As the community of Ferguson, Mo. reels from the shooting death of a young Black man, Michael Brown, at the hands of a White police officer it is worth paying attention to how the ensuing social drama that follows forwards conflicting interpretations by means of competing narratives. Shortly after Brown’s death a protest began to congeal, this was immediately met by police control.
The New York Times describes it:
At a candlelight vigil on Sunday evening, the heightened tensions between the police and the African-American community were on display. A crowd estimated in the thousands flooded the streets near the scene of the shooting, some of them chanting “No justice, no peace.” They were met by hundreds of police officers in riot gear, carrying rifles and shields, as well as K-9 units.
The Washington Post elaborates:
His death immediately sparked outrage, with protests and vigils beginning that day and showing no sign of abating on Monday. The reaction took a violent turn on Sunday, as some protesters began looting businesses in the Ferguson area over several hours, leaving a trail of broken glass and burned-out storefronts in their wake.
It sounds like there was a confrontation between protestors and police as well as loss of property later on. Is this a riot?
Yes, suggests NYT:
Images and videos captured on cellphones and posted on social media sites appeared to show people spray-painting and looting a QuikTrip gas station and other stores. Rioters shattered the windows of the gas station and damaged several police cars, said Brian Lewis, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department.
Not necessarily says WaPo:
Hundreds of police officers responded to the looting on Sunday night, arresting 32 people in total, according to the St. Louis County police. Two officers suffered relatively minor injuries. The people who were arrested could be facing charges of assault, burglary and larceny, a spokesman said.
Labeling a conflict as a “riot” is an inherently political act as it draws a rhetorical contrast between this event and others which it may superficially resemble but have been assigned alternate valences in the dominant narratives. For example the Stamp Act Protests or the Boston Tea Party also involved street protests, opposing groups taking sides, and illegal destruction of property but are considered rebellions, revolts, the harbingers of revolution.
So-called “riots” are odd artifacts of our legal system. The Bill of Rights protects freedom of assembly but riots per se have some violent quality about them that transforms them into an illegal assembly. What makes a riot distinct is that it is comprised of warring parties that are working in concert for some purpose. So this is different again from a rowdy group in bar or theater coming to blows resulting in property loss. Rioters belong to factions and so joining in one is a kind of identity statement. Thus in addition to being destructive and dangerous they are also performances of collective identity.
Here’s one to look for in the coming days: rioting not only as threat of bodily harm or loss of property, but as a moral threat, the “mob mentality.” The seething mob acts against its own best interests because of its lack of restraint. In a similar vein to riot is to indulge in an excess of luxury, it is a display of gluttony. Rioters are criticized for deriving pleasure and personal gain at the expense of others.
That is unless some combatants come to be held in high esteem and are given a positive moral evaluation. Then they become leaders in a “rebellion.”
In addition to the forthcoming FBI investigation, what an conflagration like this demands is savvy public relations strategy on the part of governments. It is not unusual for persons in positions of power to avoid the term “riot” altogether because of its stigma. Instead euphemisms such as “disturbance” serve to minimize or metonymy such as “the violence” are used to ignore the political demands at the heart of violent conflict against the state and its symbols.
In sum riots may viewed as social dramas, they embody the sudden emergence of a neglected population demanding visibility and mainstream society, caught off guard, must acknowledge their presence.