How Do You Draw the Line Between Demonstrations and Riots?

I also agree with law prof Barry Latzer’s assessment, from his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which I have taken the liberty of quoting in full:

Though thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of cities across the nation to express their outrage over the death of George Floyd, many hundreds have engaged in mob violence and looting. Mr. Floyd’s tragic death is, for them, a pretext for hooliganism.

We’ve seen this before, back in the bad old days of the late 1960s, when rioting became a near-everyday occurrence. Economists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margotallied an extraordinary 752 riots between 1964 and 1971. These disturbances involved 15,835 incidents of arson and caused 228 deaths, 12,741 injuries and 69,099 arrests. By an objective measure of severity, 130 of the 752 riots were considered “major,” 37 were labeled “massive” in their destructiveness.

At the time, black radicals and some white leftists saw the riots purely as political protest. Tom Hayden, the well-known New Left leader, described the violence as “a new stage in the development of Negro protest against racism, and as a logical outgrowth of the failure of the whole society to support racial equality.”

This analysis ignored the observations of witnesses on the scene. Thousands of rioters in the 1960s and early 1970s engaged in a joyful hooliganism—looting and destroying of property with wild abandon—that had no apparent political meaning. In the Detroit riot of July 1967, one of the era’s most lethal (43 people died in four nightmarish days of turmoil), the early stage of the riot was described by historian Sidney Fine as “a carnival atmosphere,” in which, as reported by a black minister eyewitness, participants exhibited “a gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of the buildings.” A young black rioter told a newspaper reporter that he “really enjoyed” himself.

Analysts of urban rioting have identified a “Roman holiday” stage in which youths, in “a state of angry intoxication, taunt the police, burn stores with Molotov cocktails, and set the stage for looting.” This behavior is less political protest than, in Edward Banfield’s epigram of the day, “rioting mainly for fun and profit.” We are seeing some of the same looting and burning today, often treated by the media as mere exuberant protest.

Analyses of the riots that pinned blame on white bias and black victimization buttressed the protest theory. Such explanations received official sanction in the report of the influential National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, and headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. The Kerner Report famously declared that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” While not explicitly calling the riots a justified revolt by the victims of white racism, the Kerner Report certainly gave that impression.

Today we have the Black Lives Matter movement, which claims that police racism is the heart of the problem and calls for “defunding” police departments. Its apologists ignore the pressing need to protect black lives in communities where armed violent criminals daily threaten law-abiding residents.

A seeming oddity of the disturbances of the late ’60s and early ’70s is that they failed to materialize in many cities. An analysis of 673 municipalities with populations over 25,000 found that 75% of them experienced no riots. Even within riot-torn cities it is estimated that 85% or more of the black population took no part in them. Although they’ve gotten little or no media coverage I expect we will see comparable enclaves of tranquility today.

One possible explanation for why some cities explode with violence and others don’t is contagion theory: the tendency of people to do what their friends are doing. Once the rocks and bottles start flying in a neighborhood, it becomes tempting to join in. Youths, who played a major role in the turbulence, are particularly susceptible to peer influence. Consequently, when teenagers and young men begin rampaging, the situation often quickly escalates. No one wants to miss the party. As more young people join in, what begins as a manageable event can rapidly spiral out of control.

Closely related to the contagion theory is the threshold—or, more popularly, the “tipping point”—hypothesis. Once a certain number of rioters have become engaged, this view holds, those who had preferred to stay on the sidelines will be motivated to jump in. While imitation plays its part here too, the size of the event in itself becomes the crucial determinant of the ultimate magnitude of the riot.

Of course, a peaceful situation can quickly descend into mayhem in the presence of provocateurs. Back in the ’60s, a new generation of young black militants, such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, traveled around the country making incendiary speeches, unabashedly endorsing black revolution. Today we have antifa and various anarchist groups using social media and encrypted messages to organize the violence effectively but anonymously.

Certainly, there are those who honestly believe that America’s police are racist and in need of fundamental reforms. They are mistaken, but they should have ample opportunity to express their views peacefully. There should be no confusing such protesters, however, with looters, arsonists and those who would kill police officers. They deserve a different name: criminals.

I don’t believe there’s any practical way of preventing a massive angry demonstration from changing into a riot with dizzying speed. All it takes is one “influencer” shouting “Let’s start looting!” Set aside “free speech zones” for demonstrations far away from tempting targets and be willing to enforce order. Even that won’t be enough.

12 comments… add one
  • jan Link

    Herd mentality easily fuels a crowd – whether the emotion is positive or negative. In the case of riots, all it takes is some well placed provocateurs to usher in heightened tensions that lead to what was witnessed the last week.

    Seeding people into crowds, to gin up people’s passions, however, appears more prevalent among anarchist groups which Dems seem more inclined to take a knee for and march with than their conservative counterparts. Why is that? Why are democrats AWOL when it comes to condemning urban violence involving burning out, looting, defacing private/public property. Ironically, much of the damage and destruction is done in black communities, with BLM scrawled on walls, or professionally made signs planted everywhere, like here in Los Angeles.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    Why are democrats AWOL when it comes to condemning urban violence involving burning out, looting, defacing private/public property?’

    Because it’s ain’t their property being burnt and their lives being lost. They’re willing to shed the last drop of your blood for the cause. And the cause is regaining complete power again. Because unless they have total power utopia won’t happen, and everybody wants utopia! And if you don’t like their idea of utopia, you will be made to like it.

    And in my black and white cynical way of thinking a protest turns into a riot the instant the first object is thrown or the first blow is aimed. Unfortunately too many of the talking heads are so far down the rabbit hole that OMB must be removed by any means possible that if ANYONE in a riot isn’t committing violence then the whole riot must be a peaceful protest.

