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Riots – Why Do They Happen

Cătălina Cîrnațu, 10D

While it is simple to blame rioters for damaging property, inciting violence, and generating havoc, this ignores the fact that a riot is a complicated and deeply-rooted form of civil unrest that often stems from a variety of causes. To put it in other words, a riot is frequently a symptom of a deeper, underlying issue rather than the issue itself.

News outlets showed people smashing into stores and stealing merchandise, throwing Molotov cocktails, setting police cars on fire, and breaking glass when protests erupted across the United States in the spring of 2020. Many Americans swiftly condemned the rioters, labelling the demonstrations as disorderly, but they never inquired why. What caused these protests to become violent? What were the reasons for the attacks on buildings and the destruction of statues? The answer is trickier than it appears at first sight.

In a 1966 interview with CBS News, Martin Luther King Jr., who was known for his peaceful protests, described riots as "the language of the unheard." Riots have existed in America since before the American Revolution. When colonial Americans protested the Townshend Acts, which were mostly abolished by the British Parliament (with the exception of tea) in 1770, the rallying cry was "No taxation without representation." In Hong Kong, following pro-communist marches and fights against British-ruled Hong Kong, riots erupted, resulting in the deaths of a seven-year-old girl and her two-year-old brother, who were killed by a bomb disguised as a birthday present. While the leftists decried the government's early measures as "fascist atrocities," their own tactics, such as assassinating opposition journalists, further added to the instability and undermined their earlier appeals for free expression.

When institutionalised racism and socioeconomic inequality have persisted for years and years, making certain communities more susceptible than others, collective dissatisfaction and desire for change are sure to erupt.

Take, for example, the civil rights movement. To remove racial prejudice and segregation and give Black Americans equal rights, grassroots movements emerged. Despite this, many of the marches, sit-ins, and Freedom Rides were met with condemnation, anger, and violence from opposing groups, including many people in positions of authority.

Violence is not a preferred action by protestors but rather a consequence of being ignored, criticized, and oppressed after numerous attempts at being seen and heard. Consider the 2020 George Floyd protests, which erupted in all 50 states, forming the greatest movement in US history, according to experts. These demonstrations finally took place all around the world.

The Black Lives Matter movement's protests were not the first. The first occurred in 2013, following the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager. Activists protested, marched, and led policy discussions in the years after, but the Black community was still subjected to unjust treatment, racial discrimination, economic disparities, and police brutality.

Premeditation does not usually play a role in riots. However, riots can escalate rather quickly due to the inherent nature of a group setting. When they're alone, people are less inclined to set fire to police cars. However, when they're surrounded by a group of people who are equally agitated and angry, they can find themselves making reckless, out-of-character actions, especially when external variables are involved (such as opposing viewpoints or authority aggression).

While riots may generate mayhem and may not directly or immediately result in social change, they do have the potential to start important debates about societal issues. We must look past the subsequent violence and destruction to understand the psychology underlying riots and solve the oppression that motivates so many people to act.

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