[lbo-talk] The three stages of riot

Michael Pollak mpollak at panix.com
Tue Aug 16 05:46:24 PDT 2011

The fact that the people arrested in the UK have been a heterogeneous and largely middle class lot has often been cited as a decisive and surprising bit of evidence. But IIUC, it's the norm in riots for the arrests to reflect this kind of demographic weighting. It's also normal for the arrestees to have a very different demographic make-up than the initiators. And lastly, it's usual for this difference to be completely unsuspected and to be cited as a surprising and decisive fact by contemporary commentators.

The following is from a Ford Foundation study of looting during the 1977 New York blackout. They are in turn summarizing a 1968 article entitled "Looting in Civil Disorders: An Index of Social Change," from _The American Behavioral Scientist_, Vol. 2, No. 4 (March-April 1968) by E. L. Quarantelli and Russell R. Dynes,

The Ford book is by Robert Curvin and Bruce Porter, and has the lurid title of _Blackout Looting!_, but is the usual measured Ford Foundation prose within.


In their studies of the numerous riots in the 1960s, Quarantelli and Dynes have discovered that looting occurred following the initiation of civil disturbances. The disturbances as a whole, they found, generally progressed in three stages.

In the first stage, destruction rather than plunder appears to be the rioters' intent. It is often initiated by alienated adolescents or ideologically motivated agitators in a specific area.

In the second stage, there is conscious and deliberate looting, and the taking of good is organized and systematic. This stage is often dominated by delinquent gangs and theft groups operating with pragmatic rather than ideological considerations.

In the third stage there is an open, widespread and nonsystematic taking of goods. At this point, plundering becomes the normative, the socially supported thing to do; people from all social and income levels who reside in the community participate.

<end quote>

Cuvin and Porter tested this theory in the 1977 case by profiling three groups of arrestees by time of arrest. It held up extremely well. Their profiles of the Stage III looters are kind of hilarious. They are often people who are just as larcenous at heart, but who held off so long precisely because they had jobs and income and so had reason to fear the consequences. And of course they are the ones who get disproportionately caught, usually almost immediately, after which they quite understandably feel like utter humiliated fools.

But these Johnny-come-latelys are always the effect, and never the cause, of the looting.


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