Riots: Violent unrest has swept Europe and the Middle East. Is America next?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 22 2011 6:13 PM

Could Riots Happen Here?

Violent unrest has swept Europe and the Middle East. Is America next?

London Riots. Click image to expand.
Could the kind of riots that happened in Britain happen here?

It's been awhile since we've had a full-blown riot here in the United States. I don't mean the occasional minor conflagration—Cincinnati in 2001, Oakland in 2009, and a Chicago ghetto street corner practically every month, if YouTube is to be believed. And I don't mean a single night of drunken mayhem. I'm talking about unrest that spreads, from downtown to neighborhood, city to city, night after night. These social disturbances can sometimes look necessary after the fact—a catharsis for an ailing social body or the antidote to a dictatorial regime—but they can also carry significant costs, including fatalities, loss of property, and damage to the social contract.

Europeans and those living in the Middle East are witnessing the spectrum of protest firsthand, from sober public demonstrations to violent mass unrest. From Greece to Jerusalem, London to Egypt, the masses have taken to the streets, and only sometimes peacefully. At times, there appears to be an identifiable cause that mobilizes the angry mob, such as government cutbacks (Greece, Israel). Prolonged frustrations over political leadership have also ignited violence (Egypt). But riots can also take off from a single incident, like an allegation of police abuse (London), and then a wider range of motives can keep the flame burning.

Could we see similar outbursts in the United States? Given the potential injuries to participants, bystanders, and property, this isn't a purely academic question. Anticipating the conditions that give rise to riots can help us identify hotspots and prepare for the worst. And conditions are not so great at the moment. Joblessness continues to rise, particularly among the youth, who typically makeup the majority in a riot. Overall, crime rates are at historic lows, but cities across the country are cutting basic services, like policing (New York, Camden), physical upkeep (Oakland), and public services (Madison, Milwaukee). We're likely to see frustrations increase among young people, at a moment when fewer social workers, school teachers, beat cops, and community leaders are at the ready to channel the energies into productive directions.

Before addressing the U.S. situation, it's worth pointing out a few common misperceptions about rioting:

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1. If you have enough angry individuals, you'll likely end up with a riot—or at least some form of mass violence.

There are really only three questions that matter to a potential rioter: Do I go? Do I go crazy when I get there? When do I stop? Enough people must decide that it makes sense to travel, to break the law once they arrive, and to keep doing so, for a full-fledged riot to occur. A few unruly actions does not a riot make. An angry mob must stay engaged and angry.  

Though it may seem that people who are angry and in search of mischief can walk out of their homes and proceed directly to a riot, in fact getting a riot off the ground can be quite a production. Texting and tweets address the mass-communication challenge, but you still have to get people to the riot. Police patrols, citizen associations, and even rival gangs can restrict the movement of an aspiring rioter, making even a few blocks' distance seem insurmountable. I've spent time with rioters, as part of my research into youth political action in the United States and Europe. I've found that rioters are surprisingly malleable; that is, they will change their mood and willingness to act based on little more than a shout or a text. But this doesn't mean they are easily moveable or that they can find the crowd and join the action.

In 1990s Chicago, I watched elderly, female homeowners instruct angry black youth to stay off their block; they were armed with little more than the threat of a butt-whupping, but they safeguarded stores and homes while their less-active neighbors suffered. As youth ran about looking for mobs, these homeowner blockades diffused their energy, transforming them into a distracted, motley crew. In 2005, Parisian youths told me matter-of-factly that they didn't think twice when crossing police barricades. But fearing the following day's scolding in front of their parents, they wouldn't dare enter the neighboring district of a powerful local religious leader. Months after les emotes, suburban streets in Paris were a checkerboard of unharmed and burned-out districts.

2. To stop a riot, you need sufficient numbers of well-armed police willing to open up with tear gas, gunfire, and the like.

The economist Edward Glaeser argues that the mob just needs to be larger than the police for crowds to tip from protest to riot. Once the crowd sees its relative advantage, then, voila, a thrown rock or Molotov cocktail, a general call to arms, and you're off!

Well, not always. Take London, for example. The media credits Prime Minister Cameron for finally stopping the riots by dispatching 10,000 law enforcement officials to overcome rioters. But in fact plenty of police were on hand while youths burned stores, damaged cop cars, and attacked the cops themselves. The ratio of police to rioters is important, but rioters usually have no idea how many cops are around, and they are often energized by a large law-enforcement presence.

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