Why Do People Riot*?

That’s a silly question, historically speaking. There is no one answer. In the United States, different groups have attacked other groups and property for a wide range of reasons–toward vastly different ends. Here, I want to consider why people in Baltimore recently, and Ferguson last summer, smashed and burned things, taunted and, in rare instances, attacked police officers. The answer, I think, turns on understanding the special role of the police in American society.

People come out in the streets to demonstrate peacefully to protest both tangible and intangible grievances: housing and job discrimination, war, policing, and so on. But people riot–against police officers–because they want to fight. Put very simply, they want redemption through retaliation. It’s visceral and political.

Protesters surround Baltimore police car during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. April 26, 2015.

Protesters surround Baltimore police car during the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. April 26, 2015.

A riot presents an opportunity. Sometimes all it takes is one brick, one trash can tossed through the back window of a squad car. Then a new norm is established. It becomes okay to disrupt, to defy, to destroy. People riot in large part because they want to take back what police have taken from them, usually over many years, namely, dignity and respect. A riot is a reclamation of all that has been degraded and lost. It is a chance to stand up and fight.

People attack police officers because the police have fought them, their friends, and their neighbors. Police have manhandled them, have forced them to the side of the road for no apparently legitimate reason, have talked down to them, have meted out arbitrary and discriminatory justice. Police have killed and gotten away with it. In addition to the daily surveillance of street stops and frisks, police have laid hands on members of the community. And people have had to take it, because, well, cops have guns, the law, and the power of the state arrayed behind them.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the sociologist Egon Bittner published several articles on police power. He came up with a now-famous definition: “The police are best understood as a mechanism for distributing nonnegotiable coercive force in accordance with an intuitive grasp of situational threats to social order.” Police can rough you up because they say so; the use of force is kind of their thing. Sometimes their reasons are legitimate. The vast majority of the many millions of police contacts with American citizens per year go smoothly. That is not to say that they are frictionless. Even peaceful street stops can serve as a reminder to over-targeted communities that police power is absolute, that is, non-negotiable.

Tense standoff between residents and police during July '64 uprising in Rochester, New York.

Tense standoff between residents and police during July ’64 uprising in Rochester, New York.

A researcher studying police-youth contacts in black neighborhoods in San Francisco in the early to mid-1960s observed that police do not abuse their “authority” so much as their “power to investigate.” A riot rejects that power. A riot of the kind that has surfaced here and there over the past 12 months–of the kind that devastated urban communities in the 1960s, the kind that I study–is a visceral challenge to the police power to investigate. It says, “You lay hands on us. Now it’s our turn to lay hands on you.”

All that said, I do not mean to glorify the violence of the street riot. I only hope to explain it. Historically, civil unrest by marginal groups typically ends poorly for the marginal groups. Police tend to win the short-term battle. They always retake control of the streets. Usually there is bloodshed. Sometimes police get injured; sometimes they die. But far more often, the people in the streets suffer. Surrounding businesses and homes suffer. Property values suffer. On and on.

A riot, quite clearly, is not the answer. And so far, since summer 2014, only a very tiny minority have taken that route. That is unquestionably a good thing, for all involved.

*I use riot here primarily for its folk and academic meaning, as a disorderly but deliberate collective street action that deploys force against persons or property. I’m aware that critics of rioters (and black people) use the term to demean and criminalize the participants. That is not my intent. It must be emphasized that the protests in Baltimore since Freddie Gray’s death in police custody on April 19 overwhelmingly have been peaceful and orderly. My purpose here is mainly to place the impulse to riot in historical and structural context. You know, because I’m an historian, who studies rioting and policing.

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