Understanding Riots

“Hooligans,” Criminals, and Us

We hear it all the time about riots:  “hooliganism” or, as David Cameron put it last week, “criminality pure and simple.”  But riots are complex events, hard to reduce to something as simple as that.

It’s no surprise that established authorities, feeling attacked, see the violent behavior of their citizens in such terms.  They react by becoming dismissive and punitive.  The Chinese government used the same language to characterize student protests in Tiananmen Square, as did Arab leaders recently to describe rebellions in their countries.

And often there is an element of truth in such descriptions.  If you have ever been in mob that was agitated about some injustice, you know how contagious it can be.  Ordinary people, normal citizens, you and me – we get swept up and do things that would be unlikely under other circumstances:  shouting, shoving, throwing rocks, smashing windows, and, yes, even looting.

It usually takes an incident to get a riot started, such as an accident or the police attacking or killing an innocent bystander.  But once it has begun, the raging mob has a life of its own.  Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long standing disappointments galvanize people into action.  And the mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome one’s usual reticence or moral scruples.  One is immersed, engulfed.  And it can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions.  It can also become manic, driven, a means of restlessly seeking new outlets.  Leadership emerges spontaneously and changes rapidly.

It offers a kind of intense belonging, not dissimilar to what spectators feel at a sports event or fans at a rock concert.  But because it isn’t focused on a game or performance, it easily gets out of hand.  Freud described such “mass psychology” in 1924, in the tumultuous aftermath of World War One.  Others have studied it since as a recurrent form of group behavior.

This is not to justify the behavior of the mob, but to recognize that we all can so easily become “hooligans” ourselves.  To be sure, delinquents and petty thieves can easily even join in under the cover the mob provides.  But riots do not rely on criminals or “criminality pure and simple.”

Thinking that way, though, can distract us from the underlying conditions that give rise to such events.  They can be appeals to be heard, when normal channels don’t work.  They can be eruptions of rage, when frustrations boil over.  They can be expressions of hope that things could change.  And they could be all these things – and more.

Newsweek reminded us last week of something about the recent riots that many politicians would prefer not to think:  “If there’s one underlying condition that these movements share, it has to do with unemployment and bitter poverty among people who desire to be part of the middle class, and who are keenly aware of the sharp inequality between themselves and their country’s wealthy elite.”

Distracted by the flames and the looting, we can easily forget that these are, as Newsweek put it:  “social revolutions with a small ‘r,’ protests against social conditions that have become unbearable. (See, “Why Riot Now?”)