Processes, events, and decisions add up to significant consequences from Chicago’s 1919 riots

With the 100 year anniversary of the 1919 violence and riots in Chicago approaching, the Chicago Tribune considers some of the long-lasting consequences of a violence-filled summer:

The riots ended after seven days, brought about by the intervention of the Illinois militia — which critics said came too late. The riots changed Chicago in ways it continues to grapple with. Days after the riot, the City Council, for example, proposed formalized segregation on the South Side that remains in place informally today…

Consequently, the trauma of the white assault on the black community left another lasting legacy: the black street gang. “To be sure, the 1919 riot contributed directly to Black gang formation in Chicago as Black males united to confront hostile White gangs who were terrorizing the Black community,” author James C. Howell wrote in his book “The History of Street Gangs in the United States: Their Origins and Transformations.”…

The end of the riots brought swift condemnation, expert groups to examine the cause and criminal charges — though primarily against alleged black rioters — but no real consensus on what to do. On the latter point, in the days after the riot, Cook County State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne initially charged only black citizens with rioting, leading to a walkout by members of the grand jury hearing the cases…

“In the aftermath, you call it an interracial consensus that the best way to prevent something like this from happening again was to keep the races separate. That was the lesson that was mislearned from the riot,” he said.

This is a reminder that a long legacy of residential segregation, inequality, and racism in the city of Chicago does not just happen: it is the result of specific social processes (some under the control of Chicago leaders and residents and others not), particular events, and reactions to those processes and events. Similarly, it is not easy to simply “turn the page” from past events or reverse the consequences; the same processes, events, and decisions have to be countered with different options.

And if this latter statement is true, Chicago and many other American places have a long way to go regarding countering these legacies. Remembering the past processes, events, and decisions is very important. As the Tribune article notes, how many Chicagoans think the 1919 riots are an important part of the city’s legacy? But, then more work needs to be done. And at this point, it is hard to say that Chicago has done much to reverse these patterns started in the early 1900s.

The Chicago Tribune in 1968 and conservatives today: sociologists excuse rioters

In an overview of Martin Luther King Jr.’s final months, the Chicago Tribune quotes its own take on urban riots:

King’s opponents saw his proposed march as an invitation to rioting. In the 1960s, one inner city after another had exploded in deadly and destructive riots. King explained the violence with a metaphor: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

The Tribune rejected that argument in a Jan. 21, 1968, editorial: “Every time there is a riot in the streets you can count on a flock of sociologists rushing forward to excuse the rioters.” King’s “nonviolence,” the Tribune added, “is designed to goad others into violence.”

Simultaneously, King was under attack by a younger generation of black militants who rejected his pacifist philosophy as weak. Their conclusion was echoed by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. “I don’t call for violence or riots, but the day of Martin Luther King has come to an end,” said Powell, a longtime U.S. congressman from New York.

Lest the Tribune let this idea of sociologists excusing riots be swept into the dustbin of history, this idea exists in recent years as well. In 2013, the conservative Canadian Prime Minister said we should not “commit sociology” when addressing terrorism. Conservative columnist George Will used a similar phrase in 2012 when discussing the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. Of course, explaining social phenomena is not the same as excusing or condoning it.

Now that I have seen this sort of explanation multiple times, it is clearly less about sociology and how social science works and more about political ideology. Sociologists, by a wide majority, are liberals. Those who tend to disparage sociology in public phrases like these are conservatives. The implication is that sociologists and liberals are willing to allow violence and disorder if it serves a particular political end. And, this may have just enough of a grain of truth to be a repeatable claim.

Predicting riots using social media

In addition to the identified factors from research coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, one sociologist suggests social media activity can show how riots and protests spread:

The most promising method of “predicting” unrest might be through social media. Dan Braha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts and affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute, has studied unrest in hundreds of countries and the phenomenon of “contagion,” or how it spreads. In the past, printed newspapers, televisions, and other media played an important role, he said. “Today, the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms is fundamental to the rapid self-organization and spreading of unrest activities—much like the spread of fire in a forest.” And the data from these media can be tracked. Riots, he claims, are certainly foreseeable, but “prediction regarding ‘when’ and ‘where’ becomes more precise on short time scales.”

It sounds like social media is just part of the puzzle here. There are certain underlying conditions mentioned in this article – such as hot weather or precipitating incidents (such as police violence) – but these do not always lead to riots. (In fact, given the inequalities present in many American cities, riots and protests could be considered relatively rare.)  Just as with the analysis of the Arab Spring activity, social media does not cause protests or riots but it can help facilitate it. This was reported in Egypt as protestors shared information through social media and even peer-to-peer options. This was also reported in Baltimore as protestors selected places to show up. This is not a new phenomena; riots in the 1960s spread in a contagion like manner and the dispersion could be tracked through news coverage in the New York Times. But, the availability of social media now makes it theoretically possible to watch things develop in real time, an advantage for both protestors and authorities.

