Religion & Liberty Online

What turns protests into riots?

On Saturday night, the riots came to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Vandals looted and damaged 100 businesses and destroyed seven police cars. Officers are now seeking photos and videos to track down rioters. Businesses already struggling as a result of lockdowns are now grappling with damage and theft inflicted by rioters. The National Guard was mobilized, and the city issued a 7 p.m. curfew which expired at 5 o’clock this morning. Things have been relatively quiet since these measures took effect, with only a dozen arrests on Monday.

This experience is now shared by more than 100 American cities. But why?

I was born in Grand Rapids, lived my life here, and I will die here. This is my home. The tragic death of George Floyd and the catastrophic failure of our institutions and elites to uphold the common good have played their part in this tragedy, but rioters have failed in their basic duty to respect the persons and property of their neighbors and communities. The Lord commands that we “work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers, you will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). What happened here in Grand Rapids on Saturday—and what continues to happen in cities across this country—actively sins against those cities.

Many are trying to make sense of these actions. Some are even trying to defend the rioters’ actions. This is a mistake. We often think riots are caused by any number of injustices which are prevalent in society. But those injustices were with us before these riots, and they will be with us after they have ceased. It is every person’s duty to work for justice and live peaceably to promote the common good. As David D. Haddock and Daniel D. Polsby have convincingly argued in their 1994 paper, “Understanding Riots,” these are episodic social phenomena triggered by good and bad news alike: “Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie.”

As riots began in Minneapolis, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey tried to pin the blame for the riots on “outside agitators.” Mayor Frey later acknowledged the majority of arrests so far have been of Minnesota residents. Haddock and Polby explain that, while “there is definitely a leadership niche in the ecology of a mob, it seems to become important only after the crowd has assembled. Riots are not, as a rule, plotted and scripted affairs.”

Using categories of economic analysis, Haddock and Polby point to the importance of expectations and not explicit instructions in coordinating mob behavior. “It is a signal that tells a person what other people will probably do,” they write:

As word spreads of a conventional triggering event—whether it is shocking (like an assassination) or rhapsodic (a three-peat)—crowds form spontaneously in various places, without any one person having to recruit them.

A significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous. That is, there has to be a critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.

Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst—a sort of entrepreneur to get things going—in Buford’s account usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it).

This is not the same logic as that of peaceful protesters:

In civil rights, anti-war or anti-abortion marches, it is probably pretty common to find participants eager to expose themselves to arrest in exchange for the chance to optimize the desired impact of their protest. This sort of self-sacrifice is certainly rare in ordinary riots, where potential rioters’ behavior is consistent, we suppose, with something like the following calculation: “If somebody else gets the riot started, I can participate without much risk. But if I stick my neck out and nobody follows, I’ll be the only one arrested. So I’ll wait for somebody else to go first.”

Curfews and increased police presence change the risk calculus of would-be rioters by making arrest more likely. Riots, as Haddock and Polby argue, “are apt to be a more or less recurrent, if unpredictable, feature of social life,” not because of persistent injustice but because of the perverse incentives of rioters and poor public policy:

It is odd that our law enforcement apparatus seems to be designed for a world in which riots do not occur at all. With some imagination, public administrators could ensure that these destructive episodes become rare indeed.

Let us pray that this national tragedy can serve as a catalyst for reform so that we can “rejoice, set things right, be encouraged, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (II Corinthians 13:11).

(Photo credit: A riot left many Grand Rapids businesses’ windows broken. ABPhotog /

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.