The Economist: Holding my breath through protests, riots and looting

Protests and the subsequent risk of violence are embedded in our democracy
The Economist
Image courtesy of: JosephRouse /

My childhood was marked by the protests, riots and assassinations of the 1960s. While growing up white in the south provided me with a somewhat stinging collective memory of losing the Civil War 100 years before, I knew what was right. Civil rights and racial equality obviously represented justice. Today I hold my breath as I watch the rerun of 50 years ago.

Protests, riots and looting are different things. Riots sometimes emerge from protests and looting sometimes emerges from riots. In all three cases emotions run high. Historically, looting is most associated with the victors of war or panic in the aftermath of disasters. Looting is sometimes the opportunistic extension of rioting. Riots frequently start without protests such as in extreme celebration following sporting events. Economist Thomas Schelling’s treatise from the 1960s noted there is seldom overt leadership or communication associated with rioting. Instead, the “incident” serves as the coordinating role as a critical mass of people respond to common intuition and subtle crowd signals. The critical mass creates what sociologist Mark Granovetter (1978) referred to as thresholds where individuals sense immunity of riotous behavior as crowd size increases. “Radicals” by definition, have an exceptionally low threshold. As riots unfold, the momentum overwhelms the authorities’ ability to respond.

In contrast to looting and riots, protests always start with grievances. The manner of protesting is generally determined by the groups or institutions who the grievances are directed toward. Protests can be overt or covert and small or large. Looking at protests around the world, it is clear that acceptance of dissent by the authorities and the leadership of the protests, if any, set the tone. To gain public and political support, some sort of media broadcasting is required.

Sometimes protests, riots and looting erupt into mini-civil wars and revolutions. Remember the Boston Tea Party?  Colorado is infamous in this regard with some of the most violent strikes in American history. The 1903-04 “labor wars” in Idaho Springs, Cripple Creek, Victor, Telluride and Durango were followed a decade later by the Ludlow Massacre in the coal fields northwest of Trinidad. Both started as workers sought to express grievances against the “capitalists” of the day. The striking workers were met with violence initiated by many politicians and mine owners as they labeled unions as socialists. The media exposure of Colorado’s brutality led to public rebuke nationally, and some change resulted.

A lesser known riot occurred in Denver in 1880. This time the perpetrators of violence came from groups like the Workingman’s Party and Democrats who sought to ban Chinese immigration. The Rocky Mountain News incited white workers who marched in protest of the Chinese immigrants. The police could not control the mob, and the use of firehoses to disperse the crowd only spurred greater anger. By the end, much of Denver’s Chinatown was burned, and Sing Lee was brutally murdered. Denver’s Chinese residents were protected by the police in the city’s jail and residents of ill repute, including prostitutes (Ellis, 2011).

Young males are more prone to escalated anger or extreme celebratory behavior, and the biggest economic losers in riots and looting are usually the same communities expressing grievances in the first place. Strategies to end riots are either to remove the object of anger or through overwhelming counter force. Preventing riots is challenging. A far larger mass of people who are intolerant of violent behavior compared to the radical faction, often with leaders like King, Mandela or Ghandi, make the difference.  Widespread awareness of a higher likelihood of getting caught along with severe penalties when caught help, but risks escalating the grievance that started the protest in the first place.

Protests and the subsequent risk of violence are embedded in our democracy. A Washington Post poll found that one in five Americans attended a political protest or rally since 2016. Dramatically increasing surveillance prior to outbreaks, doling out excruciating penalties, or banning protests run counter to our core values. Furthermore, the drama unfolding from protests gets the attention of previously unresponsive institutions and authorities who have been dogmatic in resisting change.

Until we develop better institutional mechanisms for community engagement, the only alternatives to violence are peaceful protests and political action with broader participation.  We need to respectfully listen and understand the grievances of all Americans, including the radicals, recognizing grievances are often the expression of fears and frustration over perceived unfair treatment. Many of us need to find strength in humility as we endorse more diverse leadership in all organizations and exercise our national privilege to protest peacefully. This is far better than holding our collective breath until we explode with anger.

Categories: Economy/Politics, Industry Trends, Magazine Articles