What is a Riot?
We think we know what causes mob violence. We're probably wrong.
As I read your comments on the first part of this essay, I realized it might be interesting to you if I explored the literature on rioting in a bit more depth. It seems many of you have a keen interest in the subject of riots, and as some of you pointed out, they’re not a phenomenon unique to France, even if they’re more common here. They seem to be rising in frequency around the world. It might be useful to ask why.
So I thought I’d take a few more days with this topic so best to think the problem through carefully. In that spirit, today’s newsletter asks: What exactly is a riot? How does it differ from other crimes or acts of violence? What, if anything, causes a riot?
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the literature on the prevention of riots and ask how to stop them when they happen despite your best efforts to prevent them. Is there a way for the police and government to respond that minimizes damage and loss of life? Does responding in an effective way reduce the odds that your non-rioting citizens will usher fascists to power at their earliest opportunity because they’re sick of the rioters and want them all shot? (Turns out the answers are “yes” and “yes.”)
Finally, I’ll ask how all of this applies to France. Although France didn’t ask me, I’ll conclude with a ten-point strategy for the French should they ever wish to have fewer and less violent riots. I doubt they will take this advice, but I’m pretty sure it’s correct nonetheless.1
Do riots have a cause?
When riots break out, we generally say they were caused—usually by a proximate event. So it was widely reported that riots erupted in France in 2018 because the government planned to raise fuel taxes. When last March they broke out again, it was because the government proposed to raise the retirement age. Riots occurred last week because the police fatally shot a teenager of north African descent.
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