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Riots: Behavioral Aspects

A Brief History Of Rioting In America, Types Of Riots, Precipating Incidents And Underlying Conditions

Despite several decades of research on crowd behavior and collective violence, the definition of the term riot remains the subject of intense debate. The traditional view of rioting, and crowd behavior in general, formulated by scholars such as Gustave LeBon and others, suggests they are episodes of irrational destruction carried out by a few antisocial individuals and a relatively homogenous mass of followers. Rioting has thus been portrayed as a kind of collective madness. Such perceptions continue to be held by some law enforcement agents (Stott and Reicher) and are often echoed by the media as well, generating public support for police suppression of these events. By contrast, several contemporary researchers argue that riot behavior is not inherently irrational, nor are the crowds that characterize riots necessarily homogenous (Turner and Killian; McPhail). Furthermore, in light of the 1960s civil disturbances, scholars on the left have sought to redefine riots as the rational expression of grievances by the politically disenfranchised, considering them a form of protest (Fogelson; McAdam). In place of the term "riot," activists and their allies often substitute the words "rebellion" or "uprising," underscoring the protest nature of these events.

Riots display a unique combination of properties that distinguish them from other forms of crowd behavior such as protests and celebrations. First, riots are acts of collective violence. While protests and celebrations may take on a violent dimension, and thus become riots, most do not escalate to the level of widespread collective violence. Thus, violence is a key factor that sets riots apart from other forms of crowd behavior. Second, riots are generally unplanned. While protests and celebrations are typically slated to happen at some appointed time and place, riots most often emerge in haphazard fashion with the formation of an assembled crowd that then turns violent. Even if the assembling of the crowd is prearranged, such as a victory celebration or political protest, when violence results it is rarely part of an orchestrated script. All riots thus display some measure of spontaneity. Third, riots, unlike celebrations and protests, are never officially sanctioned. Rather, they frequently pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the social order. Yet, their scope generally remains local, stopping short of revolutions, which, by contrast, threaten the legitimacy of entire regimes. Nonetheless, riots have sometimes sparked full-fledged revolutions. Furthermore, while most riot activity has been undertaken by civilians against other civilians or the state, social control agents may also violate commonly held norms of conduct by engaging in widespread violence against civilians, thus constituting a "police riot" (Walker; Stark; Bergesen). Combining the above elements, here is an operational definition of riot activity: Riots are a form of collective behavior characterized by the spontaneous destruction of property and/or assaults on persons by members of an assembled crowd whose actions challenge the normative social order.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law