On Riots

Sudhir Venkatesh wondered recently on this blog why the Wall Street meltdown hadn’t set off a wave of rioting in the streets.

But riots may not be so far off, if the continuing unrest in Greece is any indication. (Take a look at a compelling set of photos from the always-compelling Big Picture blog.)

In The Atlantic, meanwhile, Robert Kaplan notes that while the Greek riots were sparked by the police-shooting death of a teenager, the stage was set by high youth unemployment and a weak government further undermined by an ailing economy.

As the economic crisis sets in around the world, Kaplan writes, the Greek riots “might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009.”


The note on Kaplan reminds me of the Rodney King riots in LA. That unrest did, of course, have very little to do with King and was instead merely the spark that ignited the powder keg that was race relations in general in the US and specifically in LA.

I think at this moment in US history that the public is too complacent and sterile for anything to spark unrest like Greece.


Well, it was clearly expected, as the US deployed its own troops within its own borders for the first time since the Civil War.


Well apparantly someone is predicting riots in near future in the good old USA.
I've no idea who or how credible this site or Gerald Celente is.


What does a 'unit" mean?
A division, regiment, SQUAD..seriously, are they being deployed with black helicopters and UN troops?
Oi vey....
Social order COULD break down. The key number to look at is the unemployment data. Should that rise to 10-15% then that MIGHT be a harbinger of future unrest.

Steven Savage


We've hit 10% or so before. I think the issue of riots is not the level of unemployment, but A) the impact, and B) if people are angry enough at those who caused it and/or made a lot of money. I think a synergy of suffering and anger is needed to get riots.

How much we need for riots here (assuming riots are a given potential under the right conditions) I'm not too sure.


It seems that Robert Kaplan is editorializing somewhat. The Greek transportation system went on strike for 1 day which was planned before the shooting.

While there is a significant problem in Greece with narrow job prospects for a great number of youths, as well as a stagnant and ineffectual government, this is only part of the reason for the continuation of the riots.

I'm sure if you tracked the demographics of the rioters you would see a sharp change from those genuinely outraged in the days after the address to the thrill seekers that are largely confined to a few isolated blocks in Athens.


You should do a post of riots and heat waves. I've heard before that riots correspond with heat waves. It's definitely WAY too cold to spend hours outside or gather in a public space. Hopefully things will be better by the summer...

Michael Ellis

Greek riots in the US? Like Delta Tau Chi versus Lambda Lambda Lambda?


Most of my unemployed youth friends are living off their parents. Also we don't think about rioting since we could always blog our unrest.


The expression was recently repopularized by V for Vendetta: "People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people."

While American's, particularly Republicans that despise Europeans, love that expression; however, in Europe, it's true that governments are afraid of the people, and in the US, people are afraid of the government.

The reason/difference is riots.

Just my view of it of course, I am no expert on Euro government fear.


I live in Denmark, where there is nearly full employment and extensive social protections for the unemployed, along with free health care and free university education.

We still get riots nearly every summer and often on school holidays, at the slightest provocation. This fall the police tore down an illegally erected squat in an environmentally protected area, and we got Molotov cocktails thrown at cops and huge bonfires in the street. I had the pleasure of being teargassed on the way home from a kindergarden parents' meeting.

My point is this: European riots are a lot about youth boredom and aggression, and not about social problems. In Greece, rioting is a bit of a sport, and the chattering classes are broadly supportive of the rioters. I supposed they don't get teargassed much.

Nuclear Mom

My husband tells a chilling story of watching a riot quashed in Syntagma Square in Athens in 1969 or 1970. He was in town with the navy, watching from his hotel balcony, as tanks forced people into the square and then down into the subway. Then canister after canister of tear gas was fired down into the subway. Then the ambulances came to take away the dead and injured; the subways took the rioters directly to detention centers.

I guess it all depends how badly you want to suppress the riot.


I'm with Nicole (#7); It's WAY TOO COLD to riot.

I also suspect that we'd have to interrupt pay & broadcast television before riots would bubble up.

Jayson Virissimo

It seems to be the default position that Americans are ignorant and lazy, but does this really make any sense when talking about riots? Riots are not heroic ways to improve society, they destroy value and make everyone worse off. Perhaps Americans simply understand the evil nature of riots and understand that it is a foolish and counterproductive way to blow off steam.

Instead of making fun of Americans for not rioting, we should be congratulating them for using reason and not letting their emotions drive them to destroy the property of their fellow citizens.


I tend to agree with 14. While I think that there is a chance of riots in America, it will be in the summer (too cold right now as mentioned) and it will be in places of urban blight and extremely high unemployment. There is still much of the country that is not nearly bad enough economically for rioting. You need a large portion of the population with absolutely nothing to lose and nothing to do. Right now, there are a lot of people struggling to make ends meet and they don't have time for riots... We had 10% unemployment in 70's and very few riots/civil unrest. I think if we got into the 12-15% range it might be a different story. Particularly if bank executives keep getting bonuses and there seems to be no change in the "wall street" sector, that has done a great deal to cause all this.

Eric M. Jones

"Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich". --Napoleon Bonaparte

You do have to wonder. The rich now live in protected communities and estates, but soon they may have to live in walled castles with private security forces.

I am frankly amazed that the hoi polloi ,up till now has been so tolerant of abuse.


The weather and the economy certainly play a part in sparking riots. I can't think of a time when I've seen rioters running around in the snow or in rich neighborhoods.

However - there is one key ingredient that everyone here has missed. People riot when they have nothing to lose.

The residents of South Central LA already lived in a delapidated neighborhood and were mistreated by the police. Trashing their neighborhood even more and bringing down further police brutality on their heads wouldn't change their lives all that much.

Hard as it is to believe, Europe's middle class rioters don't have anything personally to lose either. It's considered sport there - not crime. In the US, if a picture were to come to light showing that an Obama White House staffer rioted in LA 15 years ago, that person would likely be fired - and would then find it very difficult to find a private sector job.

That's why things have to be a lot worse here before Americans riot.


Johnny E

The amazing thing about reading history is that the veneer of civilization is so thin. A country famous for the arts can become genocidal maniacs a few years later.

I think all Republican office holders and conservative economists should read the Kerner Commission report.


When Nature Strikes By Marsha L. Baum is the book you are looking for if you want to understand the role of weather in violence (among other weather-related factoids).

Patrick K. Mogensen

I believe that 15 and 17 are right. It does really matter if people have anything to lose or not. I also think, however, that there has to be an enemy. Be it the police, the state, the rich, a race or a religion. Would it be the banks? I am finding it hard to see a whole nation rioting banks. They need their loans. Of course people could agree to withdraw all their money from certain banks - a new wait of rioting? Instead of destroying property, they could destroy cash position.