Cathy Lisa Schneider is the author of “Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York” and a professor of sociology and international studies at American University.
On Monday, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died of injuries allegedly suffered while in police custody, days of peaceful protests in Baltimore morphed into violent confrontations between police and stone-throwing youths. By evening, stores and cars were burning. The Baltimore riots, preceded by the violent demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., last August and November, have reignited old misunderstandings and untruths about who riots and why.
1. Riots are caused by outside agitators and activists.
New York blamed “outside agitators” for violence in 1964. Ferguson did the same in 2014. Now Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is blaming non-locals for the riots, and the police department insists that “outside agitators continue to be the instigators behind acts of violence and destruction.” Riots, however, are almost always homegrown. In Ferguson, only 21 percent of those arrested in August were from outside Missouri, and 76 percent were from Ferguson or surrounding towns. And of the 31 adults arrested in Baltimore as of last Sunday, only three were not Maryland residents.
The main participants in riots, my research shows, are usually young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods that have been virtually occupied by police; they usually feel powerless in the face of police brutality. When riots erupt, the balance of power momentarily inverts, and youths normally cowed by police experience a heady sense of efficacy and freedom.
Activists, in contrast, rarely participate in riots. More confident in their ability to effect social change, experienced activists tend to channel community anger into nonviolent forms of collective action. Their presence actually makes riots less likely.
2. The best way to stop a riot is strong police action and repression.
By Tuesday afternoon, 1,700 National Guard troops had arrived in Baltimore, along with armored Humvees and other military vehicles. Police frequently respond to protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, as seen in Anaheim in 2012, Ferguson and Baltimore.
But police violence, in particular the killing of unarmed minority youths, is often the trigger for urban riots, so police repression prolongs the conflict. In Anaheim, police attacks on nonviolent protesters marked the turn from peace to riots. Researchers theorize that the very presence of weapons might make violence more likely.
A huge police deployment is not the only way to avert a riot. In 1968, as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked massive upheavals in Detroit, Chicago, Newark and Washington, New Yorkremained quiet. Mayor John Lindsay, who had been vice chairmanof the Presidential Commission on Civil Disorders, knew that most riots break out in neighborhoods where the relationship between the police and the community has grown toxic and rendered the areas combustible. Policing is just too important to be left to police, Lindsay concluded. After he took office in the mid-1960s, he sought to give minorities a sense of ownership in government by creating task forces in “hot” neighborhoods and hiring young people as peacekeepers and communication liaisons. The youths kept city officials informed about potentially explosive issues. During a decade of ethnographic research in New York for my book, I found that many of those liaisons grew up to forge organizations with a standard nonviolent repertoire for fighting police brutality. They are part of the reason riots are still rare in New York, even after police violence began its relentless climb in 1994 with the implementation of zero-tolerance policing strategies.
3. Rioters are defending people who committed crimes.
Deaths or injuries at the hands of police officers frequently trigger riots, but the victims are often blamed — he had a record, he shouldn’t have run, he shouldn’t have resisted, he shouldn’t have reached for the cop’s weapon. New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynchargues that officers face deadly threats from “the perps on the street corner. . . . We’re getting shot.”
But rioters are responding to long-simmering issues, not just one particular police act, which might be a symptom of a systemic problem. Since reporting on the use of lethal violence is not required, police tend to report those incidents that involved return fire or possession of a gun. Yet many cities quietly settle lawsuits over unjustified killings and other misconduct at a cost of millions of dollars a year. In the 1990s, New York paid out around $25 million a year to settle police brutality claims; that number has increased to about $100 millionin recent years. Baltimore has paid $6 million in police abuse lawsuits since 2011. Moreover, in New York, more than 70 percent of accusations of resisting arrest are filed by 15 percent of police officers, which suggests that such charges have more to do with the conduct of the arresting officers than with that of the people being arrested.
4. The mass incarceration of black men has led to a decline in riots.
Since the mid-to-late 1970s, the number of riots in the United States has dropped sharply, a development often attributed to the fact that more minority men are in prison. As sociologist Pamela Oliver put it: “The crucial thing to understand is that a repressive strategy initially triggered by massive urban unrest and other social movements was maintained and expanded long after the riots abated. It was not aimed at preventing unrest by repressing riots: it was preventing unrest by repressing potential rioters . . . removing people from the system before they commit[ted] the undesired action.”
Mass incarceration has had a devastating impact on black and Latino men and on minority neighborhoods, but it cannot account for the decline in riot frequency since the 1970s, a decade before the explosive growth in incarceration rates. A mammoth uprising took place in Los Angeles in 1992, when California’s incarceration rate was well above average. Missouri, home to the Ferguson riots, ranks 10thfor its incarceration rate, and Baltimore has one of the highest incarceration rates of any U.S. city.
Instead of preventing riots, the punitive turn in criminal justice has multiplied the number of negative encounters between police and minority youths.
5. Riots accomplish nothing.
So say countless pundits, columnists and politicians. As the mayor of Baltimore insists, riots divert attention from the real problems. “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city, you’re going to make life better for anybody,” she said Monday. “Too many people have spent generations building up this city for it to be destroyed by thugs who, in a very senseless way, are trying to tear down what so many have fought for.”
But as FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson famously said after the 1968 uprising in Washington: “A riot is somebody talking. A riot is a man crying out: ‘Listen to me, Mister. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you, and you are not listening.’ ” Unfortunately, riots are sometimes the only way those living in marginalized neighborhoods are heard. Rioters in Ferguson put the issue of police violence on the public agenda. It was only when Ferguson was in flames that the Justice Department investigated and condemned the city’s pattern of civil rights violations.
Yet the Justice Department did not pursue an investigation of the LAPD after the deaths of Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego; of the NYPD after the deaths of Akai Gurley and Eric Garner (though the department did investigate Garner’s death); of police in Oklahoma City after the death of Luis Rodriguez; of police in Orlando after the death of Maria Godinez; or of police in Rocky Fork, Colo., after the killing of Jack Jacquez, to name just a few killings in the past year. Michael Brown is a household name. Jack Jacquez, whose killer has been charged with murder, is not.