The Psychology of Rioting: The Language of the Unheard

Denouncing symptoms of disease without treating the root cause is bad medicine.

Posted May 30, 2020

Piqsels
Source: Piqsels

It is May 2020. We are almost four years into the Trump Presidency, at least four months into COVID-19, and it is just over four days since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protests across the country have fragmented into riots. All too predictably, the country seems divided over the state of the nation with the likes of Vladimir Putin probably chuckling to himself somewhere with a self-satisfied smile.

To understand the psychology of rioting, we should first go back and watch or read Martin Luther King's 1967 speech, "The Other America." The most relevant passage is this one:

Let me say as I've always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I'm still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impracticable for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Dr. King's speech pretty much says it all. He reminds us that if we are to condemn rioting for the destructive, unbridled, and rageful aggression that it is, or, more importantly, to try to prevent it from happening in the first place, we have to first understand its cause. Rioting can be thought of as a symptom of a disease. In order to treat the symptom, we have to treat the disease. And the disease—the root cause—in this case is systemic racism that persists more than 50 years after Dr. King's speech and his later assassination.

It's been just under a week since the death of George Floyd. It's been two months since the death of Breonna Taylor, three months since the death of Ahmaud Arbery, two years since the death of Stephon Clark, four years since the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, five years since the deaths of Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, six years since the deaths of Michael BrownEric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and eight years since the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Trayvon Martin. Thirteen lives lost, but no one held accountable. And that's just the short list.

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started "taking a knee" during the National Anthem before games at the suggestion of Army veteran Nate Boyer. He was soon blackballed from the NFL based on the perverted claim that his act of non-violent genuflection was somehow an insult to American servicemen. It should come as little surprise then, as Dr. King presaged, that people who feel unheard and outraged after a seeing a knee being used in a violent act of aggression by an oppressor, rather than as part of the peaceful protest by the oppressed, also feel as if they have no other recourse than to lash out

Understanding the psychological roots of rioting is not the same as saying that it is justified or should be condoned. It isn't and shouldn't be. But trying to address the symptoms of a disease without addressing its root causes is bad medicine. If we don't address underlying systemic racism, acts of racially motivated violence, and policing contaminated by implicit bias, violence will continue in response to violence.

As we react and comment on the public response to the murder of George Floyd, we should take care to avoid lumping rioting and rioters and looting and looters together with protest and protesters, as if they're necessarily the same thing or the same people. Although it has been argued that non-violent protesting, rioting, and even looting are points on a continuum of political revolt, often aimless violence and looting represents the opportunistic exploitation of chaos and lawlessness. New information from around the country suggests that some of the most unruly behavior might be perpetrated by those with their own agendas, distinct from the protesters.

But regardless of the perpetrators, violence and destruction are ultimately counterproductive and often harm the very communities that need healing. Still, like a secondary, opportunistic infection, such behavioral extremes arise from the same underlying systemic disease, so that denouncing riots without denouncing its root causes is just as counterproductive. As Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote during the 2015 Baltimore riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray: 

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

Unfortunately, as King's memory and Coates' words remind us all too well, what's sorely missing from the protests across the country right now is organization, focus, and leadership. The mass protests that occurred during the Occupy Wall Street movement were similarly unfocused and agendaless and in the end did little to combat income inequality.

If we are to ever transform our outrage into meaningful social change, we have to do more than take to the streets with cellphones. We have to organize rallies, not riots. We have to use the pen and our voices before the sword and the stone. And we need leaders who rise from the flames of civil unrest to navigate us arm in arm, both literally and figuratively, away from purposeless violence toward purposeful progress in civil rights and social justice that began more than half a century ago.