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Riots and how to explain them. ‘Civil dissension is a viperous worm that gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth’ (Henry VI, Part I). Samuel Johnson defined riots as : ‘ wild and loose festivity’; ‘ sedition, uproar’.

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‘Civil dissension is a viperous worm that gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth’ (Henry VI, Part I)


Samuel Johnson defined riots as:

  • ‘wild and loose festivity’;
  • ‘sedition, uproar’.

ii) implies being against something; i) more positive: excess, insubordination, festival (literally). i) is important because some controversial theories have seen riots as the product of a ‘quest for excitement’.

a variety of causes
A variety of ‘causes’
  • food riots
  • ‘theatre’ riots
  • Industrial riots
  • Religious/communal riots (e.g. Gordon riots of 1780); protestant/catholic inflected by geopolitics (rights of succession); India, Indonesia, communalism.
  • Race riots
riots are events with limited aims purposes
Riots are events with limited aims, purposes
  • doubts about whether they have any aims at all. In that respect at least the phrase ‘mindless’ or ‘pointless’ violence has more meaning than we might think – it is often genuinely difficult to identify a clear purpose to riots.
  • limited time span. The answer to the question ‘when will it all end?’ is usually ‘in the very near future’.
causes versus conditions
Causes versus conditions
  • limited scope and limited time span does not make it more difficult to identify causes. Or at least, it does not make it any more difficult to identify conditions and contexts.
  • the distinction between causes and conditions is an important one because in sociology, we can often get away with talk about conditions and contexts, accepting that the proximate causes of this type of event are various.
  • For events to occur, people have to decide to act in certain ways and we cannot predict those actions with any degree of certainty. This is why we are not natural scientists – I know that if I heat a pan of water, when it reaches a certain temperature it will boil, and will do so every time. We can predict the time at which the sun will rise and fall. Neither the water nor the sun has ‘decided’ to do something.
the ecological fallacy
The ecological fallacy
  • Durkheim was careful to try to explain NOT why a particular person committed suicide, but why the suicide statistics show the variation they do.
  • When we do try to explain the behaviour of particular individuals we can be readily accused of committing the ecological fallacy.
  • You commit it if you take one protestant and one catholic and, on the basis of suicide statistics, tell the protestant person that he is more likely to commit suicide than the catholic person, when there can be no way of knowing.
  • good example of this is the recent case of abortion advice centres ‘advising’ women contemplating abortion that if they had one they were more likely to be child abusers in later life, or more likely to have breast cancer.
  • The ecological fallacy is interesting because it can then be deployed by individuals themselves to explain their own conduct: ‘I knocked out a shopkeeper and stole money from the till because I wasn’t socialised properly’.
riots in usa in 20 th century
Riots in USA in 20th century
  • Major riots in World Wars I (St. Louis, Chicago) and II (Harlem, Detroit) and in Vietnam Wars.
  • Many of these had a racial element.
  • In World War I and II most riots involved whites in Northern cities attacking blacks, whose presence in these cities was a relatively recent thing.
  • De Tocqueville (1840s)
    • no matter what conditions they live in the future, black people will always be a reminder to America of the historical fact of slavery
    • the freeing of slaves will give rise to more overt antagonisms between black and white, because now the relationship between them will be more competitive and therefore more aggressive.

July 16, 1964, Harlem, New York.

  • In early 1965, Los Angeles. President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act newly enfranchised a million black Americans . A year earlier Johnson had announced that poverty would be eradicated in American by 1976!!! On August 11, traffic police stopped a young black man and arrested him for drunk driving. A crowd of black people gathered, and after the man was taken away, white drivers were stopped , dragged from their cars and beaten. After that, disturbances erupted in the Watts district, 34 were killed and 1000 injured.
britain 1981
Britain 1981
  • March 2, 1981, Fleet Street, London. A demonstration by the New Cross Action Committee.
  • This had been formed in response to the perceived failure of the police to investigate fully the deaths of 13 people at a fire at a house party in Deptford earlier that year.
  • A month later, on the weekend of April 10-12, riots occurred in Brixton, as mainly black youths fought running battles with the police and properties were set alight
  • on July 3, a street battle occurred between skinheads and local Asians in Southall
  • throughout July, riots occurred in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and again in Brixton.
usa 1992
USA 1992
  • On March 3, 1991, Rodney King beaten on film by officers of LAPD (one of the most notoriously unsupervised police forces in the world)
  • The whole episode, or 81 seconds of it, was filmed,
  • officers put on trial: not that they were armed men who had beaten an unarmed man, but that they, as police officers in the execution of their duty, had used excessive force.
  • On April 29, 1992, a full year after the incident, the jury – 6 men and 6 women, 11 whites and one Hispanic, arrived that their verdict: not guilty.
  • Immediately after the verdict, at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues in South central LA, attacks began on properties, homes, business, shops, and also on people, the most notorious being that by four black youths on a white truck driver, again, all of it filmed.
  • By May 3rd, 3500 National Guard troops were on the streets with 1000 Federal reserve police. And in a pattern that was by now familiar, riots occurred in Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, Detroit, and New York.

Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell were found guilty: each served two years in jail. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were cleared. All four left the police force, and have since ‘found it difficult to get work elsewhere’.

