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Riots: Behavioral Aspects


Despite several decades of research on crowd behavior and collective violence, the definition of the term riot remains the subject of intense debate. The traditional view of rioting, and crowd behavior in general, formulated by scholars such as Gustave LeBon and others, suggests they are episodes of irrational destruction carried out by a few antisocial individuals and a relatively homogenous mass of followers. Rioting has thus been portrayed as a kind of collective madness. Such perceptions continue to be held by some law enforcement agents (Stott and Reicher) and are often echoed by the media as well, generating public support for police suppression of these events. By contrast, several contemporary researchers argue that riot behavior is not inherently irrational, nor are the crowds that characterize riots necessarily homogenous (Turner and Killian; McPhail). Furthermore, in light of the 1960s civil disturbances, scholars on the left have sought to redefine riots as the rational expression of grievances by the politically disenfranchised, considering them a form of protest (Fogelson; McAdam). In place of the term "riot," activists and their allies often substitute the words "rebellion" or "uprising," underscoring the protest nature of these events.

Riots display a unique combination of properties that distinguish them from other forms of crowd behavior such as protests and celebrations. First, riots are acts of collective violence. While protests and celebrations may take on a violent dimension, and thus become riots, most do not escalate to the level of widespread collective violence. Thus, violence is a key factor that sets riots apart from other forms of crowd behavior. Second, riots are generally unplanned. While protests and celebrations are typically slated to happen at some appointed time and place, riots most often emerge in haphazard fashion with the formation of an assembled crowd that then turns violent. Even if the assembling of the crowd is prearranged, such as a victory celebration or political protest, when violence results it is rarely part of an orchestrated script. All riots thus display some measure of spontaneity. Third, riots, unlike celebrations and protests, are never officially sanctioned. Rather, they frequently pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the social order. Yet, their scope generally remains local, stopping short of revolutions, which, by contrast, threaten the legitimacy of entire regimes. Nonetheless, riots have sometimes sparked full-fledged revolutions. Furthermore, while most riot activity has been undertaken by civilians against other civilians or the state, social control agents may also violate commonly held norms of conduct by engaging in widespread violence against civilians, thus constituting a "police riot" (Walker; Stark; Bergesen). Combining the above elements, here is an operational definition of riot activity: Riots are a form of collective behavior characterized by the spontaneous destruction of property and/or assaults on persons by members of an assembled crowd whose actions challenge the normative social order.

A brief history of rioting in America

Rioting has played a key role throughout American history. The American republic, for example, was born of rioting, with the Stamp Act riots, the Boston Tea Party, and the Boston Massacre paving the way for revolution against British rule. Political violence continued after independence, most notably in the form of election riots that occurred in Philadelphia (1834) and Baltimore (1856), followed by a series of disturbances regarding the legal status of slavery, such as those that took place in "bleeding" Kansas (18541861). During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, riots took on an economic dimension as worker efforts to organize labor unions led to skirmishes between strikers and company security forces, with violence enveloping entire towns such as Homestead, Pennsylvania (1892), Pullman, Illinois (1894), and Mattawan, West Virginia (1920). (For a more comprehensive historical overview of collective violence in America see Hofstadter and Wallace.)

During the twentieth century, the most common form of rioting in America involved members of different racial and ethnic groups contending for political power, economic resources, and social status. Race riots, as such, accompanied rapid demographic and social changes generated by waves of internal and international migration. Such riots took place in nineteenth-century New England, reflecting antagonism between those of English ancestry and recent Irish immigrants. Riots broke out in the North during the Civil War in which Irish laborers attacked newly emancipated blacks, and again during World War I and World War II when mostly foreign-born and second-generation white ethnics clashed with black migrants from the rural South. After World War II, whites began to move from cities to suburbs, leaving blacks increasingly segregated yet underrepresented on police forces and governance councils. Rising black militancy, combined with incidents of police brutality, sparked conflicts between urban residents and police forces throughout the 1960s. By the last two decades of the century, a new "multicultural" form of violence had emerged, with tensions developing among whites, African Americans, and recent immigrants, predominantly from Latin America and the Pacific Rim. These antagonisms, combined with continuing incidents of police brutality, gave rise to major riots in gateway cities such as Miami (1980) and Los Angeles (1992).

Types of riots

Given the extent of historical variation in riot activity, some scholars have sought to generate schema to distinguish certain kinds of riot events from other forms of riot violence. One such typology, developed by Morris Janowitz, focuses on the targets of riot violence. Whereas some riots predominantly involved personal assaults by members of one racial/ethnic group against members of another group, other riots were characterized primarily by attacks on property. Janowitz refers to the former as "communal," the latter as "commodity" riots. His typology is quite useful for distinguishing among race riots prior to and after World War II. Specifically, Janowitz noted a shift from prewar riots, which typically emerged at the borders of ethnic communities and reflected competition for turf, and postwar riots, which involved segregated African Americans seeking to challenge the white-dominated power structure by targeting government buildings and white-owned businesses. Employing this typology, Bergesen and Herman argue that we have recently witnessed a shift back from the commodity riots of the 1960s toward a communal pattern of violence in places like Miami and Los Angeles, where immigrants and blacks contend for jobs, housing, and turf. Yet, in contrast to Janowitz's typology, most riots, including those in Miami and Los Angeles, have involved some combination of property damage and personal assaults. As such it is best to think of communal and commodity riots as "ideal types" rather than mutually exclusive categories.

