The First Amendment to the US constitution lists five freedoms, two of which are expressed as “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”. But what happens when the people cease, for whatever reason, to be ‘peaceable’ in their petitioning? Then what the situation is called becomes a critical element in how it is viewed and responded to. Each of the words protest, demonstration, revolt, uprising, rebellion, and riot can be used characterize a situation in which a large number of people have assembled in public in defiance of the authorities because the normal channels through which those grievances can be redressed are deemed to be ineffective. But which label is used is important in creating general public perceptions.
As this essay by Antonia Malchik argues, we should be wary of accepting uncritically the labels given by governments and the media for the various types of protests because they prefer to foist the term riot on us in order to discredit the protests.
How we characterise crowds depends on who commands the narrative. The Boston Tea Party, where protesters dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773 in response to a tax they disliked, is taught to US schoolchildren as one of the founding myths both of America and of our modern idea of patriotism wrapped in protest against one’s government. Its name – the Boston Tea Party, not the Boston Tea Riot – evokes joyousness and order, not anger and chaos. On the other hand, at least one British newspaper of the time called it a ‘riot’, and the British government responded with harsh laws that Americans dubbed the Intolerable Acts. If America had lost its revolutionary war, our children today would likely be taught the British perspective: rather than patriotic, the dumping of tea was unlawful and chaotic, the entire evening a riot resulting in the egregious destruction of property.
The lines between assembly, protest, riot, revolt and rebellion are probably narrower than we would like to believe, and how they’re perceived by the public has lasting ramifications. Was the Tulsa race riot of 1921 less a riot than a violent act of race-directed terrorism? Was the 12th Street riot actually the 1967 Detroit Rebellion? Should the Stonewall riots of 1969 more precisely be titled the Stonewall Uprising?
Malchik says that such protests are not irrational acts and calling them ‘riots’ is to unfairly prejudge the merits by accepting the framing of the authorities against whom the protests are being waged.
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…. 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’.
[Le Bon] advanced the idea of ‘contagion’, the notion that individuals participating in a crowd action lose their sense of individuality and instead become infected by a kind of hive mind, with the group mentality spreading like a disease.
Later social scientists pushed back against the idea that collective crowd actions were irrational or spontaneous.
It was the authorities, Currie and Skolnick pointed out, who often acted irrationally and violently against legitimate grievances. A characterisation of mob mentality can predetermine police response, often leading to unwarranted escalation of violence.
Yet if government refuses to grant rights to the people it governs, and repeatedly shows itself deaf to the people’s wishes, what exact recourse do those people have except either to acquiesce, or to become tumultuous according to the government’s interpretation of the word? It’s easy to tell people to show up at the ballot box and make their voices heard by voting, but some of the most violent actions in history were sparked by the struggle for voting rights in the first place. People don’t engage in collective action because democracy has been effective; they engage in it because it has ceased to be responsive to its citizens. In 1992, Hunt found that when authorities in Los Angeles told people to quiet down, go back home, and use their voting power to push for the changes they desired, people’s responses were along the lines of: ‘That’s what we have been doing. And nothing has changed.’
I had of course heard the phrase ‘reading the riot act’ but was not aware of its origins until I read this essay and discovered that originally it was meant literally.
The original Riot Act, which first came into being in Great Britain in 1714, made rioting punishable by up to a year in prison. The Act gave towns legal means to force gatherings of 12 or more people to disperse. Protesters were read the oral section of the Act and given an hour to disband and head home. Disobeying was punishable by death. The oral warning was crucial; several convictions of rioters were later overturned because the sheriff or mayor had failed to include every element of the proclamation.
One thing that I have noticed is that in many countries, massive protests in the streets against perceived injustices are not uncommon and have had the effect of causing governments to change policies or even topple them. By contrast, massive demonstrations in the US have not been as successful, perhaps because the political establishment is so entrenched and both major parties are fearful of mass movements, preferring to talk about bipartisanship and comity and discouraging mass protests.