Friday, July 9, 2010
Why Riots? Ingredients for Moral Panic
Many of our readers are probably already abreast of the events in Oakland last night. The Oakland Tribune live blog offered full coverage. The bottom line is that what was a peaceful demonstration in the evening (when I was there, at around 7:30-8:00pm) turned, after sundown, into a looting scene that led to 83 arrests. This, of course, is saddening. Protest over the outcome of Mehserle's trial should never have turned into an ugly display of property crime. It is important to mention that, in the earlier hours, I heard multiple calls from speakers and community organizers to maintain the peace; that the many hundreds of people who gathered at 14th and Broadway were engaged in a peaceful protest; that displays of verbal violence and incitement were often, according to reports, countered by people from the community discouraging them; and that we have no information on whether the looters arrested were locals or out-of-towners that took advantage of the events to commit ugly and serious property crime. In any case, stealing sneakers from an athletic store is hardly a useful way to make a political statement.
What we can, however, examine, is why riots happen in the first place. While older literature from the 1960s analyzed riots and community action in itself, newer studies of riots by criminologists and sociologists portray a very complex picture of how such events develop. It is important to see, as Michael Keith argues, race riots within the larger context of race relations, and to acknowledge the fact that a great part of the problem is not the riot itself but the moral panic generated by the riots. I would not go as far as to say that the riots would not happen if not for the projected police response. But seeing thousands of officers, helicopters, and various devices in Oakland yesterday did seem to communicate an expectation that something very foul was about to occur. This sort of overpreparedness communicates to citizens the expectation of violence and crime. In this interesting paper by Clifford Stott and Stephen Reicher, they interview police officers, showing how tense situations can escalate through the communication between police and protesters at the event.
And then, of course, there's this. The irony, I believe, would be lost on the ABC7 anchorperson.
Another related issue pertains to the safety of Mehserle himself, should he be sentenced to prison time (which he very well might, unless the judge stays the gun enhancement). Regardless of geographical location, I can't imagine this will be an easy stint in prison. Does any of our readers know how CDCR guarantees the safety of unpopular inmates?