Why Do People Riot?

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The above  question has been sort of dogging me for several days, and I felt the need to write about it.  Why do people riot in the streets?  Why are the riots throughout the world presently taking place?   Is it one incident or event that causes a given riot, or is it a whole set of other factors at play that only needs a specific set of incidents/events to set off a riot?

Riots, in general, are quite complicated, and nobody really knows how or why  even the most respectable, law-abiding people will sometimes engage in this kind of civil disorder, or allow themselves to be influenced by a small percentage of people in a given group who are prone to this kind of behavior in the first place?  Again, nobody really and truly knows.  

Sometimes, even good, law-abiding people can get caught up in all the excitement of rioting, and become aroused when the people all around them are acting as such.  What makes such people prone to that?  Is it because they, too, are under some sort of pressures that they don’t particularly wish to discuss with others?  Is it because they, too, are bothered by things that’re beyond their control, or at least tough to change?  Is it because they, too, fear that they’ll one day end up with no job, no home, money, food, or opportunities for education and meaningful employment?  Is it because being under martial law puts a ton of pressure on them, they feel trapped in a cage and need to throw things out, so to speak?  Is it possible that people believe that if they don’t partake of the riots, they’ll either become outcasts, or get beat-up or possibly killed?    I believe that all these things definitely produce a sort of a powder-keg situation, where all it takes is one seemingly small (or not so small) incident or event to set off a riot.   On the other hand, however, riots are often instigated by people who are prone to breaking the laws to begin with, and find further excuse for law-breaking when they instigate such civil disorders.  Without a small band of angrier people to set things off, riots might not occur, either.  

What makes some people participate in riots, while others don’t?  The answer to this question, I believe, is also quite complex.  A person’s familial and environmental upbringing, combined with his/her psychic make-up, can depend on whether or not s/he will be prone to going out and rioting.  I believe that a person’s psychic make-up contributes the most to his/her reactions to what’s going on around them.  Some people feel that they’ve got nothing to lose, and have no future to begin with, so they don’t fear getting in trouble with the law, a jail sentence, or even death.  Others feel that participating in rioting is futile and that getting into trouble will only hamper their chances for any kind of education and/or meaningful employment or a career later on, or at all, so it’s not worth it.  Why does person A respond in a certain way to a certain situation?  Why does person B respond totally differently to the same situation or circumstances?  Environmental upbringing alone certainly isn’t a cause of rioting and lawlessness.  Psychology also plays a big part.  So does familial upbringing.  Someone growing up in, or who grew up in a household where there is lawlessness and criminality present, for instance…that’s the real clincher if there ever was one;  A person who hails from such a household is even more likely to partake of lawlessness and/or criminality.

Rioting is complex enough so that there’s often more than one cause, and it takes certain events/incidents to set it off.  The riots that occurred in South Central L. A. back in the early 1990’s, for example, were sparked by the Rodney King beating and the initial verdict, plus the shooting death of Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old African-American girl,  at the hands of a Korean-American shopkeeper who thought that the late Ms. Harlins had stolen the bottle of juice.  In this instance, like in other riots, there was more than one factor at play;  People were under tremendous pressure to begin with, due to racial discrimination, angry people who feel that they can never get justice, and pre-existing racial and ethnic tensions.  

The Rodney King Beating and the initial verdict laid bare the fact that people were/are rightly angry due to feeling that they couldn’t get justice;  at the police, who all too frequently run roughshod over civilian residents, particularly in non-white communities, and at officials who affectively sat back and allowed things to escalate to the point where such riots were inevitable.  

The shooting death of Latasha Harlins, for instance, not only was further proof that most people, whoever they may be, think that all blacks are prone to stealing and can’t be trusted, but it also increased pre-existing tensions between African-Americans and Korean-Americans in L. A.

Latasha Harlins had gone into the particular shop that was owned by a Korean-american woman, selected her bottle of juice, put 65 cents on the counter, put the bottle of juice in her knapsack, and turned to walk out of the store.  Thinking that Ms. Harlins had stolen the bottle of juice from the shelf, the Korean-American shopkeeper then shot Latasha Harlins in the back of the head just as she was leaving the store, instantly killing her.  It’s possible that the Korean-American shopkeeper had failed to notice that Latasha Harlins had put the 65 cents on the counter, but it’s also possible that there was some racial/ethnic suspicion on the shopkeeper’s part at play, also.  Yet, whether or not Latasha Harlins paid for the bottle of juice (she had, by leaving the 65 cents on the counter), there was certainly no excuse for the irresponsible behavior on the part of the shop-keeper.  

The Palestinian Intafadahs, are a more complex matter.  Yes, the Palestinians want their sovereignity and independence and have been rebelling against the fact that they’re under an extremely harsh Israeli Military occupation.  However, even in this case, there’s more to it;  Many, if not most Palestinians, realize that their own leaders, too, have impeded their ability to achieve the independence and sovereignity and self-determination in the form of their own nation-state that they badly want…and need.  Not to excuse Israel’s harsh occupation of West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, with its demolition of Palestinian’s homes, humiliating checkpoints, nad the overall rough treatment of Palestinian civilians, as well as their settler’s movement,  but patronage, cronyism and corruption are rife in the Palestinian leadership, and the money given to the PA for aid for Palestinian sovereignity by other countries is all too often expropriated for itself, and not used properly by the Palestinian leadership to aid in creating the structure for a viable Palestinian nation-state.  So, the combination of those factors together are what caused the intifadah to come about.