Like Janowitz, Gary Marx developed a typology of riots, but based his schema on two different dimensions: the presence of a guiding ideology or "generalized belief" and the perception that rioting would achieve some collective purpose. The first category of riots, incorporating both elements, roughly corresponds to the "commodity-type riot" with protest motivated by an antiregime ideology and a sense of collective purpose. This category also includes prison riots and bread riots. The second category corresponds to that of "communal riots," events that express a collective ideology but display no instrumental purpose other than venting animosity. By contrast, Marx suggested that some riots lack any motivating ideology, such as those that often follow sporting victories or are incited by police without provocation. These events, Marx states, are properly categorized as "issueless riots." Turner uses similar criteria to define the Miami and Los Angeles riots as "primitive rebellions" due to their lack of clear ideological or instrumental focus.

Precipating incidents and underlying conditions

As suggested by Janowitz's and Marx's typologies, the forms that riot events take are usually related to the particular incidents that spark them. In the case of communal riots, the most common sparks have involved perceived transgressions of racial/ethnic boundaries, either spatial, such as skirmishes that emerged over access to recreational facilities or religious sites, or sexual, such as accusations of rape made against a member of a minority racial/ethnic group by members of another group. In the case of commodity-type riots, the precipitants have ordinarily involved instances of police injustice, such as the excessive use of force against members of racial/ethnic minorities. Such was the spark of many 1960s-era riots as well as more recent events in Miami and Los Angeles. In the latter cases, the degree of injustice was even more palpable after police officers were acquitted of beating black motorists. Yet the 1919 Chicago riot also developed in reaction to police activity, or in this particular case, the lack thereof, when a white police officer refused to arrest Irish teens who had stoned a black teenager swimming in the "white" section of Lake Michigan. So communal riots, like commodity riots, may also be sparked in part by police behavior and corresponding perceptions of injustice. In the case of Miami and Los Angeles, anger at police and civil authorities was diffused toward Asian business owners, indicating that the targets of violence need not correspond to the immediate event that sparked rioting. Thus, while precipitating incidents may offer valuable insight into the motives for riot participation, by no means do they supply a full explanation of the origins of these events. Rather than one decisive spark, most riots have been preceded by a series of smaller incidents rooted in the social structure of riot areas.

Prior to the "spark" or precipitating incident, riot events are foreshadowed by a gradual escalation of resentments or grievances held by people who live in the riot area. These feelings, correlated with the structural characteristics of riot communities, represent the underlying conditions of riot genesisthe fuel that feeds the fire when the appropriate spark is provided. There are three general sets of structural explanations for the origins of riot violence: economic, political, and demographic. The first of these economic explanations suggests that people riot in response to conditions of abject poverty. A second and related economic explanation is that people riot when they see themselves as deprived relative to members of higher economic strata. Relative deprivation may spark rioting among those whose economic fortunes are improving but not fast enough to fulfill their rising expectations. By contrast, riots may also develop as a response to political disfranchisement, breaking out in areas where particular groups are politically underrepresented and angry about their lack of access to institutional power. Similarly, riots may represent a reaction to racial/ethnic segregation, which often is combined with economic deprivation and political exclusion. By this measure, places with the highest levels of minority racial/ethnic population will be more riot-prone. Finally, the origins of rioting might also be discovered in processes of demographic change that alter the racial/ethnic composition of communities, affecting cultural control of institutions, and the psychic well-being of longtime residents who fear such changes. Thus rioting may be related to a general process of ethnic succession and competition.

