Three Longs & Three Shorts

On Days of Disorder [Or why do Riots Happen?]

Author: Tanner Greer
Source: The Scholar’s Stage (

Over the past decade a long held tragic Indian custom, the communal riot, has made a comeback. In parallel, we have now seen protesters on the streets of Hong Kong for most of the past year and now we have the race riots in the US – another country with a tragic history of rioting similar to India’s. So why do these riots happen? Why do otherwise peaceful societies explode into riots every so often?
The blog first refutes conventional explanations that riots some crystallise long supressed frustrations & grievances: “After the Los Angeles riot in spring of 1992, almost every pundit in the country took a turn at explaining why riots occur. The conventional wisdom on the subject went something like this: certain dramatic events such as political assassinations or unpopular jury verdicts crystalize riots from social rage. So to understand riots, one must understand and the causes of social rage, usually said to be racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and why people who experience this rage manage it in such a destructive manner. The usual suspects include breakdown of the family, television, and a generalized cultural disorientation.
All of these explanations have some truth in them, but are evidently incomplete. First, they explain too much. The predisposing social conditions are with us all the time, yet riots are episodic. Second, they explain too little. Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie. Indeed, during the Los Angeles riots, anyone with a TV set could see that jubilation rather than fury best characterized the mood of the people in the streets. It is hard to credit that these exhilarated looters with their new VCR’s and cameras were protesting the jury system, the state of race relations in Southern California, or anything else. They were, in fact, having a party…”
Riots are a co-ordinated act by many people, most of whom don’t know each other. So how do these people co-ordinate implicitly, rather than explicitly? This is where the role of a specific incident like the killing of George Floyd or China’s actions in HK play a key role: “It is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert. Overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority trying to prevent mob action. In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone. The role of “incidents” can thus be seen as a coordinating role; it is a substitute for overt leadership and communication. Without something like an incident, it may be difficult to get action at all,…”
Even after everybody has gathered at the same place, it is not inevitable that a riot will start because most people are loth to be the person who starts the riot. To be the first-mover is risky because the cops will make punish you especially if no one else follows you lead: “Even in an unstable gathering, the first perpetrator of a misdemeanor is at risk if the police are willing and able to zero in on him. Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst—a sort of entrepreneur to get things going—in Buford’s account usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it). In civil rights, anti-war or anti-abortion marches, it is probably pretty common to find participants eager to expose themselves to arrest in exchange for the chance to optimize the desired impact of their protest. This sort of self-sacrifice is certainly rare in ordinary riots, where potential rioters’ behavior is consistent, we suppose, with something like the following calculation: “If somebody else gets the riot started, I can participate without much risk. But if I stick my neck out and nobody follows, I’ll be the only one arrested. So I’ll wait for somebody else to go first.” If every would-be rioter reasoned thus, nobody would cast the first stone, and the riot would not ignite. This is a typical free-rider problem, as economists have called it. It is usually sufficient to prevent riots from occurring, even where there is a plentiful supply of disposed participants. Riots await events that surmount the free rider problem. The entrepreneur will throw the first stone when he calculates that the risk that he will be apprehended for doing so has diminished to an acceptable level.”
The author concludes by providing a standard operating procedure for a riot which is applicable across countries and over centuries: “This then is the general pattern of riots:
  • An event occurs that signals to would-be rioters that they may soon be able to riot.
  • This event gathers a crowd. A significant percentage of this crowd—though rarely, it seems, the majority—are eager for destruction.
  • An entrepreneurial would-be rioter tests the crowd for the presence of other rioters by engaging in a minor (yet easily perceived) act of carnage.
  • Other rioters follow suit, and as the number of offenders grow so does their willingness to take increasingly brazen acts of vandalism, theft, or violence.”