The Psychology of Riots and How it Can Be Used to Fight Racism
Fri, September 30, 2022

The Psychology of Riots and How it Can Be Used to Fight Racism



It’s been almost four years since Donald Trump was inaugurated as the President of the United States and weeks since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd told them “I can’t breathe.” Protests have led to riots, causing a division in the nation.



Riot, the language of the unheard

Joseph M. Pierre, M.D., a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, likened rioting to a symptom of a disease. To treat such symptoms, we need to treat the disease or the root cause of the systemic racism that has continued 50 years after American minister Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, which highlighted that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He questioned, “What is it that America has failed to hear?”

Pierre opined that understanding the psychology of riot or its root does not mean that the act of rioting should be condoned or justified. It shouldn’t be. However, it would be bad medicine to try to address the symptoms of the diseases without addressing the root cause. As someone who draws from the perspective of psychology, neuroscience, psychiatry, and evidence-based medicine to address timely topics related to human behavior, Pierre said that violence will continue if the underlying systemic racism, policing contaminated by implicit bias, and acts of racially motivated violence are not addressed.



The psychological roots of rioting

He reminds the public that as we comment and react on public responses to the death of Floyd, we should also avoid putting rioters and rioting and looters and looting together with protesters and protests as if they are the same people or the same thing. Looting is referred to as pillaging or taking of goods by force during a catastrophe, such as rioting. Pierre added that aimless looting and violence often represent the opportunistic exploitation of lawlessness and chaos. As the new information in the US suggests, some of the most unruly behaviors may be committed by people with their own agendas different from that of the protesters.

Yet, whoever may be the perpetrators, destruction, and violence are still ultimately counterproductive and end up harming the communities that need healing. “Denouncing riots without denouncing its root causes is just as counterproductive,” he said.

American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who gained a wide readership when he wrote about political, social, and cultural issues at The Atlantic, shared the same thought when he wrote about the riot that broke in Baltimore in 2015. The riot was sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was arrested for possession of a switchblade. Gray was put inside a police Baltimore Police Department transport van and, 45 minutes later, was found unconscious and not breathing, his spinal cord nearly severed.




When authority calls for nonviolence

Coates highlighted that “when nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself.” He mentioned that when the representatives of the state urge for nonviolence but the state itself uses violence in small proportion, it is revealing itself to be a con and none of this means that violence or rioting is wise or correct. He likened it to a disrespect for the law or order that also disrespects the community.

This is why Piere opined that, if we are to ever transform the uprising into a meaningful social change, people should do more than going to the streets with smartphones. There is a need to organize rallies and not riots. He encouraged people to use their voices and pen before the stone and sword. The community likewise needs leaders who will help navigate them toward purposeful progress in social justice and progress and away from purposeless violence.



Share of persons worried about rioting/looting due to Covid-19

From March 23 to May 31, database company Statista surveyed 20,045 respondents from Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The survey found that on May 31, some 25% in the US stated that rioting and/or looting are among their main concerns or worries about the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the 11% respondents in Germany and 8% in the UK who share the same concern.

On March 23, only 15% of the respondents in the US, 27% in Germany, and 29% in the UK were worried about rioting and/or looting because of the Covid-19 pandemic in their country.



Racism and inequality in stats

In 2018, the number of African Americans in the US prisons was at its lowest in almost 30 years but the country’s imprisonment rate of black males was 5.8 times higher than of white males. On the other hand, the imprisonment rate of black females was 1.8 times the rate of white females, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Prosecutors in the country will also often demand a harsher or longer sentence for a black defendant than for a white one despite the same rates of drug use in both communities, the report said, as cited by television network CGTN. Of the 2.3 million prison population, 39% of them are white, 40% are black or African American, 19% are Hispanic or Latino, and 1% are Native American. However, African Americans comprise only 13.4% of the US population while 60.4% are white, non-Hispanic.

In November last year, Keele University’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow Matthew Radburn and Professor of Social Psychology Clifford Stott co-authored an article in which they pointed out that there is a lack of explanatory power for the psychological reason behind a riot and this means that contemporary social psychology has rejected the classical explanations. When people riot, their collective may be considered criminal but it is never mindless, they said. The authors believe that for people to address the cause of such violence, there is a need to also understand their actions. They act in a “group mind” called a behavioral contagion.

With a clearer understanding of the reason behind riots, social psychology can help us transform from enduring crowd violence to tranquility.