What Do Riots Mean for Democracy?

Chisinau Riots
Protest riot in Chisinau, Moldova after the 2009 Parliamentary Elections. Photo from VargaA via WikiMedia Commons

By Alexis Bibeau

Understanding Riots

The riots that shook Nanterre and several other French cities last June followed a well-established script. Following the killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old teenager, by a police officer during a traffic stop, many residents of working-class and underprivileged neighborhoods (including a significant number of minors) expressed anger and outrage over yet another case of police violence.

The murder of a youth from an underprivileged area by a police officer captures an essential aspect of contemporary riots. Police violence has been the main trigger for destructive and violent protests in various countries of Europe and in the US for many years now. The 2005 riots in the French suburbs were sparked by the death of two youths trying to avoid police interrogation. The 2011 London riots were triggered by the police killing of Mark Duggan. The Ferguson 2014 riots were prompted by the murder of Michael Brown. The Minneapolis 2020 riots occurred in reaction to the killing of George Floyd.

However, police violence is merely the visible element of an often invisible, dire socio-economic situation. One prevalent explanatory theory of riots, the “flashpoint” model developed by David Waddington and his colleagues, indeed suggests that riots do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they are symptoms of broader social unrest and usually erupt spontaneously following a triggering event that channels discontent.

For instance, in France, the underlying causes of the social unrest that led young protesters to turn to destruction and violence include deplorable relations between the police and ethnic minorities, massive state disinvestment in disadvantaged areas, very limited opportunities for social mobility, significant unemployment among the populations of the banlieues, relegation to peripheral urban areas, decaying physical and social infrastructure, and daily discrimination, not to mention failed integration policies.

All these factors have been widely documented. And it is no coincidence that riots similar in many regards to the one of June 2023 occurred in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2017 elsewhere in France but also repeatedly across Europe over the past 20 years. These other riots almost systematically mirror each other, with similar incidents of police violence and similar background conditions.

Democratic Riots?

What do riots mean for democracy? Can we move beyond the anger resulting from political exclusion, social disenfranchisement and urban relegation to see the democratic potential of riots?

From a political standpoint, riots are a conundrum. On one hand, they often convey significant social, cultural, and political meaning. They can even sometimes be seen as a form of direct democratic action. Some riots hold a central place in the political history of peoples and nations, with the storming of the Bastille, the 1965 Watts riot, the 1969 Stonewall riot, the 1992 LA riot, and perhaps the 2020 Minneapolis riot as prime examples.

Rioting might indeed be approached as an alternative means through which the “will of the people” is temporarily disclosed, or through which a people comes into momentary existence as a vanguard force in confrontation with instituted powers. Riots might then offer rare moments of popular power. In my own research, I analyze how riots, as chaotic as they may seem, often reflect a deeper means of seeking political representation, sometimes emerging as authentic political subjects capable of articulating concerns and aspirations on behalf of others.

But on the other hand, many riots involve destructive and violent actions carried out by an anonymous crowd, where anonymity can sometimes be an excuse for aggressive acts driven by a temporary sense of impunity. Riots can often provide cover for acts of purely criminal vandalism and looting without any political significance. Also, among analysts and critics, it is common to view in rioting nothing but the exclusionary and destructive actions of undemocratic mob violence, or the material nihilism of those excluded from access to capitalist consumerism. Indeed, while recognizing the political significance of certain riots, we should perhaps be wary of negating the potentially anti-democratic behavior of riotous crowds bent on violence for violence’s sake.

Nonetheless, in reality, most riots strike a balance between these two extremes. There is indeed an intrinsic tension between the political and apolitical facets of riots, making it challenging for observers to judge the political meaning and legitimacy of such events.

Judgment about the democratic value of riots can only be made retrospectively. Most riots will in fact almost immediately be characterized as mere opportunistic criminality. Riots of the last few years in the US, in France and elsewhere are cases in point of this dynamic. And yet, there is still the slim—albeit imaginable—possibility that a riot might be exonerated and justified by the future circumstances that they perhaps might have helped to bring about.

About the Author

Alexis Bibeau is a Ph.D. candidate in politics at the University of Virginia. His work has been published in Nations and Nationalism, Politics and Religion, The Canadian Journal of Political Science and The International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics.

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