Recent looting in Bloomington-Normal and in many states since the death of George Floyd may have something in common with race riots of the 1960s.
Illinois Wesleyan University sociologist Todd Fuist said a classic finding is that riots have a precipitating event, such as Floyd's killing or the street brawl that became the 1770 Boston Massacre, and an underlying social problem such as race discrimination or British exploitation of colonists.
"There is typically a store of emotional energy around a particular issue. There is already a contingent of people who feel there is an inequity or a problem that is not being addressed. There is an inciting incident and because of the stored-up emotions around an issue, it ignites into something that from the outside might look spontaneous, but to people within often feels like it has been building for a while," said Fuist.
And once the fuse is lit, Fuist said events can cluster together in time.
"It was often an act of solidarity almost. Something might happen in a city not your own, but when you would see there was this kind of extreme protest going on, people feel licensed to enact those kinds of protests in other places," said Fuist.
Most of the protests and demonstrations across America and Bloomington-Normal have been peaceful exercises in freedom of assembly and speech. Some have not. The peaceful protesters have sought to distinguish their actions from groups or crowds that have broken laws and damaged property. Those who minimize the national focus on police killings have sometimes tried to link peaceful and violent protesters.
Historically, Fuist said, the reality can be somewhat muddy.
Peaceful protests can become violent and still be protests. The participants in riots might be somewhat different than in the peaceful events, said Fuist.
"It's largely populations who feel marginalized. Younger people often lack the institutional channels that older people have. People who are from marginalized groups, people who are poor often lack the institutional channels that people who are richer or socially dominant have," said Fuist.
There is even a distinction between violent protesting and looting. Bloomington and Normal police have arrested more than 30 people for burglary and other looting allegations. But Fuist said that does not mean there is no connection with peaceful protests.
"Things like this happen when there is some kind of breakdown of the social script or social control. One of the things we tend to find in criminology, for example, is people will do what they feel they can do with regard to illegal behavior. This is why lots of people will pirate a record online, but most of them wouldn't walk into a store and swipe a CD. You feel like you can get away with pirating online because you can, effectively. At times when there is an opportunity, when there is a dissolution of the social script governing a situation, you are more likely to see a riot or other kind of extreme protest," said Fuist.
Riots, looting, and other breakdowns also tend to happen with what Fuist called non-hierarchical organizations.
"If your social movement has a president or CEO and they can say stop doing this, that is a situation you are less likely to see something like a riot erupt. You can think of something like the Arab Spring. Lots of movements do not have a specific leader or have clusters of groups and you are more likely to see outbursts," said Fuist.
That also makes it more difficult to see who is doing the rioting and why.
In the present movement around the nation, much of the violence has happened among younger protestors. Fuist said there are generational divides among activists.
He also says other societal stresses can bear on such flareups.
"It would not surprise me if some of what we are seeing here has something to do with even something like COVID. People are currently on edge about a number of socio-political issues. So I can imagine that given the larger frustrations going on in society around a number of things, that this was a particularly potent kind of cocktail for when we had an inciting incident," said Fuist.
Job losses and shortages and other disruptions of everyday life also can trigger movement activity.
Liberals and some members of the military have pointed to President Trump's statements on race and demonstrations as another inciting factor. Fuist said it is hard to say how much the way leadership responds to a historical moment can exacerbate or minimize violence.
"It's real hard to connect what a president said to what happens on the ground in ways that don't get methodological slippery. There is definitely some evidence that leaders are part of promoting what is considered an acceptable response, modeling behavior for citizens, providing either that sense of social control or the breakdown of the social script," said Fuist.
Fuist said a larger finding is that perceptions of weak leadership or divisions among leadership tend to cause more aggressive social movement activity. In the case of weak leadership, the perception is that activists think they will not have effective opposition. In the case of divided leadership, the perception is that allies might be available.
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