Ferguson, Missouri Riots and Social Science


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Emotional responses to current events are the driving force behind riots. Image by taliesin.

In August 2014, riots and looting began after a police officer shot Michael Brown, an unarmed eighteen year old African American.

Different versions of the events that led to the shooting have emerged. One version states that the unnamed officer grabbed the young man, and shot him while he was running away. Another account states that Brown pushed and attacked the officer.

Whether one or the other is correct – or it’s a mix of the two stories – the people of Ferguson, Missouri, are caught in the middle of the conflict between rioters and police.

What causes riots to occur? Do the Michael Brown shooting and the resulting Ferguson, Missouri riots, resemble other incidents involving social unrest?

Instrumental or Emotional Violence

In the United States, the 1960s included both the Summer of Love and race-riots from Los Angeles to Newark.  In 1972, Psychologist Dr. Leonard Berkowitz, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, examined these events and uncovered some commonalities.

Berkowitz wrote that violent acts can be classified as either instrumental or emotional.  Instrumental violence benefits the actor in some way, while emotional aggression is more impulsive – using violence to express a response to negative events.

In other words, instrumental violence would relate to the looting incidents associated with the Ferguson riots, while emotional violence would relate to groups of people simply rioting and destroying things in response to the death of young Michael Brown.

Berkowitz wrote that in the initial stages of riots, emotional aggression is dominant. This matches the report on MSN that the fourth day of rioting in Missouri was “… a world apart from the earlier demonstrations, with a light, festive atmosphere and no hint of violence.”

Ethnic Diversity, Poverty, and Social Unrest

In the case of the Missouri riots, a police shooting of an African American teenager was the catalyst – the spark that touched off a bonfire of rioting. Researchers published The L.A. Riot and the Economics of Urban Unrest in the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1998. The Los Angeles riot of 1992 was the riot that took place after news of the Rodney King beating came out; researchers found that the LA riots “resulted in 52 deaths, 2500 injuries, and at least $446 million in property damage.” 

The authors studied multiple riots, and concluded that although poverty wasn’t a determining factor, high non-white unemployment and a lack of ethnic diversity among the community rioting were contributors to more intense and widespread rioting.

Riots After Racially-Charged Deaths

The United States has a history of rioting following allegations of racial profiling in cases such as the Rodney King beating and the death of Trayvon Martin.  When emotional violence explodes, it is hard for rational voices to be heard.

President Barack Obama has issued a call for calm, “let’s remember that we’re all part of one American family. We are united in common values, and that includes the belief in equality under the law, respect for public order and the right to peaceful public protests”

Diffusing the Violence and Waiting it Out

Actions to diffuse the situation are also underway. Missouri governor Jay Dixon has put the Missouri State Highway Patrol in charge of Ferguson, and the Department of Justice is investigating the incident to determine whether to pursue federal prosecution for the police officer involved. In the meantime, non-rioting residents are waiting out the storm.

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