Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit

I wonder whether there would have been the exact same rioting and unrest in Ferguson last night if the grand jury had returned an indictment for manslaughter, or even murder, against officer Wilson. In such a case, the ready-riot brigade would have taken it as vindication of their grievances, rather than the fresh grievance that the non-indictment supposedly supplies.

Edward C. Banfield

Edward C. Banfield

This heterodox thought is prompted by Edward C. Banfield’s famous chapter in his classic 1969 book The Unheavenly City entitled “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit.” Here Banfield reminds us that urban rioting has persisted as long as humans have congregated in cities, and does not depend on race. Banfield details the four main types of rioting: the rampage (such as happens sometimes after Super Bowl wins, etc); the foray for pillage, especially when law and order break down (think the New York city blackout of 1977); the outburst of righteous indignation; and the demonstration.

This latter category best describes Ferguson:

Here the motive is to advance a political principle or ideology or to contribute to the maintenance of an organization. The riot is not a spontaneous, angry response to an incident. Rather, it is the result of prearrangement by persons who are organized, have leaders, and who see it as a means to some end. The word “demonstration” is descriptive, for the event it a kind of show staged to influence opinion.

There is a dreary repetitiveness to the whole scene. At the beginning of the chapter Banfield captures the typical mood, which we can expect to see repeated in an endless loop on CNN for the rest of this week:

On this view it follows that the way to end rioting—the only way to end it—is to stop mistreating the Negro and, so far as possible, to repair the damage already done him. [Here Banfield quotes a recent sociological study:] “Doing such things as punishing police misconduct, providing decent housing and schooling, ending job discrimination and so forth are essential, but the problem goes deeper than that. The ghetto itself, with all the shameful economic, social, political, and psychological deprivation it causes, must be done away with once and for all. The riots have ‘let America know’ that this is what must be done. Now America must do it.”

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