When, exactly, do protests become riots?


Police standing with shields

Media coverage focused on “thugs” can distract from broader concerns

Just two months ago, national attention was squarely on Baltimore and the rising tension between black communities and police.

The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of six Baltimore cops – now facing criminal charges – was one of a slew of similar incidents. African-American men in Cleveland, New York, North Charleston, Los Angeles and Ferguson, in recent months, have all died at the hands of police under questionable circumstances.

But the riots that emerged in Baltimore focused on even broader issues of income inequality and a lack of opportunities that plague some communities – especially black communities – like the one Freddie Gray called home.

Yet today, that discussion seems to have quieted.

Our nation’s short attention span does not bode well for the emergence of future riotous protests. These events are the result of the built-up tensions and unmet needs of disenfranchised people. The longer we wait to address their underlying causes, the more desperate and passionate the next response may be.

What surveys tell us

It would seem difficult to blame anyone for being unhappy – to say the least – about prolonged disadvantage that is met with little substantive response. Yet many people did blame the protesters in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere – or at least failed to see the underlying causes of the protests.

Only 25 percent of American adults polled in a recent Rasmussen Reports telephone survey said it was primarily “legitimate outrage” that prompted the demonstrations in Baltimore. A striking 63 percent preferred to describe the events as “mostly criminals taking advantage of the situation.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, this division shifts when considering black and white adults separately. While 55 percent of blacks polled considered the Baltimore events a result of legitimate outrage, 68 percent of whites saw the same events differently, as being mostly about opportunistic criminal activity.

In a different time and in response to different events, the story remains the same.

After a series of displays of unrest in the 1960s across several major cities, including Detroit and Newark, researchers conducted a survey to learn what blacks and whites in 15 cities across the U.S. thought about these “disturbances”.[1]

In 1968, only 40 percent of the white sample in the survey of 15 cities identified inequality or discriminatory treatment as the main cause of the riots. Responses related to the primary role of particular groups or leaders, and to “undesirables” or troublemakers, made up the second- and third-largest percentages of the white response – 20 percent and 15 percent – respectively.

In contrast, an overwhelming 69 percent of the black respondents immediately identified issues related to inequality as the main cause of the riots. Other responses comprised only a small percentage of the sample (and only 2 percent first mentioned particular groups or leaders).

Similarly, an ABC News poll in April 1992 sought to gauge public opinion about the events that led to and transpired after the “not guilty” verdict was given for the police officers in the Rodney King case.[2]

In that survey, there’s a marked difference in the extent to which the white and black samples believed that violent demonstrations were the only real way to get national attention. Only 39 percent of the white sample agreed with that idea, while 78 percent of blacks agreed.

The differences in how the demonstrations are explained suggest there is a social disconnect in understanding the issues at stake to protesters.

Media portrayal betrays real issues

How the media treats protest events could be centrally involved in shaping this social division in perceptions of protests.

Referencing continued misunderstanding of the cause of Baltimore riots, basketball legend and Time columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in May:

“What’s even more frustrating for African-Americans across America witnessing the events is the blatant attempt of some in the media to portray this as (1) the result of ‘thugs’ who want to exploit Gray’s death to stock up on some free TVs and (2) an anomaly that doesn’t represent America.”

Despite empirical evidence that suggests riots are in response to systemic inequalities that have been left unattended, the media often ignore that connection. Instead of discussing the root causes of riots, coverage frequently focuses on discussing the appropriateness of the violent protest.

Recent research argues that a disconnected and decontextualized media portrayal of riots is one of the reasons why we, the public, move on quietly after these major events, often failing to enact economic reforms protesters call for.

Similar in sentiment, Time columnist Darlena Cunha wrote:

“We wish to seclude the incident and the people involved. To separate it from our history as a nation, to dehumanize the change agents because of their bad and sometimes violent decisions – because if we can separate the underlying racial tensions that clearly exist in our country from the looting and rioting of select individuals, we can continue to ignore the problem.”

We limit the potential impact of these recent events when we ignore their root causes and disregard them for senseless violence rather than legitimate protests.

The social impact of riotous protest

Riots provide an outlet for those who have little other political recourse. Being loud collectively is how they gain a voice.

They are the last resort of people who the above mentioned columnists describe as “marginalized,” “disenfranchised,” and “helpless.”

Unfortunately, despite the intentions of those who become involved in riotous protests, the broader public seems to respond to them negatively. And this may limit their effectiveness in encouraging social change.

Consistent with the results from the surveys presented above, recent research conducted on the public response to the 2011 riots in England suggests that those events increased the distance individuals’ felt between themselves and the groups most involved in the riots in the year immediately following the event.

The catalyst for those riots – similar to the ones in the U.S. – was police involvement in the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man. Demonstrations in the victim’s home community, Tottenham, turned violent as frustration mounted.

Although the increase in social distance and subsequent prejudice directed towards disenfranchised groups eventually waned in England, mention of the riot continued to prompt prejudice-inducing effects even long-after the events.

This suggests that riots may be counterproductive from the perspective of the rioters, especially when it comes to their impact on public opinion.

In contrast to this possibility, other research suggests that protests are in fact effective in generating change. But what is the real difference between disruptive protests and riots if both convey the need to address a pressing social issue?

Will presentations of protests evolve?

Given the role of media in shaping our perceptions of an event, some groups, most notably Brave New Films, are bringing attention to disparities in how media outlets describe events. The filmmakers and advocates have highlighted the dramatically different language used to characterize protests involving black people and sports riots involving white people.

In addition to responding to this call for change, the work of criminal justice lecturer Carly Lightowlers suggests that we need to contextualize stories about riots. Her work urges us to consider the bigger picture and to remember that riots are extremes acts taken only to convey what has been repeatedly brushed aside by the powers-that-be.

Challenging our media outlets to do better helps address the negative perceptions of riots, though it doesn’t speak to what we should do to reduce the actual causes of the riots – an issue that England has tried to address using an inquiry panel that made suggestions for how to reduce the chances of a repeat event. Yet change in our media coverage (and consumption) may be critical to helping us acknowledge that there are problems to be addressed in the first place. Without that, even good panel suggestions can go unheeded.

The repeated occurrence of major riotous protest – at regular intervals, I might add – suggests that there is more to the events than some have been willing to admit.

Consider several of the most infamous periods of unrest: the 1919 Chicago race riot, the 1943 Detroit race riot, the 1967 riots, the riots after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, and the most recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014-15. Each was separated by an average of 24 years. Let’s not wait to see if the next period of unrest will come even sooner.

[1] Campbell, Angus, and Howard Schuman. Racial Attitudes in Fifteen American Cities, 1968. ICPSR03500-v2. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 1997.

[2] ABC News/Washington Post. ABC NEWS/WASHINGTON POST LOS ANGELESBEATINGPOLL, APRIL1992. Radnor, PA: Chilton Research Services [producer], 1992. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 1993. 2008-07-31.

Heather O'Connell


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