One of the most puzzling things to many people is the sight of people rioting in cities. As we see right now (of this writing of May 30, 2020), Minneapolis in particular, and many other cities in the USA to a lesser degree, are seeing rioters burning buildings, overturning cars, looting and causing all manner of chaos in urban areas. "Why," asks the typical person in their house, watching this on the news, "do people do this? Why do they destroy their neighborhoods? What does taking things from a store have to do with calling for justice for a perceived wrong?"
Very good questions indeed.
First of all, we need to decry any form of violence and destruction of property — the solution cannot be in the same level as the cause. Violence does not mean violent responses are acceptable. That said, if we want to understand why people riot, we have to look at the conditions that lead to the riots.
I know already a few people reading this are going "well, there you go, you're going to say that rioters are justified in some way." Not at all. I'm a sociologist and look at everything via that lens. If we don't understand the socio-environmental causes of an phenomenon, we will be powerless to do anything meaningful about it. A good example is terrorism: "shooting terrorists" will not stop people choosing terror as an act, but finding why people are turning to terrorism, and reducing those causes, will reduce terrorism across the board. Same with any form of crime. Same with something like abortion: why are women having abortions? Reduce those causes, we reduce abortion.
We cannot justify destruction of property, but we can understand the underlying causes behind it. If we want to deal with it, that is the course of action that must be taken.
First, we need to put rioting into historical perspective. Rioting is nothing new. The USA has a long history of all manner of riots. Looking at the Wikipedia Page on Civil Unrest in the United States, there is a list of literally hundreds upon hundreds of riots that have gone on in the USA. Up to the Civil Rights movement, these riots could be classified into three types, in descending frequency of incidence:
1. Race Riots, specifically white violence against various minority groups, mostly blacks.
2. Labor Riots, where workers rioted against their employers
3. Religious Riots, involving anti-Catholic or acts against non-Christian religions.
Race riots are definitely the most common kind of riots we have seen in US History, as whites went into ethnic neighborhoods to destroy property, burn stores, and hurt and kill people. It was only in the 1960s, as riots started to occur in ethnic neighborhoods, that riots became associated with minority groups in any meaningful way. Prior to that, ethnic groups were afraid whites were going to come into their neighborhoods to commit violence — violence that quite often was simply allowed to go on by the police and politicians of the day.
Many times, in fact, power-elite groups used rioting as a means to attack their enemies. Tammany Hall in New York City had many gangs of thugs at their disposal, one of the most notorious being the "Five Points Gang" that they could unleash at racial and political targets as needed. From the Civil War to the mid 20th Century, any political machine group had their group of thugs, centered in Saloons, ready to go. The movie "Gangs of New York" gives a Hollywood, ahistorical sheen to this period, but does allow the viewer some idea of the level of gang violence used by power-elite to riot.
By the time of the 1960s, rioting was a ubiquitous form of social action in major American cities that had gone on for all of US history. The Harlem Riot of 1964, over the death of James Powell, an African-American of Harlem, by a white police officer was one of the first in the USA where minorities were the ones rioting. After that, many inner city black neighborhoods started to see civil unrest, with the Watts Riots the next year, and then cascading social unrest in inner cities, but now done by minorities, rather than against minorities.
This was the start of a socio-political turn, with rioting going from being seen as either a racist or ethnocentric reaction of the presence of minorities (mostly racial, also religious), or involving labor, to something The Other was doing, dirty people in dirty neighborhoods causing all manner of violence and destruction. The fact that for decades whites had gone into these neighborhoods and committed acts of violence and property damage seemed to be forgotten.
There seems to be an idea that rioters are all just a bunch of opportunists — they get a chance to go out and loot, burn and hurt people, so riot on! There are undoubtedly people that do that. I remember after the LA Riots of 1992, I'd pass by a house in the San Fernando Valley coming home from work that had racks of clothes on one of those round racks for sale, right on De Soto Blvd! Obviously they had stolen those racks from some store and were stupidly selling them right on the street (I often tell my Intro to Criminology class that "crooks aren't that bright for the most part — if they were, they wouldn't be crooks, or at least white collar criminals.") I also remember watching TV during the LA Riots, and a helicopter was watching a Porsche that was throwing firebombs at gas stations. The guy driving the Porsche was white, and he was tossing firebombs. Obviously he had a lot in common with Rodney King....
If this were the spark that set riots off though, riots would be happening all the time, daily, as bored people who want what others have, or just for the lolz, would go out all the time and commit a river of violence and destruction. But what we do see is that these kind of street actions are usually tied today to some form of injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King said this about riots in his speech "The Other America" in 1968 :
[I]t is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear 3 of 8 that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
Dr. King was correct in his frame, but when we look at the history of riots in the USA, we can see three things:
1. Up to the Sixties, riots were mostly the language of the heard white power-elite going into ethnic neighborhoods to remind them who they were, where they were, and that any time they could be hurt or killed and nothing could stop the white mob from doing it.
2. Labor riots were certainly the unheard working against the unfair system of labor exploitation at that time, but the industrialists had the government and the police on their side. Police would quell the riots, and even peaceful picketers would be declared by courts to be "restricting trade" and the cops would come to shoo off the picket lines.
3. By the Sixties to today, the above two had been replaced by Dr. King's point that rioting was now going on in inner city areas as a means to make voices heard. He didn't say it was a good way to do this - in fact in "The Other America" speech he stresses his commitment to non-violent social change - but he also says that we cannot ignore why these riots are going on.
The riots in 1992 that tore through LA were preventable. For years, African American neighborhoods were completely ignored. Policy experts were telling the City Council long before the riots that what was then "South Central Los Angeles," with the complete export of good jobs, crime, gangs, drugs and rampant poverty, was a powder keg waiting to happen. The problem was ignored until the Rodney King decision caused the city to erupt for days. It should not be supposed that the decision in the case was the absolute cause of the riots — oh yes, it was the flash point, but simmering problems for years were what led people to commit shocking destruction and property damage after that decision was handed down.
After that, there were changes in the short term: LAPD was reorganized and put under Federal oversight, community policing became the standard that started to build bridges, attempts to bring jobs and remove blight were begun.
While there have been some improvements, a lot of work is still needed in what is now South Los Angeles. Is it a powder keg? Maybe. Who thought that Minneapolis was a powder keg? Do not be fooled into thinking that the death of George Floyd is all that is causing this unrest — a longstanding belief that the system is failing people of color, of systematic oppression, and of a government that doesn't really care is what is fueling the anger. "Living while Black" is a real social issue that Black people feel daily, regardless of how ludicrous White people might find that phrase. But then Whites are not Black, nor do Whites live in the Black world, do they?
No, there is no justifiable reason to destroy property and commit violence. But when people are forced to live with pent up rage, when a video exposes what black people say happens all the time to them, and only now is it visible, sooner or later that rage will boil over.
Yes, people that destroy property and hurt others need to be brought to justice. But if we want long term solutions to this, we have to look at the whole system. A system is only a strong as the parts that make it up. If parts of a system are broken, the whole thing is in danger of dysfunction. These days of rage make that clear, but what lessons will be learned? We will have to wait and see.