A riot is a social occasion involving relatively spontaneous collective violence directed at property, persons, or authority. Five main concepts characterize a riot. First, riots are socially constructed in that those participating in them define or redefine their social environment through a negotiation or renegotiation of symbols and meanings. For example, if looting occurs during a riot, what is conventionally defined as stealing private property may come to be redefined as “taking” or “receiving” items that are now collectively considered within the domain of public property. Second, riots are not singular events or moments in time, but occasions, in that there is a “before,” “during,” and “after.” Although a riot may have an immediate precipitating incident, this moment is only one among many in the processional history of a riot. For example, the Watts Riot (August 1965) began with a relatively routine traffic stop of an African American motorist and quickly escalated into six days of arson, rock throwing, looting, and sniping that resulted in thirty-four dead and $45 million in damages. Though the traffic stop was the precipitating event, it would not be correct to consider it the cause of the riot; rather, the cause was the cumulative effect of many events and circumstances. Third, a riot is relatively spontaneous in that it does not involve a significant amount of planning and coordination. Although a small number of individuals may instigate a riot and serve as emergent leaders by providing examples of “appropriate” behavior, these individuals are generally unable to plan and coordinate action in a meaningful way once a riot has begun. The relative spontaneity of riots led some of the earliest researchers to conclude that once in crowds, individuals became irrational, highly suggestible, and without social control. More recent research, however, has found these claims to be largely unsubstantiated, noting that during most riots, collective violence is purposive and targeted. Fourth, a riot involves collective violence, meaning that groups or communities engage in the infliction of harm or destruction for the purpose of producing social change. Although individual violence may produce social change and even rioting—as in the case of the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968)—to be considered a riot, both collective action and violence for the purpose of social change must be present. Finally, a riot involves collective violence directed at property, persons, or authority. It is important to note that in many instances, collective violence is directed not solely at property, persons, or authority but at some combination, such as state-controlled property or persons in authority. For example, in reaction to Italian Reform Minister Roberto Calderoli wearing a shirt decorated with cartoons satirizing the Muslim prophet Muhammad, hundreds of Libyans rioted by throwing stones and burning the Italian embassy, killing ten (on February 17, 2006).
Just as actors participate in a variety of actions during a riot, so too are there different types of riot. There are four main categories of riot, though these distinctions are not mutually exclusive. A communal riot is characterized by collective violence directed at persons of an opposing group, and may involve racial, ethnic, or religious groupings. Although police or agents of social control may engage in violence to keep the groups apart, the vast majority of collective violence occurs between groups. A commodity riot is characterized by collective violence directed primarily at property, but may involve people of different groups. Next, a protest riot involves spontaneous collective violence directed against a specific policy. In contrast to the communal riot, during a protest riot most of the collective violence occurs between the police or other agents of social control and the rioters. The final, and perhaps most frequent, form of rioting is the revelry or celebration riot. As with a commodity riot, collective violence is directed primarily at property, but may involve persons. However, in contrast to all other riots, a celebration riot does not necessitate grievance and often occurs after a victory over a traditional rival or the winning of a championship.
A riot is distinct from a variety of concepts that are often employed interchangeably in popular usage. The term most frequently used as an equivalent is demonstration. However, a demonstration is distinct from a riot in three fundamental ways. First, a demonstration is often planned and thus lacks the relative spontaneity of a riot. Second, unlike a riot, collective violence does not need to occur for something to be considered a demonstration. Finally, during a demonstration, leaders often have enough control to coordinate and direct the actions of others, which rarely, if ever, happens during a riot. Another term often used interchangeably with riot is protest, which is the act of expressing grievance in hopes of achieving amelioration or to draw attention to a cause. A key feature of protest is the condition of grievance, which although sometimes present is not always necessary for a riot.
A riot is also distinct from a revolt, which is an action aimed at the overthrow of an established social order, which may involve a transfer of power and the radical restructuring of social relations. Although riots have the potential to produce some social change, they are perhaps better understood as “proto-political” movements that rarely, if ever, result in a transfer of power from one social group to another.