Thinking to the future, what happens when protestors make use of non-public social media or peer-to-peer options that cannot be viewed by authorities?

Sociologist reflects on his research about the LA Riots

Sociologist Darnell Hunt studied how perceptions of media coverage of the 1992 LA Riots differed by race in Screening the Los Angeles ‘Riots’: Race, Seeing, and Resistance. Hunt recently reflected on his research:

Darnell Hunt was a graduate student at the time of the riots, studying race and media.

“I was looking for a case study,” he said. “And then the riots happened.”

He immediately focused on the reaction to the news coverage of the riots, which would later form the basis for his dissertation. Hunt took his camcorder down to the center of the protests and left the VCR running, he said, so he could compare the media’s take on the events that day compared to the reality just outside as part of his research.

Hunt is now a sociology professor at UCLA, and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. While he witnessed firsthand much of the upheaval across the city while conducting his research, he said he found optimism in the clean-up period following the six days that the riots took place.

“People saw (the aftermath) as this moment when people came together around a common cause, across racial lines, and talked about the possibility of coalitions and achieving some type of progress,” he said.

Hunt’s research from 20 years ago, which he continues to observe and build upon, showed that people of different ethnicities perceived media depictions differently.

Thursday, he spoke at a UCLA event that explored the role played by the media during the L.A. riots.

Hunt recalled the riots still being fresh in the minds of many when he started out as a professor, but now only a couple of hands go up when he asks who remembers them in his lectures, he said.

But the issues that contributed to the riots are still relevant, he said. Unemployment and economic disparity have not necessarily improved in the city, he said.

“It’s been a couple steps forward, a couple steps back,” Hunt said. “One positive development is that we do have more communication across racial and ethnic lines.”

Several quick thoughts:

1. This seems to be a good example of taking advantage of a research opportunity. Does this illustrate the advantages of being at a school in a big urban center where a lot of things are going on?

2. Though the remarks above are brief, it sounds like Hunt is suggesting that not much has changed in regards to race in Los Angeles?

3. I’m amused that Hunt says that students don’t remember these events. Of course, traditional students in college today would have been born between 1990 and 1995 so it would be difficult to remember events from 1992. At the same time, this illustrates the need for faculty to keep up with research: if the careers of faculty are mainly based on their dissertation, this could become outdated or uninteresting to new generations rather quickly. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t know about what a professor researched but the passage of time can make it harder to make a case for its relevance.

Best sociological explanation for a St. Patrick’s Day riot: “young people are dumb”?

A sociologist argues that the best explanation for a St. Patrick’s Day riot in Ontario, Canada is that “young people are dumb”:

A sociology professor says she’s “going to go with the young people are dumb explanation” for why nearly 1,000 people rioted in London, Ont., early Sunday morning in the wake of St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

Rima Wilkes of the University of British Columbia rejects the notion that the rioters — who attacked police and firefighters, overturned cars and lit fires — are angry and disenchanted youth, or the coddled children of baby boomers merely acting out.

Wilkes said the riot was similar to the one that occurred last June in Vancouver after the Canucks lost to Boston in the Stanley Cup final, in that it was fuelled by alcohol and a party atmosphere.

Wilkes told CTV News Channel in an interview from Vancouver that there are two kinds of riots: alcohol-fuelled riots such as this one and the one in Vancouver; and riots based on ethnic tensions or social unrest, which “are motivated by something else.”

Even if this is the colloquially-stated reason, can’t it be couched in more scientific terms such as suggesting that college students are more prone to engage in risky behavior or that only certain or few situations with alcohol consumption turn into riots? The problem is that this explanation could contribute to the idea that sociology is just common sense. In other words, why do you need a sociological view of the world if you could explain this situation with common sense? (I also wonder if this sort of explanation paints sociologists/other academics as grumpy adults who are complaining about “young people these days.”)

One way I think this could be done better is to suggest that not all situations that involve alcohol and young people or alcohol and “over-excited” sports fans turn into riots that require police attention. Riots like those in Vancouver last year are rare. Even situations that erupt out of long-standing grievances, such as the London riots of August 2011, are relatively rare. This then points us to larger theories of social movements that focus on factors like resource mobilization or political processes in order to determine what exactly leads to collective action.

