Marches and other peaceful demonstrations are conventional forms of urban political activity in democratic societies. They compensate for the fact that votes do not register the intensity of the voter’s political preferences. Because demonstrating involves a much greater time cost than voting, it provides better evidence of intensity. It also provides the demonstrators with self-expressive utility (people like to express their views, especially publicly) and enables people to meet and form relationships with people having similar views to theirs, so it is a form of social networking. One expects more demonstrations in times of economic distress, because with unemployment and underemployment high, the time cost of demonstrating is reduced, and because distress causes people to want political change urgently, without waiting for the next election, and a demonstration is a kind of voting.
When a demonstration imposes real costs, as by blocking traffic, and when it becomes violent—becomes a riot—destroying property and sometimes even injuring or killing people, it conveys a stronger political message by demonstrating greater commitment, but it also arouses greater opposition. The most effective demonstration, however, is the peaceful demonstration violently repressed, with demonstrators arrested, prosecuted, injured, or even killed, for that both demonstrates commitment and arouses sympathy. When burning the American flag was a crime, the flag burner demonstrated his commitment by courting arrest and prosecution. After the Supreme Court held that burning the American flag (provided it is your own property) is constitutionally protected activity, flag burning disappeared, as it no longer signaled commitment to whatever cause the flag burner was trying to promote.
Riots in a democratic society will almost never represent majority opinion, and so it might seem—given their destructive effects—that they would never be effective in changing policy. But that is not true. It may be cheaper to remove the grievance that spurred the riot than to create and administer an effective machinery of repression. So a riot and its repression may be forerunners of reform. Reform in such circumstances is appeasement, and appeasement can beget further violence, as we know from the efforts in the 1930s to appease Hitler, but that is just to add another cost to the calculus of response to riots and other aggressive behavior.
There is finally to be considered the consumption aspect of riots. Even if the organizers and most—or even all—of the rioters are rioting because of grievances, the rioting may include looting, because the rioters may greatly outnumber the police, making for easy pickings. Moreover, the grievance that sparked the riot may have been over high food prices or other economic hardship, in which case looting might seem a natural or even justifiable component of the riot. But it is unlikely that many riots are motivated by simple thievery. It would be odd for a thief or other criminal to think that a profitable form of criminal activity is organizing a riot, since his share of the loot obtained by rioters would be very small yet his punishment (as ringleader) if he were caught would be great. A riot degenerates into looting even if no economic grievance sparked it because the rioters see opportunities for quick gain or because persons who have no interest in the political goals of the rioters free ride on the opportunities that a riot creates for easy thieving.
Britain and America are nowadays quite similar in culture, political institutions, economic policies, and racial problems, yet it seems unlikely that we will experience contagion from the recent English riots. We have a large young black urban population that has suffered more in the current economic depression than the rest of the population, so it might seem that conditions are ripe for urban rioting with looting—we have had many such riots in the past. Riots need a spark, but a police killing of a black is a typical spark of an urban race riot (as apparently it was in London), and such killings are not infrequent in the United States. Riots in the Middle East (riots that are depicted in the West as heroic) and in Greece and now England have been well publicized and the human animal is imitative. Social networking facilitates organizing strangers into demonstrations and other mass actions.
But our long history of race riots—there were serious such riots in northern cities during the Civil War—may have provided a measure of inoculation against them and thus made them less likely to occur nowadays than in England, which until recently had a racially and ethnically homogeneous population. We have learned the importance of such preventive measures as a well-trained, racially heterogeneous police force, and the cultivation of and communication with leaders of urban minority communities. The race riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 operated as a wake-up call and ever since our domestic security apparatus has been wide awake. It helps that the President is black (actually half black, but unlike the people of many other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, Americans don’t distinguish mixed from “pure” races).
England is not, historically at any rate, a nation of immigrants, like the United States, or a forced-assimilation society like France (although France has had difficulty assimilating Muslims and experienced Muslim riots in 2005, about which Becker and I blogged then). It clearly was not prepared for widespread race riots. The police were insufficient in number and not well deployed or commanded and seem to have lacked, or been unwilling to use, anti-riot equipment such as tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets.
The spark that caused the riot was the shooting of a black by police, but the riot that ensued appears to have been dominated by looters (many of them white) hoping to get away with their loot in the confusion of a riot. They seem not to have reckoned with England’s extraordinary network of surveillance cameras, or with the anger of the people (including the Pakistani storekeepers victimized by the looters), which has resulted in many arrests and the swift imposition of substantial prison sentences on the looters and now a movement to evict looters and their families from publicly subsidized housing. The evicted may be more prone to engage in criminal activity, but the hope is that the threat of eviction, and of collective punishment (family members along with the malefactor), will deter more riotous behavior than it encourages.