The current understanding of the term riot dates back to the fourteenth century, when it began to connote violence, trife, or disorder on behalf of a particular portion of the populace. By the early eighteenth century, violence and strife was on the rise in England, which resulted in Parliament passing the Riot Act of 1715. The Riot Act stated that if twelve or more persons unlawfully or riotously assembled and refused to disperse within an hour after being read a specified portion of the act by proper authority, those persons would be considered felons and authorities would have the right to use lethal force against them. The Act provided broad powers to institutional authority during riots and despite some notable riots over the next two centuries, resulted in a general decline in the number and severity of riots in England. Although repealed in 1973, the Riot Act was influential in providing a legal framework for similar legislation in many other nations, including Australia, Belize, Canada, and the United States. From 1965 to 1973 the United States experienced a significant increase in the number of domestic riots, particularly in large urban areas with high concentrations of poverty and racially based residential segregation. Some community members from these areas objected to the term riot, as they believed it called to mind the image of an unruly ghetto. Consequently, many scholars and politicians began to refer to riots as civil disorders. Although riot no longer appears to have this same negative connation and again appears in popular and social science terminology, the term civil disorder is still often used interchangeably.
Recent research by social scientists has again sparked interest in the study of riots. In a comprehensive review and reanalysis of riots in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, Clark McPhail (1994) found that a lack of resources, grievance, and aggression did not play as large a role in riots as originally claimed. In addition, McPhail found that actors in a riot are far more purposive in their actions than previously supposed. However, McPhail’s findings regarding the causes of riots may be limited in generalizability, as research by Ashutosh Varshney (2002) found urban, caste, and community factors to be predictors of riots in India. This renewed interest in riots highlights the need for a better understanding of where and why they are likely to occur.
SEE ALSO Communalism; Ethnocentrism; Kerner Commission Report; Protest; Quotas; Race Riots, United States; Resistance; Tulsa Riot; Urban Riots; Violence; Wilmington Riot of 1898
Anderson, William A. 1973. The Reorganization of Protest: Civil Disturbances and Social Change in the Black Community. American Behavioral Scientist 16 (3): 426–439.
Dynes, Russell R., and Enrico L. Quarantelli. 1968. Redefinitions of Property Norms in Community Emergencies. International Journal of Legal Research 3 (December): 100–112.
LeBon, Gustave.  1960. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular-Mind. New York: Viking Press.
Mackay, Charles.  1980. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. New York: Harmony Books.
McPhail, Clark. 1991. The Myth of the Madding Crowd. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
McPhail, Clark. 1994. Presidential Address—The Dark Side of Purpose: Individual and Collective Violence in Riots. Sociological Quarterly 35 (1): 1–32.
Simpson, John, and Edmund Weiner. Riot. In Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., Vol. 13, 966–968. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. 1968. Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York: Dutton/New York Times.
RIOTS. Though they usually involve spontaneous, wanton violence or disorder by an anonymous crowd, riots have also served as a noteworthy form of social protest in American history. While the American Revolution made popular revolt a "quasi-legitimate" aspect of American culture, the ideals of democracy privilege debate and representation over mob rule. Nevertheless, Americans have frequently brought disorder to the nation's streets to express opinions and demands. Crowds have sought to limit the rights of others as often as they have demanded equal rights. Riots are not by definition part of organized rebellions, but they sometimes occur when public demonstrations turn to physical violence.
In the eighteenth century the American British colonies were frequently places of riot and protest against the British government. The Boston Massacre in 1770 is perhaps the most famous of the prerevolutionary civil disturbances. A riot erupted when a sailor named Crispus Attucks and a group of Boston artisans and sailors provoked British soldiers who they felt were taking the jobs of local workers. The uprising ended with British soldiers firing into a crowd of colonials, an incident that galvanized many against Britain's forceful rule over the colonies.
Once the United States became a sovereign country, it was forced to contend with riots directed against its own state and its citizens. The 1820s and 1830s were perhaps the most riot-filled decades of American history. Ethnic groups, mostly African and Irish Americans, became targets for others who sought to protect their jobs and social lives from incursions of immigrant and "non-white" Americans, as in the 1838 antiabolitionist riots in Philadelphia.
In July 1863 white and mostly poor workers throughout the country led demonstrations against the mandatory drafting of soldiers for the Civil War. Though the ability of the rich to buy soldier replacements was a major impetus for revolt, many demonstrators were protesting being forced to fight for the freedom of black slaves. Most dramatically, the demonstrations led to assaults on Republican Party representatives and African Americans in New York City. Five days of violence destroyed hundreds of homes and churches and led to the deaths of 105 people. The civil disturbance ended only when soldiers just returning from the battlefields of Gettysburg could muster the power to retake the city from the mob.