Rioting over cultural works and ideas: Blackboard Jungle and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Even though I have heard multiple times about the groundbreaking 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, I finally watched it recently. (Side note: watching the film without commercials on AMC was excellent. Watching movies on TV is often so frustrating as they drag it out.) After watching the movie (and noting how “inspiring teacher” movies of recent years seem to build upon this film), I read on Wikipedia about riots that took place when the movie was first shown in theaters:

The film markedthe rock and roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, initially a B-side, over the film’s opening credits, as well as in the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie, establishing that song as an instant classic. The record had been released the prior year, garnering tepid sales. But, popularized by its use in the film, “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight weeks. The music also led to a huge teenage audience for the film, and their exuberant response to it sometimes overflowed into violence and vandalism at screenings. In this sense, the film has been seen as marking the start of a period of visible teenage rebellion in the latter half of the 20th century.

The film markeda watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown at a South London Cinema in Elephant and Castle in 1956 the teenage teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles.[2] After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown. In 2007, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture published an article that analyzed the film’s connection to crime theories and juvenile delinquency.

This reminds me of the riots that accompanied the premieres of classical music, such as at the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (and detailed in The Rest Is Noise – though this description comes from Wikipedia):

The première involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario and choreography shocked the audience that was accustomed to the elegant conventions of classical ballet.

The evening’s program began with another Stravinsky piece entitled “Les Sylphides.” This was followed by, “The Rite of Spring”. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, some members of the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Stravinksy had called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the première.”). Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience.

After the première, Diaghilev is reported to have commented to Nijinsky and Stravinsky at dinner that the scandal was “exactly what I wanted.”

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. The Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the première, entitled “A Myth of the Twentieth Century,” in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.

While we could do without the violence at these events, it suggests an era when ideas and cultural works prompted vigorous reactions. Today, do we have an equivalent? People going home and writing on their blogs (guilty as charged)? Critics spreading popular or contrarian interpretations? The occasional talkback session after a theater production?

I suspect that if people today read about these reports, they would do something like this: shake their head and ask why these moviegoers or concertgoers got so animated. But perhaps we could ask the opposite question: why don’t new ideas, particularly ones that push us to think beyond our accepted categories, animate us? Are we just so numbed by novelty and a plurality of ideas that nothing really shocks us anymore? Do we have space in our society to truly think through and debate the ideas presented in “entertainment”?

Of course, not all cultural productions are intended to push us in new directions. Some are there just for entertainment. But others push beyond typical boundaries. Take a recent movie like The Tree of Life: I saw it on the recommendations of a few friends and I’m still not sure what to think about it. But it certainly was thought provoking and wasn’t a “typical” movie. Is this simply an “art film” in its own category or is it more like what all cultural productions should be doing?

French suburbs moving away from mainstream French culture

The American suburbs are pretty unique compared to suburbs in other countries. For example, a new study shows that residents in French suburbs are moving away from mainstream French culture:

Local communities in France’s immigrant suburbs increasingly organize themselves on Islamic lines rather than following the values of the secular republic, according to a major new sociological study.

Respected political scientist Gilles Kepel, a specialist in the Muslim world, led a team of researchers in a year-long project in Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil, two Paris suburbs that exploded in riots in 2005.

The resulting study ? “Suburbs of the Republic” ? found that religious institutions and practices are increasingly displacing those of the state and the French Republic, which has a strong secular tradition.

Families from the districts, which are mainly populated by immigrants from north and west Africa and their descendants, regularly attend mosque, fast during Ramadan and boycott school meals that are not “halal.”

American culture is dominated by suburban themes and values while this study suggests the suburbs of France are the alienated portion of society. The study also looked into why the alienation is present, particularly following the 2005 riots:

While the resentment in the poor suburbs has social roots, essentially the residents’ virtual exclusion from a tight jobs market, the rioters expressed frustration in a vocabulary “borrowed from Islam’s semantic register.”

Islamic values are replacing those of a republic which failed to deliver on its promise of “equality”, and the residents of the suburbs increasingly do not see themselves as French, the researchers said.

American culture has some similar issues: we talk about equal opportunities, which is something different than “equality” in the French sense – compare “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Of course, this doesn’t exactly happen: the American system is set up so that certain groups have fewer opportunities over time. The disconnect between official rhetoric and the actual situation on the ground tends to lead to problems at some point.

So which country will effectively tackle these issues first: the French dealing with immigrants in the suburbs or the United States with poor inner-city neighborhoods? Does either country have the political will to truly tackle the root problems rather than simply treating the symptoms?