“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”—The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Recently, I heard an activist predict America was about to have “a summer of rage” if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Rioting seems to have become a common national pastime for hot summer months in our nation. Not that a riot or two hasn’t happened in the cold of winter; the aggravating elements that lead to real destruction and looting may be absent due to adverse conditions, but Summer provides both the weather, the heat, and the young out of school to really get things going. For the command staff and officers preparing to encounter such events here are a few things to think about.
The great sociologist Edward Banfield gave us four categories of riots.
“The Rampage” is a riot of anger and is marked by the involvement of primarily the young, especially young men. It may be triggered by an incident or event, but the truth is the young are already frustrated and the incident is merely an excuse to vent violently. As far back as 1809 rampages in the urban centers by youth was a problem and for all of you preparing for an event like this, their target is property and the police.
“Foray for Pillage” is traditionally a riot of young adults looting and destroying. This is a common problem associated with other disruptive events, from power outages to earthquakes to other riots. As far back as 1711, Boston had an ordinance severely punishing those who used “calamities or disturbances” to steal.
“Outburst of Righteous Indignation” is a spontaneous event based on some rightly or wrongly perceived injustice, one the crowd believes will go unpunished. The Boston riots of 1837 involved a sixth of the city rioting against Irish immigrants after a brawl ensued between 20 drunk firefighters and around a hundred Irish immigrants. Miraculously no one was killed, but the militia had to be brought in to quell the rioting. The target of this kind of riot is the offending party in the eyes of the rioters: police, banks, stores, anything that was the provocation will be the target of their actions and their ire.
“Demonstration” is a political or ideological event that is never spontaneous and involves a plan and a structure as to what will happen. These events are marked initially by public disobedience often leading to defacing or destroy property. It must be understood that this is exactly the disruptive event that our “pillagers” are waiting for, and once they arrive the fun really begins. For example, it wasn’t hard to notice the carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the “mostly peaceful” riots of 2020 and 2021. For law enforcement a key factor is arrival of the looting group of primarily young adults, mostly male, introduces a completely different attitude than that of the demonstrators.
Banfield also warns of “Accelerating Causes” that take a protest to the riot level, most notably sensational television coverage. Today’s modern social media escalates a simple protest to a brutal riot very quickly and it constantly gives moral validity to rioters, adding fuel to the fire. Speaking of fire, Elias Canetti in his excellent book “Crowds and Power” describes how fire is the natural tool of rioting. So, always have firefighters ready to roll.
Another issue surrounding media coverage is the way it inspires and trains others in the techniques of the riot, instructing rioters how to deal with the police, to overcome tear gas, to counter crowd control methods, and how to plan more effectively. Pillagers have been known to drive for hours inspired by the coverage of admiring media and social influencers.
Finally, Banfield addresses the issue of punishment. Rioters who know they can expect no legal ramifications are all the more inspired to do their worst. The rioters’ knowledge that the police have limited options and that prosecutors will not send them to jail, means real trouble. Riots have always flourished in urban centers partly due to the ready supply of young males and the anonymity of a large population. Of course, Kenosha, WI, officers can probably tell you how a midsize city needs to be ready as well.
Training, equipment, communications, and decisive leadership are essential to protect property and lives and the safety of our own personnel. The right to protest is sacred but everyone needs to read that first paragraph in this column again … ”the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Rights are restricted if you break the law. I hope the courts remember that soon.
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of “JD Buck Savage.” You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.