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Seven Notes on the Anti-Police-Violence Riots


1. The anti-police-violence riots were long overdue.

Given the extraordinary provocations that have been suffered by both African-American and immigrant communities in the last few years, what has been striking has been the passive acquiescence of both groups to steadily increasing assaults and worsening of their conditions. The perception was undoubtedly correct that something had to be done. 

Furthermore, just electing liberal democrats was not likely to be a far-reaching solution to the problem, note that the George Floyd killing occurred in Minnesota – one of the most consistently democratic and progressive states in the U.S.

2. The mass media coverage of the Anti-Police Riots is likely to be wrong.

Riots are among the most difficult of events to cover. The people most involved in starting and supporting riots are difficult for reporters to identify. The primary participants are too busy running around rioting to spend a long time giving contemplative interviews to reporters. Because active rioters are in immediate danger of being beaten, arrested, gassed or shot, no one wants to give any information that would help the police. You get lots of statements about what everyone is angry about – but nothing giving you a story of how these events came to unfold.

There is a comparable lack of frankness about the results. If the authorities are going to cave and bow to the rioter’s demands, they have no intention of letting anyone know they are doing this. They cover their concessions with smokescreens. Likewise, riot participants vastly exaggerate the importance of the riot itself. This is true even if it produced nothing of substantive value.

Figuring out if the riot “worked” or not requires lots of digging around and investigation long after the events of the riot have passed.  Many of the basic facts concerning the wave of race riots that accompanied the Detroit Riot of 1967 were not made available until the Kerner Report of 1968. The full assessment of the dynamics of that wave of riots was not really complete until the appearance of several studies that came out after 2000.

3. Outrageous police violence is not enough to cause anti-police-violence riots.

If the appalling and undeserved killing of black people by police was enough to cause anti-police-violence riots, then most American cities would have been in ashes long ago.

Outrageous killings of black people are the fuel that causes anti-police riots.

Fuel does not catch on fire without a match.

4. Riots are organized albeit in a loose improvisational way.

Rioters communicate with each other. They use phones and social media. As such, there is “planning” of what will happen – although this changes quickly with changing circumstances. Rioters adapt rapidly in the face of obstacles and opportunities. If there are police over here but not over there, phones and social media get the word out to leave here and go there.

In this system of loose on-the-fly decision-making, social networks and organizations play a big role. People do not get phone calls or media blasts from random people. They get their media from trusted associates and trusted organizations.

In the Rodney King riot in Los Angeles of 1992, the critical organizing force were the Crips and the Bloods.  Both gangs were appalled by Rodney King incident and were anticipating an acquittal of the police officers involved (which is exactly what did occur.) The two gangs made a formal truce and united in anticipation of having to come out in their “Robin Hood” capacity, fighting not each other but police brutality. After the acquittal, gang members started to make trouble at prominent intersections. Once it was clear that police would not interfere. the rioting escalated. The communication about where to go and where to strike next came through the Crips and the Bloods social networks. The most prominent method was gang cars driving around East L.A. with public address systems, stereos blasting instructions about where to be and when for the next attack. Targeting was very precise. Looting and burning was confined to established unpopular figures in the Los Angeles black community. Racist shopkeepers and banks known for redlining were trashed. Nearby establishments not on the “grudge list” were left untouched.

5. Riots are stopped by the early use of force. If police hold back in the early stages of rioting, activity widely escalates.

In both Detroit in 1967 and Los Angeles, police pulled out of the black neighborhoods at the first sign of trouble. This gave the rioters free rein to do whatever they liked. Later on, the police tried to re-establish control with the help of the National Guard. But the rioters had already accomplished much of what they had originally intended to accomplish. A year later in 1968, there were attempts to start another national wave of riots in Florida. The police and National Guard were called in massive numbers at the beginning of the agitation. Repression was conspicuous and large-scale. The 1968 almost-wave was quickly controlled.

6. Riots have one great strength and one great weakness as a strategy for producing social change.

The strength is that they draw dramatic attention to the issue under discussion. Nothing draws the attention of rich, white people more than a riot. Anyone who says that a more moderate protest would have been a better strategy needs to consider the utter ineffectiveness of “Black Lives Matter.”

