History shows that tumult is a companion to democracy and when ordinary politics fails, the people must take to the streets.
One evening in 1992, my parents, younger sister and I sat on the fold-out futon on the living room floor, petting our cats and watching fires consume buildings in Los Angeles. The images that spilled from the screen are only vague memories now: a dark night, broken windows, police sirens echoing, people rampaging across the city and leaving destruction in their wake. I was 16 years old. Having mostly grown up in small-town Montana without access to cable television, this was one of my first experiences watching a national news story on live TV.
The event we were watching, often called the LA riots, was triggered by the acquittal of police officers who had been filmed beating a construction worker named Rodney King. The eruption took its place in a long line of other violent uprisings against racial and gender injustice – the Watts riots, the Stonewall riots, and the 12th Street riot in Detroit.
In my little hometown, TV viewers were prompted to view such riots through the lens of irrational ‘crowd contagion’ – a long-debunked perspective that nonetheless pervaded the media coverage in the first days of the LA event, until deeper analysis reflected on the searing racial tensions, inequality and poverty that triggered the uprising.
Darnell Hunt, then a postgraduate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), focused his graduate work on the soul-searching that took place in the event’s aftermath. While I was watching buildings in LA burn on TV, he took a camcorder into the city to talk to people who saw themselves as sacrificing their own safety and freedom in response to years of injustice.
While the powerful and comfortable described this civil disorder as a ‘riot’, Hunt – today, UCLA’s dean of social sciences – was pushing back to reveal concrete evidence of a government’s crisis of legitimacy. For the most part, people don’t engage in unrest for the fun of it, or because they’ve lost their rationality to a mob mentality; they do it because they feel they have no other choice.
The word ‘riot’ evokes a visceral reaction, calling up visions of chaos, disorder and offence to civil society. Once an event has been dubbed a riot, the media narrative is easy to frame: ‘these people’ are acting unlawfully, are out of control, irrational; if only they would sit down and talk. It’s this same perception that has prompted protesters in Hong Kong to insist, as one of their four remaining demands of the city’s government, that the charge of rioting be dropped against people who have been arrested for participating in mass protests against specific government policies.
The demand makes sense: when a protest is labelled a riot, it invites the automatic judgment of lawlessness and irrational, illegal behaviour begging to be quashed. Others, particularly those on the receiving end of the quashing, say that such events are last straws, emerging from communities fed up with the taking of their rights, liberties, resources and lives. In his book Languages of the Unheard (2013), the philosopher Stephen D’Arcy writes that a riot is the last resort of the disenfranchised and oppressed.
He differentiates riot associated with a quest for equality from other ‘genres’ of rioting such as rioting at sports events, acquisitive rioting (looting), and authoritarian rioting, such as the Tulsa race riot of 1921, which was used to further oppress marginalised people. In fact, says Hunt, using ‘riot’ to describe both sporting events and political or social protest is a calculated political move: it colours protest or assembly as unlawful and unjustified. What we habitually call riot, writes D’Arcy, is ‘an opportunity to insist upon what official politics too often ignores: the dignity of each, and the welfare of all’.