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Rioting in America

NCJ Number
Paul A. Gilje
Date Published
251 pages
This review of the history of riots in America stems from the author's belief that riots have been important mechanisms for change throughout American history, such that without an understanding of the impact of rioting, the history of the American people cannot be fully understood.
The definition of "riot" used in this study is "any group of twelve or more people attempting to assert their will immediately through the use of force outside the normal bounds of law." "Force" is understood as "coercion or compulsion based upon violence, or based on the threat of violence, or based, within indefinite boundaries, on the ritual and habits of mob action." Basic to the author's approach is the assumption that mobs are rational, in that they do not act merely on impulse. Exploring the rationale of the mob reveals the grievances that motivate its behavior and the historical circumstances that drive the choices it makes. These vary significantly from event to event and across time, but some patterns emerge through an analysis of riots throughout American history. This book proposes four phases of rioting in American history, arguing that these phases reflect larger social and economic trends and developments. In the 17th century there were two broad categories of rioting: disturbances that emphasized ritual and custom that featured a minimum of violence against persons; and extensive, sometimes violent, rebellions; both forms emerged out of the turbulent conditions in England. The second phase of rioting began sometime in the early 18th century during a period of growing social stability as the rules of the game (proper interaction between social groups) became clear. Ritualized crowd behavior became the norm; riots became a means of maintaining community solidarity in the face of those few challenges posed by a market economy, by outsiders, and by violators of local morality. The third major phase of rioting began during the opening decades of the 19th century. During this period riots became increasingly violent as various social groups -- divided by politics, ethnicity, class, and race -- confronted each other in brutal conflicts. By the middle of the 20th century, the fourth phase began, as popular disorder became less violent, as the Federal Government wielded both the power and the will to mediate disputes in guaranteeing equal rights for all constituencies. Chapter notes and a subject index


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