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Riots: Behavioral Aspects

The Behavior Of Riot Participants

Despite the extensive body of research on riot history, precipitating events, and structural preconditions, we still know relatively little about why or how individuals behave as members of riot gatherings. Most existing studies of riot participants were conducted by post-facto survey analysis or interviews with those arrested for rioting. After the actual riot events, participants were asked to indicate their reasons for participating. From these studies, some important findings have emerged. Perhaps the most significant finding is that riot participants share the same general attitudes as other members of their local communities (Moinat et al.; Ladner et al.). Furthermore, the demographic characteristics of rioters make them nearly indistinguishable from others members of the community who do not take part in riots. The U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders failed to find any significant differences in employment status or income between riot participants and nonparticipants. In fact, those who were arrested during the 1960s civil disturbances were on average somewhat better educated and more politically aware than nonrioters. This evidence cuts against the traditional view that rioters represent a pathological element or the "riffraff" of their respective communities (Fogelson). By contrast, survey researchers have found that the same grievances were widely shared by rioters and nonrioters alike (Ladner et al.), with nonrioters often expressing tacit support for the activities of those who rioted.

Perhaps the main distinguishing factor of riot participants as opposed to nonparticipants is their age. Riot participants tend on average to be younger than those who do not participate. Yet even the age of riot participants may vary according to the day and time that they are arrested. As Quanterelli and Dynes found, rioters arrested later in the course of the riot event tended to be substantially older than those arrested at the beginning of rioting. Rioting thus tends to be initiated by teens and young adults, who engage in destruction of property, followed by slightly older opportunists who begin looting stores, and last by older community residents seeking to obtain a share of the loot.

In addition to age variation among riot participants, there are also differences in motivation among members of riotous crowds (Turner and Killian). Some people participate directly in rioting while others merely observe. Some lead, some follow, and some exploit the situation for their own personal advantage. Some individuals even act as counter-rioters, seeking to dissuade members of the crowd from further violence. Simply put, rioters are not a homogeneous group. When police officers treat riotious crowds as a mass rather than targeting leaders or looking to counter-rioters for assistance, this can lead to escalation of violence (Stott and Reicher). Rioters may act collectively or individually, but typically take their behavioral cues from family members or friends with whom they have assembled (McPhail). Individuals are attracted to riot events in much the same way as they join other assemblies—through social network ties. During the looting phase of riot activity individuals often cooperate in locating and obtaining desired items. There is a considerable body of evidence that systematic vandalism of businesses occurs during most riots. These targets, typically owned by members of other racial/ethnic groups, are not randomly selected (Quanterelli et al.; Berk and Aldritch; Tierney; Rosenfeld). Finally, as McPhail notes, riot activity ebbs and flows over space and time. Not all rioters are constantly engaged at any particular point or place. Even rioters go home to sleep, before resuming their activities elsewhere. Understanding the spatial and temporal dynamics of rioting is critical to the task of more effective policing.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRiots: Behavioral Aspects - A Brief History Of Rioting In America, Types Of Riots, Precipating Incidents And Underlying Conditions