The downside of riots is that they do not allow a vehicle for the effective negotiation and granting of demands. Strikes have the advantage of presenting management with a set of demands. They can be reasonable, unreasonable or a mix of the two. They also provide a set of representatives that management can bargain with. During the strike, negotiations are ongoing. At the end, workers may not get all of their demands. But they will often come away with something concrete and useful.

To see ineffectiveness in action, consider Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street somewhat fatuously decided to not make any concrete demands and to not do any negotiating. They created a media splash and had a set of big demonstrations.

What did they get for all of their efforts?

Zero. Nada. Squat.

Wall Street is just as powerful and pathological as it ever was. There was no decrease in social inequality and no curbing of the power of banks.

One needs to have some vehicle for saying “We intend to keep rioting until we receive A, B, C and D.” The movement may decide to compromise and just take “A and C” or even just “C”. But at least the protest has produced something concrete in return for the effort. There is a real danger the anti-police-violence rioters will go home with nothing in hand.

7. For riots to be effective, rioters have to be willing to repeat-riot.

The primary reason to grant rioter’s demands is that the authorities do not want to see another riot. This motivation disappears if the authorities feel confident that they have defeated the rioters and no further troubles are coming.

This approach is even more effective if the government used force against you. By coming back a second and a third time, even if the rioters were beaten, gassed and arrested, they have told the governor and the National Guard that force is not going to get rid of them. Crushing the movement is not an option. The authorities are going to have to make real concessions.

Riots have generally been ineffective in producing positive changes in American history, because they are too likely to be one-offs. If the authorities beat the rioters once, they get a permanent win and they don’t have to worry about making further concessions.

American rioters can learn from French Communist agitators in the 1920’s and 30’s. In this period, Communists were able to get dramatic and substantial gains for the workers they represented. They did this by being willing to strike again and again and again and again. They did so even if they had lost all of their previous strikes. They did so even if workers were fired. Their willingness to come back over and over no matter how many times they lost convinced authorities that force could not be used to defeat the Communists. The only option open to the authorities was giving the workers what they wanted. Most companies did just that.

The American Civil Rights movement was equally persistent. There was not just one March on Selma. There were multiple, multiple demonstrations. These demonstrations continued over time – regardless of whether the previous protest had been a win or a loss.

Perseverance wins concessions. One-time dramatic gestures do not.

*  *  *

The true story of the causes and effects of the anti-police-riots will only become known over time. I hope the rioters make their point, and police violence declines. In fact, never mind, decline. My own personal vote is for police violence disappearing.

That said, the past record of American riots in producing positive social change has been weak. Conservatives, whites and authorities turn against the protesters, increase the use of force against them and create elaborate legitimating arguments about why egalitarian social movements have gone too far. This combination of coercion and disavowal tends to work because the protests movements tend to become crushed and dissipated.

If the anti-police-violence rioters want to avoid this extremely discouraging precedent, they are going to have to build stamina and be willing to protest, protest and protest over the long haul.

Defeating police violence is going to be a marathon. The protesters can not afford to burn out after the first quarter-mile.

For More Information

For a general discussion of conflict strategy, see my When Mad-Dog Radicalism Wins big.

For a general discussion of protest and social movements in general, see Paul Almeida’s excellent Social Movements: Structure of Collective Mobilization.

On the Detroit riots, see the original Kerner Report: National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Kerner Report. (1968 with later editions with commentary available.)

See also Locke, Hubert. 2017. Detroit Riot of 1967 (Detroit, Wayne State),  Fine, Sidney. 2007 Violence in the Model City: Cavanaugh Administration, Race Relations and the Detroit Riot of 1967, (East Lansing, Michigan State.) and Levy, Peter. 2018. Great Uprising: Race Riots in Urban America During the 1960’s. (New York, Cambridge.)

The scholarship on the 1992 Rodney King riot is woefully incomplete, with academics showing far more interest in media portrayals of the incident than of the riot itself. Much of my information on gang participation comes from oral informants. However, useful material can be found in Gerdes, Louise. 2014. 1992 Los Angeles Riots. New York, Greenhaven, and Smith, Anna Devere. 1994. Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. New York, Anchor. On gang relations in Los Angeles, see Umemoto, Karen. 2006. Truce: Lessons from the L.A. Gang War. (Ithaca, Cornell.)

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