The unfortunate reality is that injustices happen all over the world, all the time. Most injustices do not lead to riots, so what do we know about why and how riots break out when they do? What sort of things can make public unhappiness about an injustice tip over into protest—and what transforms a peaceful protest into a violent riot?
Rioters are often represented in the media as senseless, mindless mobs that have become caught up in emotion and have, collectively, lost their senses. The suggestion is that, in a group, many normally peaceful people become prepared to do something that they would never ordinarily do. Others suggest that riots seem to give people with a predisposition towards, or a history of, criminality the excuse they are looking for to engage in violent and anti-social behaviour. Sometimes the idea of evil people leading ordinary people on a wild goose chase of chaos and destruction is also propagated.
The reality is actually more complicated than that. While rioters are generally breaking the law, and a riot may appear to be extremely chaotic, usually those involved actually have clearly defined motivations and reasons for doing what they do. Rioting can provide a sense of communitas, which is the term used to describe how people feel when they act collectively towards a common goal or destination (the same word is used to describe the feelings experienced by religious people when they go on pilgrimage).
In the case of the current riots in the United States, black people and their allies are united in the face of a police force and government that many experience as hostile to them. In anti-globalisation riots in recent years, protestors have often attacked businesses commonly identified as symbolic of global market forces, such as the fast-food giant McDonald’s. In other words, acts of violence and vandalism, when these occur, are rarely if ever mindless, and are typically directed at people and things that are identified as a direct threat to the rioters’ wellbeing and future.
How riots and protests are seen can also change over time. Take the example of the Stonewall riot in 1969. At the time, the riot took place in response to the violent and oppressive policing of the gay community in America. Lesbians and gay men took to the streets, engaging in vandalism and fighting back physically against the authorities. Today, the riot is remembered as a key moment in the march towards gay rights, and all over the world, Gay Pride events commemorate the original Stonewall riot. Today, the rioters are considered to have been acting rationally and reasonably in response to the oppressions that they experienced. It will be interesting to see if interpretations of current riots will remain steady or will shift with the passage of time.
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Stott, Clifford and Drury, John. “Contemporary Understanding of Riots: Classical Crowd Psychology, Ideology and the Social Identity Approach.” Public Understanding of Science, 26 (1).pp. 2-14
Greenburg, Martin S. “Mob Psychology.” The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. John Wiley and Sons. 2010.
Why Do Riots Happen when they Do? was last modified: June 14th, 2020 by Dr Becky Spelman
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