Who is a rioter?

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.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

6 thoughts on “Who is a rioter?

  1. Well said, Matt. I was wondering this myself, earlier today when a scared white neighbor kid came knocking on my door to warn me, “The riot is headed this way, so just be careful!” I later found out that this “riot” (which I knew to have started as a peaceful protest this morning) was three miles away. From reports on Twitter, “riot” is not a word that I would’ve used, but I can’t put my finger on why.

    You’re dead on with the fear of a “mob mentality,” which isn’t too far off from calling the protesters “animals,” as did this police officer last night (http://colorlines.com/archives/2014/08/police_officer_calls_ferguson_protestors_animals.html). This imagery of a violent throng of imminent black bodies has seemed to become a bogeyman to my neighbors. If the protest comes this far down the road (they won’t), I say: Don’t lock your doors; draw up a protest sign and join in.

  2. Update: Turns out they did come my way. It’s not a “riot.” It’s not even a “protest.”

    It’s a vigil.

  3. Interesting development in the Ferguson story, USA Today reports, “Antonio French, a St. Louis elected official who had been providing frequent updates about the protests and police action in Ferguson, Mo., was arrested late Wednesday for unlawful assembly.” This is the legal definition of riot which I discussed above and is totally bizarre became ONE PERSON CANNOT BE AN ASSEMBLY.

  4. Reminds me of discussions that took place in 2006 in France. There it was the notion of “emeute” that was under scrutiny and how to name the participants (famously misrecognized by Sarkozy as “racailles”, ragtags), whether it is a collective action in a form of politics of the politically deprived. Stephane Beaud, a brilliant French urban anthropologist, is a good lead.

  5. I thought of this post after reading this:

    “Be mindful, political and socially aware with your language. Notice how the mainstream news outlets are using words like riot and looting to describe the uprising in Ferguson. What’s happening is not a riot. The people are protesting and engaging in a justified rebellion. They have a righteous anger and are revolting against the police who have terrorized them for years.”


  6. Here’s a good storify on scholarly works on rioting (note that the Thompson here is E.P. and not me ;P)

    You can add to this a large body of sociology and criminology, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s about riot management.

    There was also a pretty good piece in Jezebel about the rebellion in Ferguson and language choice in the popular media.

    To get a quick sense of just how frequent collective violence as protest has been in the United States, check this list from Wikipedia.

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