Saturday, November 05, 2005

Riots, Riots Everywhere

As you get up to the news this morning, I'm sure you're hearing about anti-Bush riots at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, and the anti-cop riots in Paris. Are riots a step away from revolution? What do riots mean? I'm in a rush to get out the door today, so instead of pontificating, or ruminating, or reflecting, perhaps I'll just suggest some of my favorite books about rioting.

There's a whole school of historians that studies riots in Europe that begins with the author George Rude, You can read a collection of his essays called "The Face of the Crowd." and a longer, synthetic work, "The Crowd in History.". He also has one on the "Crowd and the French revolution." Regardless of which Rude you read, you'll find his general argument to be that crowds should not be understood as simply dumb and reactive, but as having a purpose and logic, and even a historical set of behaviors that are socially accepted. Authors in his footsteps are E.P Thompson, whose essay "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd" remains one of the most important things I read as an undergraduate history major. While we thought the word "cheesemongers" was funny, the larger point of crowd action as an expression of political consciousness was important.
In the same vein, Jesse Lemisch's work, and the more recent development of his ideas in Peter Linebaugh's and Marcus Rediker's The Many Headed Hydra, address American revolutionary era crowds and add significantly to any "top down" analysis that marks the American revolution as soley the action of elites. All of these books describe crowd actions in positive and popular terms, explaining crowd behavior as the response of the oppressed to power, domination, or exploitation.
For riots of the interpersonal and reactionary type, it's a good idea to read the books of
William Tuttle
(about the Chicago riot of 1919) and Mahmoud Mamdani, who provides a provocative longterm explanation of the Rawandan genocide, which was not a riot, but similar because of its mass character.

So, lest you are tempted to views this week's riots, in Argentina Paris, and Ethiopia as simply reactions from the gut, or overflows of passion, or outbursts of "ethnic conflict" it's always wise to look deeper. In each case, there's no doubt a much bigger and more complex story than what can be found in the mainstream media. This is true even in race riots. In any "outbreak" of mass violence (see how removed from human motivation even the word "outbreak" is?) there is always some movement of an idea, some kind of logic (however irrational), some complicated interplay of powers, and some kind of organization that keeps it going. I wish I had time to delve deeper into these riots myself, but being far removed from the scene, and tempted by the beautiful weather, I'm postponing, procrastinating from procrastinating, and heading outside to live. now.

No comments: