Riots are a phenomenon that have been with humanity and have been a part of human culture almost since the beginning of time. Humans, when they perceive that they have been wronged in some way, often take to the streets to vent their anger towards an institution, government, race of people, etc., oft times causing extensive damage to property as well as loss of life. Even demonstrations that start out peacefully can also devolve into riots when instigating forces infiltrate the crowd and incite violence. This kind of riot has become more prevalent in recent years. Even though riots have been a part of human history for many millennia, they continue to be destructive to the fabric of society in America because they stir up strong emotions, particularly hatred, that fuel the potential to cause loss of life and destruction to property.
When examining with the causes of rioting, one finds that basically riots are demonstrations, protests, or other gatherings of people that are gripped by what is characterized by psychologists as “mob mentality.” Dr. Wendy James, PhD., characterizes “mob mentality” by making the following comparison; “One dog may bark at you but it’s more likely that a pack will attack you” pointing out the fact that group dynamics can adversely affect the behavior of people. Dr. James also notes “All a riot is, is violent group behavior. The larger the group the greater the amplification of that group behavior.” This is especially true in today’s instant information society where an opinion or motivation for violence can be quickly transmitted among a group via social media or simple text messaging. Dr. James also points out that if the leaders and organizers of a demonstration have a peaceful motive, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi, then “the group behavior is peaceful and orderly.” In addition to this opinion, researchers George Wada and James C. Davies define riots as “one of the rarest types of face-to-face groups, organized to express strongly sensed feelings of protest in violent form” (486) and describe those who take part in such activities as “members momentarily conjoined not because they know where they want to go but because they do not like where they have been” (486). Wada and Davies go on to state that when a society, large or small, reaches a boiling point of some kind that it is not the majority who rise up to protest the injustice, but a minority within the society “who because of atypical circumstances are free to react with vigor to sensed injustice, since vigorous reaction is less likely to harm these individuals in their home, property, or income” (874). This is the basic scenario by which most riots are created or tend to flourish.
From a psychological point of view, there are three basic theories as to the cause of riotous behavior in humans;
“1) Contagion Theory proposes that crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members that results in irrational and emotionally charged behavior often referred to as crowd frenzy;
2) Convergence Theory that argues the behavior of a crowd is not an emergent property of the crowd but is a result of like-minded individuals coming together. If it becomes violent is not because the crowd encouraged violence yet rather people wanted it to be violent and came together in a crowd; and
3) Emergent-Norm Theory that combines the two above arguing that a combination of liked-minded individuals, anonymity and shared emotions leads to crowd behavior” (James).
As for the effects of riots, the most obvious effects in all riot situations are manifested in damage to, or destruction of property, pilfering of property by looting shops and stores, and most distressing, the human toll in injuries sustained and in the most extreme cases, loss of life caused by riotous behavior. However, there are other effects in society which may influence the reasons for starting riots which are nearly as distressing as the aftermath. For example, the 1992 Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of Los Angeles area police officers for the beating of motorist Rodney King, had the effect of bringing to the surface a growing undertow of racial and ethnic problems that were occurring in southcentral Los Angeles at the time. In their research into the riots, Albert Bergesen and Max Herman brought forth the theory that ethnic competition for the neighborhoods of southcentral Los Angeles between African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians occurring at the time became the impetus for the riots and not the acquittal of the police officers (40).
As shown in the course of this paper, the reasons for riots are many, varied and sometimes spring up at a moment’s notice as a reaction to an unfolding situation where the entirety of the story is not yet known. However, one fact is certain, all riots are violent by their very nature. Whereas protests can be peaceful depending on the circumstances, riots cannot. In addition to this, riots not only have their own effects on the physical well-being of an area but also affect the daily lives of the people, sometimes innocent bystanders, as they suffer through the aftermath of a minorities’ perception of a wrong being done to them.