as a criminal, at least temporarily. Boskin (1976) summarizes ghetto riot patterns as follows:
an ethnic minority perceives some injustice that unfairly targets their group
some extraordinary societal condition prevails; e.g., pre-war or wartime mobility, postwar adjustment, or economic recession
the weather is unusually hot
rumors abound of various kinds, such as fears of angry mobs carrying out preemptive or retaliatory attacks
there is first responder mismanagement of the situation
most of the deaths and serious injuries occur within the ethnic communities where it started
One of the more remarkable things about a riot is the so-called mob mentality. Serious scholars don't use that term, but the fact is that people engaged in a riot will seem to have no idea why they are rioting. The situation may resemble a shark feeding frenzy with no real purpose. Looting and burning may appear to be directed, purposeful behavior, but yet, the pattern will be such that people will steal everything off the shelves (looting) and follow others who command by word or deed to "Burn that one" or something similar. Rioting is opportunistic behavior. There is no order or sense of order. Most participants will try to take advantage of each and every opportunity that comes their way. Sure, some pattern may exist to the types of stores looted first -- places that sell booze, cigarettes, and prescription medicine; followed by groceries, dry goods, electronics, and clothing -- but, again, the general pattern is opportunistic. Hospitals and schools are amazingly spared during most riots. Nothing is looted in precise order as if the primary purpose was self-medication, revenge, or hoarding necessities. This is what makes rioting different from hoarding before a disaster (like a hurricane). In a riot, there is no underlying rationale or rationality to what is hoarded. Furthermore, in a riot, there is an element of criminal glee or elation which expresses itself in the form of acquisitive clinging to stolen possessions ("That's mine").
In the multicultural explosion that was the 1992 Los Angeles riot (the Rodney King uprising), the riot started in the most impoverished zones and moved into the lesser impoverished zones. It was almost as if poor people were preying on those who were a step up, economically, from them. The riot then took on overtones of racial or ethnic animosity, with rioters seeking to wreck havoc on Chinatown, Koreatown, and Jewtown neighborhoods and businesses. Victims, for their part, either defended their property or attempted to flee/evacuate (despite official curfews to the contrary). Authorities, for their part, were only able to restore order when tanks started rolling down the streets.
Control of a riot is difficult to accomplish. Authorities will inevitably be short on resources. Standard riot control tactics involve using as many officers as possible (never enough) to establish a "command presence" at key chokepoints. The problem with this is that rioters usually outnumber officers by a ratio of 100 to 1, or greater. Under these conditions, a lot depends on how well the sight and sound (as well as potential capability) of authority comes off. Nothing but bad choices exist for outnumbered control forces -- stand and fight OR retreat and stand and fight. Communications may be jammed due to too much traffic and requests for extra help. Mutual aid (or reciprocal aid) agreements can help, but these more commonly involve fire departments than police. Along these lines, it is unfortunately the case that firemen often get shot first during a riot. For this reason, a sort of fire department triage develops, with on-the-spot decisions made about which buildings can safely be saved and which ones cannot. Additionally, vigilantes may be taking the law into their own hands.
THE SPORTS RIOT PATTERN
An interesting finding from research into crowd violence at sporting events is the fact that riots almost always occur when the favorite team wins. The fans of the favorite team (not the losing team) are the ones who usually instigate and participate in the riot. One might expect more anger, outrage, and/or acting out among the losers, but such is not usually the case. However, there are exceptions, such as the 1999 Michigan State University riot when MSU lost to Duke. That year seemed to be the start of a trend in university sports riots, although football hooliganism had been around in Europe since the 1980s. Investigations into the causes of sports riots have usually been inconclusive, ranging from speculation over outside agitators to presumed affronts to/by an umpire or player. In some countries of the world, hooligans are organized groups with membership and leadership rosters. Sporting events are also known to occasionally exhibit the rare human stampede phenomenon in which people get trampled to death.
THE PRISON RIOT PATTERN
Prison riots have been the most extensively studied type of riot, especially during the extraordinary 1970s prison riot decade (Useem &Kimball 1989). One theory, called the deprivation model, holds that prison riots are caused by the stressful and oppressive conditions of living without freedom and the staples of life outside the institution. The Attica riot of 1971 may have been due to deprivation, as the inmates there felt a pent-up frustration of being treated like animals. Another theory, called the power vacuum model, holds that prison riots occur when there is turnover among staff and particularly when wardens and assistant wardens come and go. During times of personnel turnover (and prisons have notoriously high rates of turnover), power tends to concentrate in the hands of mid-level managers, who rely on snitch systems, enact inconsistent policies, and believe they are accountable to no one. Inmates tend to react to these things by rioting, as they did in the New Mexico Santa Fe riot of 1980.
THE CONVENTION RIOT PATTERN
Many demonstrations at political or professional conventions turn into riots precisely because they were planned that way. The pattern first emerged during anarchist protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention where anarchist organizers attempted to shut down bridges to prevent delegates from reaching the convention center. The organizers got a permit to demonstrate under the fictitious name United for Peace and Justice. They studied maps, brainstormed a variety of tactics, and eventually settled on molotov cocktails and chaining their arms together with PVC pipe so the cops couldn't cut them off without injuring them. Also to be expected at such events is the illegal use of police barricades, riot cones, and other anti-riot material. EMS and first responder communications will be jammed or disrupted. Most of these tactics, and more, have been the brainchild of political activist Lisa Fithian, who has organized hundreds of violent events and demonstrations over the years. A main part of the strategy involves duping innocent people into thinking it's a "peaceful" demonstration so that they appear all the more innocent when the media sees them arrested by police. It goes like this:
Yellow group -- the ones who are willing to get arrested; these are the people who would chain themselves into a barricade to stop the convention.
Green group -- mainstream protestors who came for a peaceful protest. These people were swarmed into an area to slow down the police while Yellow was setting up its blockage.
Red group -- these are the violent criminals and hired thugs who break things, attack the police, and then flee, leaving the green group trapped by the yellow group to receive the full brunt of the police counterattack.
Riot and Civil Unrest in America
Wikipedia Entry on Riot
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Wright, S. (1978). Crowds and riots. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Last updated: May 30, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2012). "Riot and Civil Disorder" MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/3410/3410lect03b.htm.