Civil Unrest, Riots, and Rebellions: What's the Difference?
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of what is commonly known as the 1992 Los Angeles riot, events triggered by the acquittal of four LAPD officers charged with beating suspected drunk driver Rodney King. Here in Los Angeles, there have been many reflections on the events that took place over a six day period, which ended with the deaths of 54 people, thousands of injuries, and estimates of $1 billion in property damage due to thousands of buildings set on fire.
Typically, the events are called riots, but some refer to what happened as a rebellion, uprising, or civil unrest. Do all of these terms apply? While it might just seem like semantics, sociologists who study collective behavior can help us understand the differences between these concepts and help us better understand what happened twenty years ago—and many other times throughout history.
According to this definition, the events of 1992 clearly fit in the category of civil unrest. People felt angry enough to disrupt the social order because many felt like the justice system had severely let them down. While many African Americans had experienced police brutality over the years, seldom was there video evidence that seemed to support their complaints.
This grainy video, taken by a bystander from his home, appeared to show that King was not resisting arrest when the beating continued. While virtually everyone has a video camera today, they were far less common in the early 1990s, and so this video was unique. That the officers were found not guilty suggested that even with video evidence, police brutality against African Americans could go unchecked. This helped fuel outrage in a community with a long history of tensions with police.
In 1992, much of this anger took the form of arson, looting, and violence. Riots are characterized by unruly mobs, often engaging in violence and mayhem. There is no doubt that a great deal of rioting took place during those days in 1992. Some people were pulled from their cars and beaten, most notably a truck driver named Reginald Denny, whose brutal beating happened on live television. This kind of senseless violence tends to drown out any legitimate grievance a group may have, and helps characterize rioters as out-of-control thugs.
Nineteenth century French sociologist Gustave Le Bon believed that people can become overtaken by a crowd mentality, and essentially can cease to behave rationally. He argued that because people feel anonymous, they commit acts of violence more freely. And yet several of the men who were found guilty of beating Denny had criminal pasts and were active gang members. One of the main assailants was later convicted of murdering a drug dealer, so rather than everyday people caught up in the moment, in this case the central attackers had violent pasts. But some of the other participants did not.
More recently, sociologists have considered crowds to be more complex than Le Bon did. Rather than a uniform contagion, people tend to be involved in episodes of civil unrest for different reasons. David Snow, Louis Zurcher, and Robert Peters noted that participants can range from people who have a significant personal stake in a cause to those who take advantage of the lawlessness of the moment.
Clearly, many people saw the unrest as an opportunity to commit crime with little consequences. I lived in Los Angeles in 1992 and remember getting on the freeway during the second day of the unrest and noticing that fewer people paid attention to speed limits than usual. It was a free for all. I thought I recognized one of the looters on the news, carrying a television set from an electronics store, as someone who worked in a store I had frequented too.
These are the kinds of images that get the most media attention—they are frightening and dramatic. Images of people burning cars and buildings, beating passers-by, and stealing from stores does not create a lot of public sympathy and tends to dominate the way we view events. That’s why we tend to view the incident as a riot.
For some people—those involved in public protests, whose intentions were to challenge the injustice they saw in the verdict—their purpose was rebellion. Unlike a riot, a rebellion tends to be more organized and has clearer goals for change. Rebellions can be violent or non-violent, and they are often characterized by attempts to change the social order in some way. Rather than merely blowing off steam fueled by anger, participants see their actions as part of a larger rebellion that aims to create policy changes.
After the dust settled and the fires were put out, some gang leaders brokered a gang truce, trying to reduce the amount of violence in their neighborhoods. A nonprofit organization, Homeboy Industries, began a jobs training program for former gang members looking to get away from gang life. City business leaders formed a group called Rebuild LA, which promised to bring businesses to the areas hardest hit by riots, areas with high unemployment rates and few basic amenities like major grocery chains. Although it had some success, many of its promises went undelivered.
So were the events of 1992 an example of civil unrest, a riot, or a rebellion? From a sociological perspective, all of the above.