  • Rodney King won $3.8m damages from the City of Los Angeles. Much of it went to pay his lawyers, but he used the rest to found a rap record business, the Straight Alta-Pazz Recording Company.
london 2011
London 2011
  • August 2011. A young black man, Mark Duggan, is shot dead in Tottenham by a police marksman who suspects him of possessing a firearm. There follows several days of riots in London, Manchester, and other larger cities.
explanations of riots
Explanations of riots
  • often depend on tools that might be used to explain other things as well
  • Compare Durkheim on suicide
  • Conservative functionalism: Smelser, Chalmers Johnson. ‘System failure means that order has to be sustained by coercion, which leads to delegitimationof authority and of authority figures; the added element is a ‘precipitator’ or ‘accelerator’ event, usually involving that delegitimated authority.
conflict theory
Conflict theory
  • Conflict: societies are governed by competition for wealth, power, status.
combination of functionalism and conflict perspectives
Combination of functionalism and conflict perspectives
  • ‘The riot [in the 18th century] became both an expression of discontent of the lower orders (the mobile, the mob) and a valuable safety valve for those above. The riot was the final political resort of unenfranchised groups once recourse to law or to parliamentary politics failed. It also provided a means whereby those in power go the common people to fight their political battles in the London streets (Clive Bloom, 2010. Violent London, p.146
  • ‘by the mere fact that he forms part of a crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual, in a crowd he is a barbarian – that is, a creature acting by instinct’ (Gustav le Bon, 19th century) .
  • how do we account for so-called ‘copycat’ riots?
  • Ever since 1981 politicians and journalists lamented the role of the media in fuelling these events.
  • But already in the 1890s Gabriel Tarde, wrote ‘infectious epidemics spread with the air or the wind; epidemics of crime follow the line of the telegraph’.
  • BUT why do these copycat riots occur in some places and not others? We all watch TV footage of these events but we don’t all copy them.
the conditions of urban life
The Conditions of Urban Life
  • In USA, National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (1968)
  • Racial discrimination
  • Segregation
  • white flight to suburbs
  • poverty in urban ghettos
urban riots as an american problem
Urban riots as an ‘American’ problem?
  • ‘One is hard put to name another country in which urban interracial mob violence has been such a recurring theme. Urban riots will occur as long as there are large numbers of disaffected people living in tightly concentrated enclaves of poverty and discrimination who witness questionable treatment of others like themselves’ (Dennis Gale, 1996. Understanding Urban Unrest).
anti urbanism not just racism
Anti-urbanism, not just racism
  • ‘Instead of trains and trolleys [trams] and compact towns and cities growing around harbours and rail hubs, the US turned itself inside out in pursuit of hyper-decventralizaed development pattern based on highways, suburbs, mass produced cars’, ‘since 1900, anti-urbanism has been at least as fundamental to American culture as racism’ (Daniel Lazare, Author of America’s Undeclared War: what’s killing our cities and how we can stop it (2001))
wacquant on structural violence
Wacquanton ‘structural violence’
  • Triggering event was always a white police on black youths incident
  • BUT after that, all other ethnic groups involved – e.g. 50% of the first 5000 (!) arrested in 1992 in LA were Hispanics.
how not to write in long sentences
How (not) to write in long sentences
  • ‘A closer look at their anatomy suggests that these urban disorders led by lower-class youths have, to a varying extent depending on the country, combined two logics: a logic of protest against ethnoracial injustice rooted in discriminatory treatment - of a stigmatized quasi-caste in the United States, of 'Arab' and other 'coloured' migrants or citizens come from the former colonies in France and Great Britain and a class logic pushing the impoverished fractions of the working class to rise up against economic deprivation and widening social inequalities with the most effective, if not the only, weapon at their disposal, namely, direct confrontation with the authorities and forcible disruption of civil life’ (Lois Wacquant, 2010. Urban outcasts : a comparative sociology of advanced marginality, p.22)
wacquant neoliberal restructuring in the 1970s and 80s
Wacquant: neoliberal restructuring’ in the 1970s and 80s
  • Mass unemployment – deproletarianization
  • Casualization of work
  • Relegation of the unemployed or those in casualized work to decaying neighbourhoods.
  • Untsable communities: short length of residence in poor quality accommodation, low levels of home ownership and level of self-employment.
  • High levels of immigration to decaying neighbourhoods
  • Stigmatization – relating to class, race and area. [chavs].
basis for predictions
Basis for predictions?
  • the problem is, it is easy to say that something is inevitable because then you can simply wait for it to happen, knowing that the conditions are right. Some Marxists used to argue that the conditions of capitalism mean that it is doomed to collapse; some Christians believe that Jesus will come again. In both cases, ‘it will happen’, even though it hasn’t happened.
  • So what of riots? If we say ‘they are inevitable’, is this because of the conditions that people like Wacquant describe so convincingly? Or because of the fact that these ‘surprising’ events have happened in the past?
compare la in 1991 1992 with london in 2011 13
Compare LA in 1991/1992 with London in 2011-13:
  • LA: beating of Rodney King did not precipitate a riot; the police officers’ trial verdict a year later did.
  • London: shooting of Mark Duggan did precipitate a riot, the trial of the police officer did not.
  • What do we say to that?

riots are not only outbursts of anger, they may be a form of political communication, and more rational than we think, even if nobody planned them.

  • Riots are a form of ‘negotiation’ (E.P. Thompson, ‘the moral economy of the crowd in the 18th century’)
  • People are not inclined to riot
  • The ‘quest for excitement’ is not a latent possibility waiting to express itself.
  • Riots are ‘requests for resources’; how do you attract urban renewal programmes to your area? Burn it down.