The Psychology Behind Rioting

While it’s easy to blame rioters for destroying property, causing violence, and spreading chaos, doing so diminishes the fact that a riot is a complex and deeply-rooted form of civil unrest which often results from numerous factors. In other words, a riot is often a symptom of a larger, underlying problem—not the problem itself.

When protests broke out across the United States in the spring of 2020, news outlets immediately showed individuals breaking into retail stores and stealing items, or lighting police cars on fire and breaking glass.

Many Americans quickly criticized the rioters, calling the protests unruly, but never asked “why?” Why did these protests become violent? Why were buildings attacked and statues destroyed? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

America’s History of Riots

Martin Luther King Jr., who was often praised for his peaceful protesting, referred to riots as “the language of the unheard” in an interview with CBS News in 1966. 

Riots have been around since before the American Revolution. “No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry during the latter half of the 18th century when colonial Americans protested the Townshend Acts, which were largely repealed by the British Parliament (with the exception of tea) in 1770.

In 1863 in Richmond, Virginia, women gathered in the street to protest a massive city-wide food shortage which disproportionately affected the city’s lower-class citizens. “Bread or blood” they chanted outside of the governor’s office. When their pleas were ignored, they rioted.

Our history is peppered with riots because Americans have been battling discrimination, oppression, and inequity since our country’s founding.

When institutionalized racism and socioeconomic disparities persist for years and years, making certain American populations more vulnerable than others, collective frustration is bound to erupt in a demand for change.

Consider the civil rights movement. Grassroots efforts were enacted in an attempt to end racial discrimination and segregation and obtain equal rights for Black Americans, but many of the marches, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides were met with criticism, hatred, and violence from opposing parties, including many members in authority roles.

It’s no surprise that race riots broke out in large cities across the United States. 

Rising Voices of the Oppressed

America has evolved and policies have changed, but riots have persisted and for good reason. Oppression, referring to prolonged unjust treatment, takes its toll. When people in power fail to address the problems facing the oppressed, who are very often marginalized and minority individuals, an uprising will inevitably happen.

Violence is not a preferred action by protestors, but rather a consequence of being ignored, criticized, and oppressed after numerous attempts to be seen and heard. 

Consider the 2020 George Floyd protests that erupted in all 50 states, marking what experts are calling the largest movement in U.S. history, which eventually spread around the world. These were not the first protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. The first one occurred in 2013 after the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In the years following, activists protested, marched, and led discussions of policy change, but the Black community continued to face unjust treatment, racial discrimination, economic disparity, and continued police brutality.

Expert Opinions

Well-respected voices in psychology, sociology, and the arts have long spoken to the fact that rioting is not the sole problem—rioting is a reaction to the sole problem.

Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW

"Police violence coupled with COVID-19 has unveiled the racial and economic inequality in the U.S.," says Silvia M. Dutchevici, MA, LCSW, the president and founder of Critical Therapy Center. "The psychology of [rioting] deals with injustice, being wronged, and ultimately, power."

James Baldwin

In an interview with Esquire in 1968, author James Baldwin was asked, “How would you define somebody who smashes in the window of a television store and takes what he wants?” 

He answered, “How would you define somebody who puts a [man] where he is and takes all the money out of the ghetto where he makes it? Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He doesn’t really want the TV set. He’s saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He doesn’t want it. He wants to let you know he’s there. The question I’m trying to raise is a very serious question… You’re accusing a captive population who has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it’s obscene.”  

Kent Bausman, PhD

“Riots often serve as an indirect source of social change by bringing dramatic attention to collective resentment and frustration,” says Kent Bausman, PhD, a professor of sociology at Maryville University Online. "In order to understand why riots occur, we must address the source of rioting rather than the outcome of rioting.”

Collective Frustration and Situational Violence

Premeditation does not usually play a role in riots. However, riots can escalate rather quickly due to the inherent nature of a group setting.

“When things take an ugly turn and become more riotous in manner, riot participation can be seen as alluring in the moment," says Bausman. "Participation temporarily frees one from adherence to immediate social norms. Simultaneously, the rioting crowd gives the individual a sense of anonymity regarding their own social deviance."

Individuals are unlikely to light police cars on fire when alone, but when they’re surrounded by a group of people who feel just as emotional and angry, they can quickly find themselves making brash, out-of-character decisions, especially when outside factors come into play (such as opposing viewpoints or authority aggression).

Riots can also very easily result from decades’ long attempts to create change, to little or no avail. For many, it becomes a last-ditch effort to be heard.

"It is helpful to keep in mind that rioting is a process that starts way before people hit the streets," says Dutchevici.

According to a 2020 article in Housing, Theory, and Society, urban riots typically occur in areas where individuals are marginalized socially, economically, and politically. Riots offer many appealing incentives to those who lack institutional legitimacy, who experience justified resentment against the police, and lack opportunities for education or work, among other prominent factors.

Individuals feel compelled to participate in riots when they appear justified, risk-free, and thrilling, which is why they can often occur at mass protests following an event that sparked outrage.

Misrepresentation In the Media

Although riots can be highly problematic and dangerous in the short term, Bausman says they often bring necessary attention and sometimes change to matters of social injustice in the long term. Though this isn’t always the case, Bausman refers to the Ferguson riots following Michael Brown’s death which prompted serious concerns and examinations of criminal justice reform.

One-Sided Bias

The media is notorious for painting a one-sided, biased picture, especially when it comes to riots. When an outlet only shows a protestor throwing a rock at a police officer, it negates the intentions of the protest and the events leading up to that moment.

“The media would do a better job of recognizing and describing for their audiences what is sparking such spontaneous events,” Bausman says. “As a sociologist, such framing in my opinion devalues the source of the collective frustration that is felt in some communities and the sparks for the riot in the first place. Without such understanding, we address only the outcome of a riot, not the source of it.”

Rather than questioning whether statues of historical figures should be removed, we need to consider why society has chosen to amplify the voices of individuals who enslaved and perpetuated the oppression of thousands of Americans.

Perhaps the intention of rioters isn’t to destroy history, but rather, rectify the history that has been written by and in favor of one race in a country that is and has always been multiracial. 

A Word From Verywell

While riots may cause chaos and may not directly or immediately produce social change, they have the power to initiate much needed conversations around societal problems. In understanding the psychology behind rioting, we must look past the resulting violence and destruction and address the oppression that drives so many to take action.

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