Intra-ethnic group conflict sometimes led to rioting as well, and in 1871, Irish Catholics and Protestants clashed over a religious conflict in New York City. That riot resulted in more than sixty deaths and over a hundred injuries when national guardsmen opened fire on the crowd. The battle among Irish Americans helped to stoke nativism in the city and throughout the nation.
Riots can also occur without a specific reason or disagreement. In 1919 Boston became enflamed when people used a policemen's strike as an opportunity for extensive criminal activity, such as robbery, stoning striking policemen, and other kinds of assaults. Highlighting the city's deep divisions, middle-and upper-class Bostonians formed vigilante posses to battle the rioters. The three-day period of chaos ended with eight deaths and dozens of injuries, many of which resulted from state guardsmen shooting into crowds of civilians. General public opinion was against the riots, and the court dealt harshly with the few rioters who were caught.
Though the end of World War I and the summer immediately following it saw racially motivated riots in East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois, and Washington, D.C., and 1943 saw terrible bloodshed in Harlem and Detroit, the 1960s was the decade with the most widespread and pervasive race riots. Cities all over the country exploded with conflict between white and black citizens, from Harlem (1964) to Watts (1965), to Chicago and Cleveland (1966), to Newark and Detroit (1967), and finally to Washington, D.C. (1968). Unlike the earlier period of race riots, those in the 1960s involved mostly African Americans as white people fled the inner cities. Responding to the rhetoric of the Black Power Movement, desperation from the waning civil rights movement, economic deprivation, and, most importantly, the racism of whites in their cities, African Americans rose up to assert their rights as citizens and humans. The American Indian Movement had similar motivation in 1969 for its protests, most notably at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. In late June and early July of the same year, gay and lesbian protesters in New York City responded to homophobic raids by police with a riot at the Stonewall, a bar in Greenwich Village. Though many disowned the violence and chaos of the Stonewall Riots, the incident helped to insert gay rights into the national political agenda.
Major politically motivated riots also occurred, most notably those that protested the war in Vietnam. In the summer of 1968 civil rights and antiwar protesters joined in a march outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. One reason the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s emphasized nonviolence was to make it more difficult for officials to declare a march or a demonstration a riot. In Chicago, however, city and party officials viewed the march as a potential riot, and Mayor Richard J. Daleysent busloads of police. Protesters and sympathizers described what happened as a police riot, claiming the protest was peaceful and nonviolent until police attacked demonstrators without provocation.
The most deadly prison riot in United States history occurred in 1971 at the state prison at Attica, New York. Like many prisons in the early 1970s, Attica became a riot scene as prisoners protested their treatment at the facility. The state militia used force to retake the prison, leaving in the end thirty-two inmates and eleven guards dead. All but four of the dead were killed by the militia.
Riots in the late twentieth century seemed especially senseless, partially because television coverage allowed many to view the chaos as it was happening. When Los Angeles went up in flames in April 1992, the riot was ostensibly caused by the acquittal of the white police officers accused of beating an African American, Rodney King, a year earlier. After five days of violence following the verdict, 54 people were dead, more than 2,000 others were injured, and property losses had reached approximately$900 million. Black-white racism seemed to lie at the heart of the controversy. However, Hispanic Americans were the largest group of rioters, and Korean-owned businesses were the most common target of vandals and looters. Many have asserted that these rioters were responding to economic, political, and social deprivation similar to that which led to the rioting in the 1960s. In the years following the riots, the Los Angeles Police Department underwent a massive review and changed many of its procedures regarding both arrests and riot control.
Looting became a common part of modern riots, as evidenced in Los Angeles and by the outbreak of mob violence at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Washington, in November and December 1999. Though peaceful demonstrators were on hand for the annual WTO meeting to protest numerous issues—from environmentalism to animal rights—a fringe group of youth activists espousing anarchism smashed storefront windows and spray-painted graffiti in the downtown area. A new element of protest was introduced in the Seattle riots when the Internet was used to call thousands to the city and spread the anarchistic gospel of the rioters. And as in the case of Los Angeles, millions throughout the world were able to watch the riots as they were happening, amplifying their affect on policy as well as the number of people offended by the violence. Random civil disorder has had a long but uneasy relationship with political, economic, and social protest in the nation's history, but it is certainly a relationship that continues to be a part of the functioning American republic.
