May 03, 2012

Civil Unrest, Riots, and Rebellions: What's the Difference?

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

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 imagebillion 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.

The term civil unrest is the broadest term of the three. Simply put, civil unrest involves a disruption of the typical social order; it can involve a strike or protest, and it can be peaceful or involve violence. Both riots and rebellions are forms of civil unrest. Civil unrest often occurs when a group strives to gain attention for something they feel is unjust.

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.


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Its obvious that the LA rights were a case of Civil unrest, a riot, and a rebellion. The event rebellion in response to the Victim Discounting, that was taking place with the police, and their victims. It also is a example of a Riot due to the mobs, violence and mayhem. The LA riots are perhaps the biggest example of Civil Unrest in modern american history.

I agree with Karen's assessment of the situation. There was indeed aspects of all three of those classifications. But I think overall we ought to classify the event by the majority opinion of the participants. That would make this almost assuredly a riot and not a rebellion or other. Although, my views may be biased, as I have only the information presented by the media, and as you say, the media only gives the most sensational news.

The civil unrest in the society has proven just to be a scapegoat for people to loot, riot, commit arson, etc. and blame it all on the "excitement" caused by the original problem. The public protests have now resorted to being able to do something to being able to nothing and the attempts to make a difference have become futile. Because of the corruption in the world there is now no "proper blaming" on anyone, and there's only the fact that everyone got riled up to hide behind in fear of being punished.

The civil unrest has proven to be a scapegoat for people to loot, riot, and commence arson and blame it all on the excitement caused by the original problems. It gave the people a reason to commit crimes with little consequences.

I have to agree with you Karen this event was definitely a case when all terms can justly be used. Though the main classification has been a riot due to the destructive nature of it, but it is a matter of perception.

As everyone else has agreed to, I also agree that all three of these terms could be used to describe this event. I think however, that these terms are used interchangeably depending on what sounds the best in the news. If it grasps the watchers attention more, than that is probably what the event will be called.

I love how this article clearly defines the differences between civil unrest, riots and rebellions which are commenly used in place of one another. I also admire the analysis of how crowds function and how they work.

It is interesting that so many different groups in so many different places all have cival unrest. It isnt just one specific population that is showing signs of being disgruntled. But what seems fascinating to me is that there are specific groups in each population. And they all seem remotley the same. I mean, yes the frech, germans, americans and chinese are different and are protesting for different reasons, and are all of different populations, however if you look closely they are grouped. And they are grouped in ways that are discriminatory like how others look at their little "sort of minnie population" and they are grouped due to their behaviors and similarities amongst the groups. If it werent for the geographic portion of the definition of population, you could categorize all the people in all the different areas, who are acting in similar ways a population, because they are all groups of people with a cause.

Blog writes very fascinating, expect more good article.

I think this is a very interesting article on the Los Angeles riot. Its well written and you did a really good job analyzing it from these sociological perspectives. It really got me thinking about all the other events in history that we could analyze sociologically that I never would have thought about before. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for your insight on collective behaviors and their differences! I can see how the 1992 Los Angeles "Riot" could be considered a riot, civil unrest, and a rebellion. Great post!

I believe that some of the people in the riots or civil unrest where there more for the "free will" then more then the act of showing their feeling and how they have been oppressed. Does a civil unrest go unpunished? To what point does society need to say no more?

This was an incredibly informative and interesting article about a moment in recent history in which it can be seen that the status an individual has in society, whether based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, faith, or other factors, can garner varying types of treatment from members of other statuses. It is also a case in point in which the role of a status can sometimes be vastly different from how individuals of that status actually play out their role: the status of police officer accompanies a role that is supposed to promote civil order and also stand for justice, equality, and liberty. However, clearly these four police officers did not carry out this role well at all, and in fact ignited civil unrest and rebellion.

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