What led to the Baltimore riots?

A bit of crowd control – nothing heavy-handed. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Baltimore is dealing with the aftermath of a night of disorder that saw at least 15 police officers injured and 27 arrests following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American who died a week after being arrested. An overnight curfew has been imposed and up to 5,000 National Guard troops could be on the streets, with their commander claiming: “We will be out in massive force.”

But even if these militarised deployments quell the disorder (and if the riots in Ferguson last year are anything to go by, they could well escalate the situation), they will not address the reasons why such disorder can begin and spread.

Studies of crowd disorder by psychologists in the UK point out that urban riots are actually quite rare in countries such as Britain and the US and that when they do happen, it’s often because of a complex mix of events that operate within a wider social context. Specific outbreaks of disorder are usually triggered by a clash in views of legitimacy between opposing sides (such as protesters and the police).

I would therefore argue that crowd disorder is clearly not inevitable after controversial deaths at the hands of the police and that when it does occur it is vital to explore how such incidents are dealt with in their aftermath. There is a danger that expecting and preparing for trouble in such situations could create a chain of events that makes such disorder more likely.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

It is necessary to explore specific events leading up to each instance of disorder to gain a greater understanding of how they can occur. A quick look at the timeline of events illustrates just how complex they are.

Before the flames: peaceful protest at the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. EPA/Noah Scialom

Gray was arrested on April 12, fell into a coma on April 14 (after suffering a severe spinal injury during his arrest) and died on April 19. The protests initially began on April 18 outside the local police station, but then spread to Baltimore City Hall – 12 people were arrested at protests outside the baseball stadium on April 25.

But the disorder did not start until after the funeral on April 27, eight days after Gray died – and two weeks since the initial incident, suggesting that there may be other factors at play here that can help explain events.

For instance, there was speculation that Baltimore police claimed to have received intelligence that local gangs had put previous differences to one side in order to kill police officers.

However, other sources also claim that a group of high school students were left in the area after the funeral because of public transport being cancelled. The same sources suggested that the disorder first began when this group made their way to a shopping mall – the local transportation hub – and were confronted by police in riot gear. The students began throwing water bottles and rocks at the officers who then responded with tear gas and pepper spray – and the disorder later spread across Baltimore.

Time may tell as to the precise accuracy of these accounts, but to my mind, they illustrate how differing perceptions of such events can create a cycle of escalating disorder.

Disorderly conduct. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Local police commanders may well have felt justified in deploying their officers in protective clothing (riot gear) because they had serious reason to believe that there was a threat to their safety. But that deployment could well have been perceived as a threatening move by the high school students, who not only felt their transport options home had been cut off but that their path had been blocked by police in an overtly intimidating way.

Sparking disorder

So it could be that it was this clash of views between the two sides that created the initial confrontation, from which wider disorder developed and spread to other parts of Baltimore, resulting in widespread looting and buildings being set alight. Studies of urban disorder in the UK have found that similar processes were the initial spark for disorder.

For instance, the 2011 riots in England initially began in Tottenham, London after a protest outside the local police station (in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan) was charged by the police, and the disorder then quickly spread across London and other English cities over the following five days.

While there is controversy over the actual figures of how many African American males die at the hands of the police in the US, it is widely accepted that they are disproportionately more likely to come into contact with the police, and this too often ends in tragedy. Clearly, these figures need to be read in the context of the deep social, political and economic inequalities that so many African Americans suffer from in the US today.

However, if we just focused on this broad context, we might ask ourselves why the shockingly high number of deaths doesn’t result in much more disorder in American cities and so this is why specific trigger events need to be explored as well.

Often those who study crowds are accused of being apologists for riots when they try to explain such events. However, if we don’t properly explore and address both the micro and macro reasons for why disorder occurs, we shouldn’t be surprised if such disorder continues to happen and spread further afield. Furthermore, if we assume that disorder is inevitable in such situations, we reduce the chances of being able to objectively explore such events and change policing tactics that may make such disorder more likely.