Riots: No Justice, No Peace

Is there a civilized right to riot?

Posted Aug 10, 2011

Many years ago at NYU, a teacher of mine, Dan Dodson, once wrote about "the civilized right to riot." He was talking about the race riots that wracked the US in the 1960s. Others pithily expressed the idea [what idea?] as No Justice, No Peace.

I think about these two statements as I read about London burning. While the two statements are similar, they actually approach the situation from different perspectives. Dodson's argument was philosophical; the second argument is psychological. The first says that it is right that oppressed people riot; the second posits that without justice, society will not know peace.

Dodson went too far. It is impossible to imagine the right to riot being inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People have a right to assemble; they have a right to organize; they have a right to strike; and they have a right to boycott. You can argue that there are conditions under which it is right for people to rebel.

But they don't have a right to loot, for that is what much of the rioting is. Unlike, say, those who target economic summits, these rioters don't target the perpetrators of injustice. Stealing a TV set isn't a revolutionary act but an act of frustration of not having part of the economic pie, a pie they experience as shrinking every day.

No Justice, No Peace is correct as a general psychological proposition. There is a discontent in society when people are driven to the margins, when they have little prospect of getting work, when the gap between the wealthy and everyone else gets wider. The restlessness can take many forms: depression, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, physical violence against family members. These manifestations often get dismissed as personal moral failures, with society turning its back on finding structural solutions and addressing the underlying unfairness of the social system.

No one knows why riots occur where and when they will erupt. The social variables are too great to really predict when things will go up in flames. Historians are better at teasing out the causes than are psychologists and sociologists in the moment.

But causes there are and, in broad terms, the reasons are clear enough. Understanding isn't an endorsement. To know all isn't to forgive all. Bullies and thugs are just that.

The graver moral failure, however, is not to address the underlying stresses that lead to such irrational, destructive behavior. The greater criminals are those who jiggered the books that led to the present recession and with those who refuse to fix the problems that led to the collapse of Wall Street. Moral culpability extends to those who push for reduced social spending while at the same time refusing to raise revenue.

Asked by a BBC reporter why he was rioting, the young man said because it was fun. I suppose those who pillaged our economy would say the same. Except for the super-wealthy and the narcissistic brain dead, the fun has come to an end.