Riots: Violent Disobedience


Abraham Lincoln, in his speech given in 1838, spoke in regard to the opposition involving the use of violence against governmental rule. He argued, amongst other things, that the use of violence is inherently wrong, because it ruins the attachment of the people to the Government. No example of violence shows more disconnect with government that that of a riot. In particular, the following will examine the Detroit race riots of 1967 as well as the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and how, in Lincoln’s view, is not an adequate or permissible way to react to the ills of government.


A riot, as defined under the Federal Statutes (18 U.S.C. § 2102) is “a public disturbance involving (1) an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons, which act or acts shall constitute a clear and present danger of, or shall result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual or (2) a threat or threats of the commission of an act or acts of violence by one or more persons part of an assemblage of three or more persons having, individually or collectively, the ability of immediate execution of such threat or threats, where the performance of the threatened act or acts of violence would constitute a clear and present danger of, or would result in, damage or injury to the property of any other person or to the person of any other individual”

In the overall context of this statute, a group of people inciting violence against the public constitutes a riot. This was clearly shown in the Detroit Riots. Occurring out of a police raid in an unauthorized bar, it became one of the worst riots in United States history. Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in Army troops. The result was 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[1]. The use of this type of federal intervention was needed to combat the many domestic disturbances. Many, including mainly Detroiters, had mixed reactions regarding the riot; particularly on racial lines (Some whites believed that there was some instigation on the part of Black Nationalism).

Equally, the 1992 Los Angeles Riots produced similar results. Sparking from police brutality of an African-American named Rodney King, a jury acquitted a group of police officers, who were caught using brutal tactics after pulling over Rodney King on the highway. Thousands of people in the Los Angeles area rioted over the six days following the verdict. Widespread looting, assault, arson and murder occurred, and property damages topped roughly $1 billion. 53 people died during the riots and thousands more were injured. A mandatory curfew was issued and deployment of the National Guard attempted to control the situation; eventually U.S. Army soldiers and United States Marines were ordered to the city to quell disorder as well.


These riots present a clear example contrary to Lincoln’s belief of nonviolence. Lincoln feels that violence is a violation of the success of the American Experiment, where the

Revolutionaries fought for the rule of law. “Let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.” Clearly here, the violence brought about by the rioters undermines the success of the Founders. He also notes that the contagion effect of violence, which means that “violence can manifest and breed more violence. It is difficult to get the genie of violence back in the bottle, and it is hard to contain once it emerges.” Again, it seems that Lincoln’s intuitions are correct, considering the riot began with a few individuals and expanded into a four-day affair. Finally, Lincoln suggests that “government will fail if this violence continues. Violence is democratic suicide.” One can understand the plausibility of this argument, because this, indeed, is how revolutions begin (One need only look to both the American Revolution and the French Revolution).

Riots are dangerous activities; they incite both a “mob-mentality,” which can lead to both destruction of property and human life. The riots in Detroit and Los Angeles are clear examples of the opposite to what Lincoln believes are the appropriate actions to confront governmental ills. These instances are the closest glimpses, in my opinion, of total anarchy. I think we need to evaluate Lincoln’s argument and validate his claims. Could the Occupy movement be put into this same category, considering the video above?


What do you believe?

[1] New York Times

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1 Response to Riots: Violent Disobedience

  1. emmasag says:

    I would agree that riots are definitely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. The instances you draw upon, at face value, also demonstrate why rioting should be avoided because of the seemingly negative impacts it can have on one’s self and broader community. However, where I have to disagree with your stance on rioting, is in regards to the idea that rioting is democratic suicide.

    In some cases, rioting can be credible when it forces the government or society in general to address serious issues that it has been overlooking, ignoring, or even championing. When? As a number of our readings have touched on (Douglass, Emerson, Jacobson, etc.) the institution of slavery represents an example in which violent disobedience seems acceptable. As Malcolm X argues in “The Ballot or Bullet”, how long were blacks supposed to wait for the government or society to heed their complaints of injustice? They would either attain it through political mobilization (the ballot) or violently shake up America’s political system via a guerrilla movement, just as countless democracies have done rather violently, ours included.

    In the case of Occupy Wall Street protests I would agree that violence is not warranted, although it appears in the video that the police’s seemingly ‘warranted’ use of violence did much to worsen the situation. However, in instances such as in 1859, John Brown’s revolt provided the necessary shock value that I think aided the the call to end slavery (among other key events). I mean, how else would we have some of Henry David Thoreau’s influential work (that may or may not have helped the abolitionist movement)?

    In the case of the 1992 Watts riots, this event forced America to recognize the inequality that still existed in this country, specifically surrounding the police’s violation of blacks’ civil rights. So in general, I would agree that riots are detrimental, but in terms of helping or hurting democracy, they can definitely bring about true democratic reforms.

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