Gale, Dennis E. Understanding Urban Unrest: From Reverend King to Rodney King. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.
Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Smith, Kimberly K. The Dominion of Voice: Riots, Reason, and Romance in Antebellum Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
Tager, Jack. Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001.
Although baseball, Mom's apple pie, and the Fourth of July are staples in the cultural fabric of the United States, nothing is more American than race riots. Throughout the nation's history nothing has been more constant than racial warfare. In many ways race riots have taken on a life and a culture of their own.
The 1906 riot in Atlanta, Georgia, would set the stage for the majority of white attacks on African Americans. The conflict erupted on September 22, when approximately 10,000 whites, angry at a report that black men were allegedly assaulting white women, "beat every black person they found on the streets of the city." In all, twelve deaths were registered, at a time when African Americans had begun to assert themselves as men and women, shedding an image of compliancy. Two years later, a similar attack occurred in Springfield, Illinois.
The period of World War I ushered in a new era of racial conflict. As African Americans migrated to urban areas in search of better social and economic conditions, the immediate post-war period was a literal powder keg as white GI's returned home to find a "New Negro" emerging. The first World War I-related riot occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, and left forty African Americans dead, all at the hands of white attackers. This riot foreshadowed the notorious "Red Summer of 1919" when twenty-five cities witnessed racial conflict, leaving 100 dead and another 1,000 wounded. The most dramatic riot of 1919 was in Chicago, where an incident at a Lake Michigan beach touched off thirteen days of rioting, leaving fifteen whites and twenty-three blacks dead. In 1921, Tulsa was the scene of a race "war" after whites destroyed over $1 million worth of black-owned property.
The World War II period represented a watershed in the history of race riots in the United States. Whereas the previous riots/conflicts were initiated by whites, these new eruptions would be fueled by both black and white frustration. The most notorious World War II riot occurred in Detroit in 1943, leaving twenty-five blacks and nine whites dead. In what was largely a battle over jobs and housing, the all-white Detroit Police Department was responsible for the majority of black deaths.
Following World War II, the second great migration brought over three million African Americans from the South to the urban North and West. But black frustration would set in when black Southerners realized that the "Promised Land" was anything but that. Greeted with poor housing, unequal police protection, de-facto school segregation, and employment discrimination, black migrants became increasingly frustrated. As conditions continued to worsen in the mid-1960s, they took their battle to the streets, destroying white property in hopes of drawing attention to their plight. In 1964, Harlem, Chicago, and Philadelphia were the scene of incidents that left more than 100 citizens dead. One year later, the black enclave of Watts in Los Angeles erupted leaving thirty-four dead and approximately $200 million in property damage. In all, the 35,000 active rioters caused 1,000 injuries, but the riot also highlighted the conditions faced by the urban poor.
The year 1967 was by far the worst year of racial disturbances in American history. Serious riots occurred in Newark and Detroit, leaving twenty-six and forty dead, respectively. Most of these deaths were at the hands of white policemen who valued white property over black lives. Thirty-eight other cities experienced outbreaks as well, as black Northerners continued to take out their frustrations upon white property. Similar riots occurred on the night of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination, when over 110 cities erupted.
The decades of the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a decline in rioting; however, in 1992 Americans who were unfamiliar with this aspect of our country's past would be jolted by the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. In March of 1991 King was brutally beaten by at least four white officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). A nearby resident videotaped the incident and within hours the image of a big black man being beaten like a dog was broadcast throughout the world. The officers were indicted but ultimately acquitted of police brutality in the all-white suburb of Simi Valley by a jury composed of eleven whites and one Hispanic. This verdict touched off several days of rioting. At the end of the riot there were thirty-eight fatalities, 4,000 arrests, and over $500 million in property damage. The most infamous image of the riot was the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver who was caught in a black neighborhood. Denny was pulled from his truck and almost beaten to death. Although many Americans expressed shock at the riot, few understood how the Rodney King riots were merely building upon a longstanding tradition in U.S. culture.
—Leonard N. Moore
Hersey, John. The Algiers Motel Incident. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1968.
Horne, Gerald. The Fire This Time: The Watts Riot and the 1960s. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1997.
Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. New York, Bantam, 1968.
Sugrue, Thomas. Origins of the Urban Crisis. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997.
RACE RIOTS. SeeRiots .