What Is Riot?

Riot is violent crowd behavior that is fueled by deep-seated emotions but is not directed at one specific target.

Popular conceptions of riots are similar to conceptions of crowds. Opens in new window The assumption is that a mob mentality exists and rioters lose their will and their ability to be rational. Rioters are unruly, may exhibit seemingly aimless behaviors, are spontaneously violent, may assault people or property, and are purposefully destructive (Russell 2004).

Riots break out when groups of people band together to express a collective grievance or when groups are provoked by anger or excitement. Some riots can be anticipated, as when Los Angeles exploded in 1992 following the acquittal by an all-White jury of four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, who is Black. Similarly, riots occurred in 1980 in Miami as the result of long held grievances held by the Black community against the police (Porter and Dunn 1984).

Riots have also frequently erupted following highly contested sporting events, when large crowds of people are gathered together. Such situations are highly prone to rioting because of the excitability of the crowd, each loyal to one team or the other; any triggering event—a fight or a strong police response—can quickly erupt into a riot.


Riots are made up of many different crowd formations and are likely to consist of different actions dispersed over a potentially wide area. Fires, looting, rock throwing, and simple crowd assemblies can be dispersed over many square miles.

In the Watts riots Opens in new window of Los Angeles in 1965 and the 1992 Los Angeles riots Opens in new window, some parts of the city experienced more intense riot activity, and the type of crowd action varied in different places. Crowd actions did not spread in connected paths. This means that crowd actions do not spread like wildfire; instead, mini-riots pop up throughout the city (Stark et al. 1974).

Studies of riots debunk the notion that people in riots are consumed by a mob mentality that spreads through a crowd. There are also variations in crowd activities during riots throughout the day and evening. Most riot activity occurs in the evening and late at night, suggesting that riot behavior is linked to other social routines such as work and leisure time. Instead of rioters being possessed by a mob mentality, their activity is influenced by the social conditions in their lives.

Even looting, which seems motivated by individual wants, is organized along social lines. Looters choose selected targets; they often act as groups; and they behave in the context of communities or social groups that give considerable support to their actions (Quarantelli & Dynes 1970). This is quite contrary to images of looters as crazed, out solely to produce mayhem, and acting from individual greed.