Whither the Riot?

I have been struck by the absence of collective protest over the actions of those in the financial industry. Free market advocates have been rendered impotent; why aren’t they up in arms that their belief system has been forever invalidated? Leftists watch as our elected leaders hand over the oversight function to the very companies that caused this mess; why aren’t they taking to the streets?

Talk shows and blog postings reveal plenty of individual anger, but there hasn’t been much collective expression. Why is this? And what forms of protest and outcry would be legitimate?

At the risk of being accused of inciting mass violence, I’d like to know whether people would be justified in using the riot at this particular moment in history. More broadly, under what conditions is the riot a rational (and/or justifiable) response to injustice?

Sociologists love the riot, of course, because it offers an opportunity to test theories regarding mass behavior and individual tolerance for oppressive conditions.

Having observed a few riots, I know that they can also be caused by trivial factors: For example, I watched looters take over streets on the South Side of Chicago after the Bulls won their second consecutive basketball championship — hardly an “oppressive” situation.

But in general, riots are responses to fairly serious issues, like the rising price of commodities, police brutality, assassination of political leaders.

So the federal government is now sending $700 billion of taxpayer money to free market scions who, I remind you, spend millions on collective protest (“lobbying”) against any form of government aid — especially to the middle class, to the poor, and to foreigners.

Scandalous! Taxpayers of the world unite, I say!

Here is my theory as to why the riot has gone the way of the Sony Walkman — an appendage of an earlier era:

1) The iPod:

In public spaces, serendipitous interaction is needed to create the “mob mentality,” which by its nature is not rational or formed through petitions. Most iPod-like devices separate citizens from one another; you can’t join someone in a movement if you can’t hear the voices of its participants. Congrats Mr. Jobs for impeding social change.

2) Prescription drugs:

What is the social function of anxiety reduction if not to increase the capacity of individuals to tolerate their social predicaments? Q.E.D.

3) Debt:

This is a tricky one. In the short term, debt straps individuals into society and makes them fearful of acting out: failing to pay could land them in jail, in bankruptcy, etc. But in the long term, they may feel life has become intolerable and there is little to lose — so, why not tear down the walls? (This kind of thinking, by the way, is partly at the root of our current mess. Those who bought second homes walked away from their investments, accepting bankruptcy, when they realized they were never going to make payments in the long term.)

4) “Hey, things could be worse.”:

Riots require collective recognition that a threshold (of oppressive rule, inequity, etc.) has been surpassed and there’s little hope for improvement. In matters of social oppression, apart from a political assassination, it is rare that mass audiences will agree that such conditions hold. Things have to be downright awful, and we haven’t reached that stage yet. Yet.

5) No enemy in sight:

Rioters usually attack symbols of oppression. For example, in a riot in Chicago in 1992, protesters tore down streetlights, broke lamps, burned school buildings, and otherwise attacked government property. In Los Angeles, in the aftermath of the so-called “Rodney King affair,” non-black stores were attacked.

What might be the target of mobs violently responding to the financial mess? Maybe Midtown Manhattan? How about the Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago?

A general rule is that contemporary rioters do not travel, so they would need to find symbols within their own communities: currency exchanges, banks, the offices of Congressional officials who voted “yes” on the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.

It goes without saying that I miss a good old-fashioned riot. But my malaise hardly compares to others who are suffering in these times.

For example, I often pity the poor souls who took out property insurance with A.I.G. and other insurers. In the event of a riot, they might be next in line for a government bailout. Will there be anything left in the $700 billion for them?

Jagdish Collins

You're ahead of the curve, Sudhir. Riot chic won't be the new black for at least another six months.


I think Venkatesh's somewhat lighthearted nostalgia for "a good old-fashioned riot" is a great reflection of his immersion in the culture of the impoverished inner cities. In larger metropolitan areas marked by racialization and some degree of poverty -- think cities that burned during the '60s: Watts, Detroit, Newark, St. Louis -- the riot or urban rebellion still stands as a mark of defiance against the forces of law and order.

And a disproportionate number of riots or rebellions are in direct relationship to the actions, failures and perceived slights of cops (police brutality or busting blind pigs in Detroit) or courts (Rodney King and LA were both cops and courts). Even riots that begin as a response to vigilantes or small-mob violence (the "race riots" of the 40's) are, in the last analysis, riots against the *failure* of the law.

But the current financial crisis isn't about the cops, and that's where I think Venkatesh's query falls a little short. Or maybe he's asking us, as readers, to consider why it might be okay for him to ask "why not riot?"

After all, I think if Venkatesh saw the possibility of a riot as immediate, he would have the prudence to not ask the question in a cheeky way, but to pose a diagnosis of why the problems of the cities are leading towards a scenario of traumatic lawlessness -- rebellion.

Don't get me wrong. I think there are a large number of pawnshops and check cashing outfits in the inner cities that could become legitimate targets. But it seems unlikely until the police get involved.

That's why I think the Chicago / Cook Co. sheriff's decision to suspend foreclosure evictions was smart, from a riot-prevention standpoint. It forestalled the cops from intervening in a palpable, immediate way.

In the 30's, according to Howard Zinn's _A People's History of the United States_, foreclosures were regularly met with communities putting people right back into their houses. But today, that nonconfrontational approach might not hold in the inner cities.

