After the Los Angeles riot in spring of 1992, almost every pundit in the country took a turn at explaining why riots occur. The conventional wisdom on the subject went something like this: certain dramatic events such as political assassinations or unpopular jury verdicts crystallize riots from social rage. So to understand riots, one must understand the causes of social rage, usually said to be racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and why people who experience this rage manage it in such a destructive manner. The usual suspects include breakdown of the family, television, and a generalized cultural disorientation.
All of these explanations have some truth in them, but are evidently incomplete. First, they explain too much. The predisposing social conditions are with us all the time, yet riots are episodic. Second, they explain too little. Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie.
Indeed, during the Los Angeles riots, anyone with a TV set could see that jubilation rather than fury best characterized the mood of the people in the streets. It is hard to credit that these exhilarated looters with their new VCR’s and cameras were protesting the jury system, the state of race relations in Southern California, or anything else. They were, in fact, having a party. Moreover, many of those who risked life and limb opposing the more outrageous excesses of the rioters were themselves poor, unemployed, and victims of racism.
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