Empirical studies using census data and statistical models to examine the association of structural conditions with riot activity have yielded widely varying results. Comparing cities that had riots to those that did not, Downes found support for an economic deprivation explanation. Poverty, unemployment, and the quality of housing were statistically related to the presence of rioting in cities during the 1960s. Using a similar technique but a larger and more diverse sample of riot events from 1913 to 1963, Lieberson and Silverman found that cities where riots took place had political structures that minimized minority participation on city councils and police forces. By contrast he found no association between unemployment or dilapidated housing and the presence of rioting. Nor did he find any effects of population change on rioting. Seymour Spilerman's influential empirical studies of riot violence found that neither economic deprivation nor population changes were able to account for the frequency or severity of rioting in his multicity sample. Rather, he found that the only significant predictor of riot frequency and severity among cities was the size of a city's black population (Spilerman, 1970, 1976). Later research utilizing more refined statistical modeling has challenged these results. Using Spilerman's data, studies by Olzak, Shanahan, and McEneany and by Myers both found interactive effects of racial/ethnic population change and economic factors on the likelihood of multiple riots in cities, providing evidence that racial/ethnic composition was a significant factor in the outbreak of riot violence. Finally, comparing census tracts within cities that experienced rioting, Bergesen and Herman and Herman found that rioting was associated with processes of ethnic succession and competition, confirming Olzak et al. and Myers's findings at a local neighborhood level. Summarizing these studies, there is a clear consensus that rioting is most likely to take place in predominantly black and poor communities, but black neighborhoods undergoing ethnic succession are even more prone to riot than stable segregated areas. Furthermore, it remains evident that rioting is also a joint product of political, economic, and demographic factors. Political exclusion cuts off channels for the redress of grievances, acting in concert with segregation, population change, and economic competition to foster violence.

The behavior of riot participants

Despite the extensive body of research on riot history, precipitating events, and structural preconditions, we still know relatively little about why or how individuals behave as members of riot gatherings. Most existing studies of riot participants were conducted by post-facto survey analysis or interviews with those arrested for rioting. After the actual riot events, participants were asked to indicate their reasons for participating. From these studies, some important findings have emerged. Perhaps the most significant finding is that riot participants share the same general attitudes as other members of their local communities (Moinat et al.; Ladner et al.). Furthermore, the demographic characteristics of rioters make them nearly indistinguishable from others members of the community who do not take part in riots. The U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders failed to find any significant differences in employment status or income between riot participants and nonparticipants. In fact, those who were arrested during the 1960s civil disturbances were on average somewhat better educated and more politically aware than nonrioters. This evidence cuts against the traditional view that rioters represent a pathological element or the "riffraff" of their respective communities (Fogelson). By contrast, survey researchers have found that the same grievances were widely shared by rioters and nonrioters alike (Ladner et al.), with nonrioters often expressing tacit support for the activities of those who rioted.

Perhaps the main distinguishing factor of riot participants as opposed to nonparticipants is their age. Riot participants tend on average to be younger than those who do not participate. Yet even the age of riot participants may vary according to the day and time that they are arrested. As Quanterelli and Dynes found, rioters arrested later in the course of the riot event tended to be substantially older than those arrested at the beginning of rioting. Rioting thus tends to be initiated by teens and young adults, who engage in destruction of property, followed by slightly older opportunists who begin looting stores, and last by older community residents seeking to obtain a share of the loot.

In addition to age variation among riot participants, there are also differences in motivation among members of riotous crowds (Turner and Killian). Some people participate directly in rioting while others merely observe. Some lead, some follow, and some exploit the situation for their own personal advantage. Some individuals even act as counter-rioters, seeking to dissuade members of the crowd from further violence. Simply put, rioters are not a homogeneous group. When police officers treat riotious crowds as a mass rather than targeting leaders or looking to counter-rioters for assistance, this can lead to escalation of violence (Stott and Reicher). Rioters may act collectively or individually, but typically take their behavioral cues from family members or friends with whom they have assembled (McPhail). Individuals are attracted to riot events in much the same way as they join other assembliesthrough social network ties. During the looting phase of riot activity individuals often cooperate in locating and obtaining desired items. There is a considerable body of evidence that systematic vandalism of businesses occurs during most riots. These targets, typically owned by members of other racial/ethnic groups, are not randomly selected (Quanterelli et al.; Berk and Aldritch; Tierney; Rosenfeld). Finally, as McPhail notes, riot activity ebbs and flows over space and time. Not all rioters are constantly engaged at any particular point or place. Even rioters go home to sleep, before resuming their activities elsewhere. Understanding the spatial and temporal dynamics of rioting is critical to the task of more effective policing.

The future of riot research

Riots are relatively rare and still unpredictable events. As such, opportunities for the ethnographic study of riot behavior have been few. Researchers have been limited to putting together the pieces after the event has passed. This has meant relying on surveys and census data, selecting variables for statistical analyses. Such analyses have been plagued by insensitivity to social and historical context, and have also failed to capture the spatial and temporal dynamics of riot behavior. Recent technological advances hold much promise for the future study of riot events. The increasing prevalence of videotaping may enable researchers to dissect riot activity frame by frame, while the use of Geographic Information Systems software will allow scholars to locate these behaviors in time and space. Layered with census demographics, survey data on community attitudes, and information on policing capabilities, riot-generated data will enable researchers to effectively link micro and macro units of analysis in a manner never before achieved. Such technology will help researches refine their predictions regarding where and when riots are most likely to occur. Like weather forecasting, however, the study of riot behavior will at best remain an imprecise science.

Max Herman

See also Prisons: Problems and Prospects; Riots: Legal Aspects.


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