Can any Freakonomics readers cite a US riot that wasn't based around abuse or failure (itself perceived as an abuse) of the cops and the courts?


Susan Eberhardt

In the 60's, most people worked eight hours a day. Most college students did not have to work. Today, people work longer hours, sometimes at two jobs; students have to work; many people have long commutes. Who has the time or energy to organize/attend protests? Perhaps, with rising unemployment, we will see more protests, which could explode into riots.


Rich are too comfortable, poor cannot afford to lose breadwinner/or homemaker to jail time, and dessent has all but been crimilized...people decide it's not worth it...we're becoming used to
corruption, eh?


An interesting example of protest in the cellphone-internet age is the lawyers' movement against the dictator Pervez Musharraf. At the height of the movement "flash" protests, in which protesters would assemble at busy intersections, protest and then disperse before police showed up were organized by text and twitter.


Why, I'd be happy to riot if you'd just tell me where one is taking place. Short of that, I expressed my displeasure at the voting booth by voting Obama/Biden. That's the least I can do. There are many millions poor devils out there, including Joe the Plumber, who still think McCain's plan will help them. Woe is me! What can one do?

jb in hollywood, fl

I just can't do riots. I'm exhausted trying to survive these last eight years and treading endless psychological water trying to get to the next eight.


The thing that gets me...Americans have this unconditional love for the free market? I would venture to say that most Americans could not tell you sensibly why free market is good and socialism is bad. The answer would most likely be free market is American, and socialism is evil--like the Soviet Union.

We are not educated on the issues. Free market may have the word freedom in it (and that is enough for some folks), but in the end it gives the power to multinational corporations, which are larger and more powerful than some countries. That is oppressive power, not freedom. Walmart determines the price of many of our day to day commodities. Walmart! OPEC determines what we pay for gas. Any of you ever voted for that OPEC committee?

When will Americans take back the corporate run U.S.Assoc.? Hopefully soon...


With the spread of sprawl, the spaces where riots usually take place -- the public spaces in densely populated urban areas -- are no longer easily available to the disgruntled populace. A Walmart parking lot is not a good substitute.


Some commenters have said the press no longer covers protests. That's absurd. One small example: A protest march today, comprised of a whopping 15 people, was covered by Hartford's papers and broadcast media ... here is one link to one source on this.

Protests do, in fact, get media coverage all the time. It's one thing to decide that protests don't get "enough" media coverage. Defining "enough" coverage is a subjective value judgement about which people may disagree. But to say there is NO coverage, is simply -- flat-out -- untrue.


Why no demonstrations?
1)Cointelpro actions of government discourage oppositional politics. To be left is to be marginal.

ralph tyler

There were massive protests in the streets against the Vietnam war. Regardless of what various people think, this was inspired by the presence of a military draft.

The boondoggle in Vietnam finally ended when public opinion persuaded Congress to cut off funding. Many would argue that the protests didn't have much to do with this at all. The impetus was probably economic.

Americans are certainly angry and getting angrier; they finally are getting what the real problems are. However, there is no motivation to riot. It is enough for the next President and his party to know that if he, e.g., does not significantly improve the health care situation then there will be no second term.

AEL, Vienna

This is a time for outrage, indeed.

How about directing it where it belongs though, to the instigators & enablers of this mess, the implosion of the corporate welfare state:
the Government & its brainchild, the Fed.

(Somebody pls confirm that the author of this article is not an economist, or is he).


simple, people are cowards now, they can tell everyone else to "fight for freedom" but won't do it themselves. quite simply people in the US dont' have the stomach for riots anymore they are cowards that wont' fight for anything but will tell "someone else" to fight for something they want.


Since when did these right wing morons ever oppose government spending? Its spending on those who can't afford lobbyists that they oppose. Farm subsidies, military spending, wasteful government contracts to the connected, subsidies and sweetheart deals for major corporations. All are encouraged by these scum. For a long time its been welfare for the rich in America.


Invalidate the free market? Are you totally daft. What is invalidated is the idotic, inefficient, utterly corrupt system of government/bank/brokerage fat cat collusion that has been the norm for at least 200 years. We have never had anything close to a 'free market' here or anywhere else.

The free market -- i.e. the world-wide-money web -- which will replace the horrid system we now have will be so much freer and more efficient than the collapsing collusion system we have been oppressed under that a boom of a proportion the world has never seen will take place.

Now everyone. Stop whining and get to work building Capitalism 2.0 before something truly awful happens.

James F Traynor

First,the free markets were never free. Just what is a free market anyway? Hard to describe because it's not there, or here or anywhere, except in the fevered minds of libertarians, surviving Ayn Rand acolytes and other narcissists.

Rioting? A waste of time, energy, property and people. Demonstrations? It's a little early, but I think they will come. When they do I'll be there with bells on.

Way to go, Anna of NYC.


I'm not rioting or protesting because I can't afford to miss a day of work if I want to pay my mortgage.

Tim Chuma

It was pretend money to begin with so I don't see the big problem. I still received my tax refund and plan to live on it like I have been doing with money I have been getting from short-term contract roles for the past year. A lot more people will be in the same situation very soon.

Amy H.

This guy is an idiot. Wall Street is nowhere near Midtown.