The riots occurring throughout the world right now are due to the fact that leaders throughout the world are not known, and never really have been known, for really listening to and being in tune with the true needs of their people.  

The riots that ensued in the wake of the MLK assassination throughout the United States have multiple causes;  Pressures on people, due to lack of opportunities, racial discrimination, and the overall treatment of them by law-enforcement people, are very great, and the MLK assassination was the catalyst that set off these riots.  People residing in communities where the riots broke out felt that someone who’d represented hope and change for a great many people had been taken away from them through circumstances that were beyond their control.  People felt that they’d lost hope, and allowed the more radical elements in their flanks to take center stage.

The riots that broke out in Boston’s white working-class communities in the mid to late-1970’s over the Federal Court-mandated school busing edict that came down in Boston, as inexcusable as they were,  also had multiple causes.  The people in places like Southie (South Boston) and Charlestown, for example, were roundly denounced for their behavior by many liberals, particularly those residing in the wealthier, all-white suburbs of Boston that were untouched by mandatory school busing, accusing them of being a bunch of racist yahoos (and there’s no question that some of the people in Charlestown and South Boston were racist), but it really wasn’t that simple.  White racism most definitely was a significant driving force in Boston’s school crisis, but socioeconomic class also played an important part in that.  Many, if not most of the people residing in Boston’s white working-class neighborhoods, including South Boston, Charlestown and East Boston, were also quite poor, and had little or nothing to lose, and also lacked socioeconomic, educational and employment opportunities.

Since I’ve already posted a rather long essay on this particular subject here on firefly-dreaming, I won’t elaborate too much on this, I’ll add that a myriad of other factors in addition to busing (which was the catalyst), such as poorly-thought-out urban renewal policies,  airport and highway expansion that affected neighborhoods across the city,  the blockbusting in Mattapan that resulted due to the B-BURG (Boston Banks urban Renewal Group) program, the total razing and destruction of Boston’s old West End that resulted in the displacement of thousands of people, the MLK assassination,  an all-white, patronage-ridden Boston School Committee that rode on the coattails of white working-class frustrations, fears and resentments along the lines of race and class, hindering racial integration of Boston’s schools, plus a poorly-designed and poorly-executed large-scale Federal Court-mandated busing edict on top of all that which came down as a result of the all-white Boston School Committee’s continued intransigience, definitely produced a perfect recipe for the riots that occurred in Boston at that time, leaving a city and its people scarred.  Like other riots,  the criminally-inclined and/or the racists among the white working-class population were in a position to instigate trouble and call all the shots, but it was the all-white Boston School Committee,  under the auspices of Louise Day Hicks and John Kerrigan, as well as the people among them, who created the kind of atmosphere and fostered the kind of climate that allowed the criminally-inclined and the racists to set the tone and call all the shots, and play to anger towards and fear of threats to a system that they’d always been familiar with, because they, too felt that something that they’d always known and still cherished, had been taken from them by circumstances beyond their control, and the more radical elements among the populations took center stage.  The way in which many white working-class people in Boston acted at the time was, indeed disgusting..and inexcusable.  Yet, one doesn’t have to approve of such behavior to realize that there were all kinds of factors that led to it.

When people here in the United States rioted over our war in IndoChina, it, too, was for a myriad of reasons.  Many idealistic people saw social injustices that needed to be changed, and that the leaders here in the United States weren’t listening (they’re still not).  Yet, at the same time, many young people at the time rightly feared being sent over to IndoChina to fight in a war without knowing why, and to either kill people that never did anything to them, or be killed.  In this instance, the assassination of RFK, who’d many people had hopes would help get the United States out of Viet Nam, also sparked a number of riots, and more radical elements were allowed to take center stage.  

One last thing, however;  I also might add that people often riot when they’ve lost hope, and that’s when they often become radicalized.  They frequently feel that taking to the streets and acting out/voicing their feelings in a rather strident way, whether it be by looting, screaming, throwing rocks/bottles, etc.,  is the only way that they’ll be heard, and can hope to get change.  Yet, if events in the United States as well as Europe are any indication, the riots have all too often given way to the election of more repressive, Right-wing regimes.  

As for rioting, it’s also true that the instigators of the rioting don’t have to be the majority. In general, while the looting, wanton destruction of property, and the injuring/killing of innocent people that result from the rioting is inexcusable, one has to realize that the root causes of rioting are complex, and, unless our society changes, such riots will continue to happen more often.    As far as what can be done…well, I’m admittedly in the dark about this, as much as most people are, but, unless the root causes of riots are addressed, there will be no way to control the anti-social behavior that often results when people are under great pressure.   Thanks for letting me write…and rant a bit.

1 comment

  1. polm

    Please note:  This particular above-posted thread is also posted on firefly-dreaming.com and the Star Hollow Gazette.

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