  • GreyShambler Link

    You need also to consider the unplanned logic of crowds. Things happen no one plans. Accidentally shoved into an officer you find yourself maced, clubbed, and zip-tied. Someone breaks a window, you run away, and officer spots only YOUR movement, chase ensues. Crowd surges, knocks you into older person who goes down with injuries. Someone younger sees only that part, you lose some teeth. Whole thing is fraught with danger, which is exactly why many young people are there.

  • First rule of self-defense: avoid situations in which you may need to defend yourself.

  • jan Link

    The primary job of riot planners is to light the fuse of a crowds passion and conveniently provide tools that can be used to vent and give power to a crowd’s anger. In the ongoing BLM/Antifa riots, pallets of bricks, cinderblocks, and baseball bats were centrally placed in cities targeted for such mayhem.

  • In the ongoing BLM/Antifa riots, pallets of bricks, cinderblocks, and baseball bats were centrally placed in cities targeted for such mayhem.

    That has been claimed but I have been unable to corroborate it. If you find corroboration from a reliable source (or, alternatively, from two less reliable sources on different sides of the political spectrum) please pass it along.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    The Kansas City Police certainly believed it.

    So did uber-leftist PC Shea in NYC:

    However, as many have pointed out, here and elsewhere, construction is going on all the time, and many of these stacks have been there for a while, some predating COVID-19 and then abandoned in place when construction and repairs were halted. I’m surprised though that the work crews would allow valuable building material to sit outside of chain link fences for the taking. Laziness or uncaringness, I suppose.

    Contrast the violence the demonstrations have mostly spiraled into with the 2A demonstrations in Virginia and elsewhere. In Virginia, the demonstrators were not only armed but very aware of and willing to deal immediately with any outside agitators, knowing the tremendous blow a violent act would do to their cause. It also helped that the agitators knew better than to provoke a heavily armed crowd. Guns not only can intimidate the lawless, but can be used in ways to defend and subdue without a need to pull a trigger.

  • many of these stacks have been there for a while, some predating COVID-19 and then abandoned in place when construction and repairs were halted.


  • Guarneri Link

    I’m not sure what the point of developing the definition of a bright line distinction between demonstrations and rioting accomplishes. Certainly not today. This has been rioting.

    Perhaps better to ask what is the way to prevent it from even approaching the line. Just about all of the major cities where rioting has occurred share a common trait: police have been asked or forced to stand down by liberal excuse makers. Criminals sense weakness because, well, because they are criminals.

    Steve made light of it, but won’t acknowledge that where the rioters fear/ed swift retaliation, even if by the citizenry, they didn’t even get to the point of attempting it. Criminals know the cops have to exercise restraint. They aren’t so sure about private citizens.

    If the cops can’t or won’t, the people will. The second rule of self defense: don’t let your adversary think for even a second that you won’t defend yourself – immediately and with overwhelming force.

  • Andy Link

    Rioting takes on a life of its own. It’s very interesting (to me at least) from a social/group psychology viewpoint. Whatever the original impetus, civil unrest quickly becomes an emergent phenomenon.

    It doesn’t make sense that people will burn their own neighborhoods because of George Floyd, but it also doesn’t make sense for people to burn their own neighborhoods when the local sports team wins a big championship. But those things still happen despite the fact the the catalysts are miles apart.

    Once a spark is lit, it’s not possible to predict which way it will burn.

    In the Arab Spring, the spark was a Tunisian merchant who self-immolated. That one act spawned peaceful protests, mass movements, civil unrest, violence, and one of the bloodiest civil wars (so far) in the 21st century. That specific course of events could not be (and was not) predicted.

    George Floyd was the spark for today’s unrest, but like so many other times throughout history, it’s taken a life of its own. That is not unusual and we shouldn’t expect that actions be limited to what we personally would like or believe are justifiable. It just doesn’t work that way.

    IMO police forces generally are as much to blame for the duration of this unrest as anyone. The old adage that the first step to getting out of a hole is to stop digging applies.

    The sad irony about Trump potentially calling in the military is that the military would act more responsibly and with less force than the police. That says a lot about the current state of policing in America.

    Police forces in American are “militarized” only on the surface level and can only seem to project the “tough” guy response. Just like with Fergeson, a lot of vets who patrolled the streets in Iraq are incredulous at how US police forces are (mis)handling things.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    This made it to zerohedge.

    I am trying to imagine the Walmart side of the call.

  • steve Link

    “Why are democrats AWOL when it comes to condemning urban violence involving burning out, looting, defacing private/public property?’”

    Because they arent. Every democratic leader I have heard asked about it has condemned the violence, looting, etc. The problem is that we are following blog rules. Under blog rules if you dont specifically condemn the violence every time that means you condone it. (By the way, I think those committing violence should be arrested and jailed. There is no excuse for what they are doing and I condemn them.) I understand the rules so I make it point to try to remember to insert a statement about that, even if it isn’t pertinent to the current conversation. So if a Democratic leader is asked about how the Floyd family must feel, but forgets to condemn the looters, that means they must condone it.

    Back on topic, since this is the Wall Street Journal they look only at the crowd. I have to think that some of the change from peaceful demonstrators to rioters is also a response to how the crowd is handled by civic leaders, the police, political leaders, etc. I also have to wonder if city design matters. Do some cities have open areas for protestors to gather that are further apart from the commercial areas?

    Agree with Andy about military being better behaved. Read Bing West. He was convinced that it was the common decency of the American Serviceman that was responsible for turning around Iraq more than any surge.


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