July 29, 2013

Responses to George Zimmerman’s Acquittal: Crowds and Riots, Uprisings and Protests

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

There has been a lot of collective action around the country after the George Zimmerman murder trial verdict. Protests about his not being found guilty of murder or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin, protests about the legal issues in court trials, protests about the “Stand Your Ground” laws.

I am reminded of what happened after the 1992 trial verdict regarding Rodney King’s beating by police officers. The days following that verdict started similarly with public protests about how those officers were found not guilty, yet much is different.

The 1992 uprising (or riots) happened primarily in Los Angeles, where the event and trial took place but other cites across the nation also had gatherings that erupted into violence and destruction. In 2013, the event and trial were in Florida but gatherings have taken place across the country.

The cases involve different types of people and events. The King case involved police against an individual while the Zimmerman case involves two civilian individuals. The King case involved a beating captured on video while the Zimmerman case involved a killing. Both victims, Martin and King, are African American men.

The social context is also very different between these two time periods. In 1992, the U.S. President was George H.W. Bush (and he was running for re-election) while in 2013, we have an African-American president, Barack Obama. Aladdin and Wayne’s World were popular movies in 1992. In 2013, social media is a large part of our lives with mobile devices and apps such as Facebook and Twitter. Economically, both time periods have challenges and military actions in the Middle East continue.

In 1992, the Los Angeles police department was slow to respond to the gatherings. In 2013, law enforcement and other officials have been present and verbal about the situation. President Obama took his time to weigh in but eventually gave thoughtful comments intended to help people on all sides of the issue pause and think about the other perspectives and the cultural context in which this situation exists.

We’ve seen protests erupting about the country since the verdict, with many protestors wearing “I Am Trayvon” placards and other messages about justice. Most of the protests have been well organized – primarily through social media – and peaceful.

“Bash mobs” did roam through Los Angeles and possibly some other locations, and these were also organized through social media. Small groups of young people ran through some urban spaces, hitting people and taking property. These events were not as common as the larger more diverse groups protesting the verdict, the laws, and calling for changes in the legal system and in social awareness of institutional racism.

There are many theories of collective behavior that can help us explain why King and Zimmerman events have, so far, worked out so differently. Karen Sternheimer’s blog on the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 uprising discusses some of these theories.

Collective behavior can take the shape of crowds in which people are gathered temporarily in the same place. Acting crowds (as opposed to casual or expressive crowds) can become mobs or riots (or panics); mobs typically have some goal or object of focus while riots are unfocused but both are emotional and can be highly destructive and violent. Sociologists Clark McPhail and Ronald T. Wohlstein suggest that protest crowds are another type of crowd with specific political goals .

Social Movements exist when collective behavior continues over time to address specific problem(s) in society. Social movements go through three general stages: incipience or emergence in which the problem is identified, coalescence in which resources are gathered and action is taken; routinization or bureaucratization in which formal structures develop to foment structural changes in society; and decline in which such structures are no longer needed because the problem is solved or deemed unimportant or unsolvable.

How do these concepts apply to the Trayvon Martin gatherings?

Most of these gatherings can be classified as Protest Crowds since they do have an overarching political goal of equality under the law. Emergent Norm Theory can be useful here since leaders emerge (those who organize and speak at the gathering) and they provide a context in which political pressure is put on society rather than letting the emotions of the crowd be less focused on social change.

The Acting crowds that turned in to both mobs and riots in 1992 were fueled by just as much anger but by much less organization and leadership.

Even the so-called “bash” mobs are more organized and can be explained, perhaps, by Convergence Theory. This theory holds that people are drawn to such crowds to “reveal their true self” or otherwise do what they already have a disposition to do. Thus people who are perhaps less concerned with legal justice but more concerned with running through the streets taking things or being destructive wee this as an opportunity to do so.

The existence of the Occupy movement might also help explain why the protests are more focused and peaceful. Occupy Wall Street and other related groups have provided a model for peaceful discussion of social problems. Whether this can build into a social movement and move from emergence (identifying the problem) to coalescence (mobilizing resources and taking action) remains to be seen. Aligning such issues with the Civil Rights movement organizations that have long been routinized can reinvigorate both movements.

What other sociological concepts can help us understand the collective action surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting?

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