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Does rioting work? Here are five times it did.

Expert opinion is divided on how effective riots can be on causing social change. However, these five examples show they can do something.

An unknown person reacts to the burning of a building in Minneapolis.

(Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
  • We often hear that riots are not an effective means towards social change, but what do the experts say?
  • Experts are still working on it, but it is agreed that it is at least occasionally effective.
  • We include five cases of when rioting clearly led to desired social change.

The United States has a long history of rioting. Some of these events, such as the Boston Tea Party, are well known and celebrated. Others, such as the Tulsa Race Riots, are rarely discussed and only with a proper level of shame. These days, whenever rioting breaks out, one of the first points made is that "rioting doesn't work." However, several experts on the subject disagree with that analysis.

In his recent Jacobin article, Dr. Paul Heideman refers to data that shows how popular support for more policy changes to advance equal rights spiked to new highs following the riots in Ferguson and similar ones in Baltimore in 2014 and 2015. He also points to data showing how the 1992 Los Angeles riots increased support for liberal policies. Darnell Hunt, a professor at UCLA, pointed out to Vox readers that this shift in opinions led to concrete policy changes in Los Angeles. In the same article, Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan explained how the riots of the 1960s lead to the Kerner Commission.

Other experts agree that rioting can lead to desired change, but caution that the effects are not as clear cut as many would like to think they are.

In reference to the then-current riots which lead to the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic noted that there are cases where riots work, even if the track record is spotty. Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University, told Vox that many social changes were accelerated by rioting, but that they also "cut both ways," as there is always some unseen consequence that can muddy the waters.

Assistant Princeton professor Omar Wasow, in a study published this month in the American Political Science Review, argues that while peaceful protest caused popular opinion to shift towards equal rights legislation, the riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King caused American voters to turn towards Richard Nixon in the next election –leading to the "tough on crime" policies people are protesting at this moment. This suggests that while riots can lead to change, they can also prompt a backlash strong enough to erode those gains.

Taking these experts' opinions together, it is clear that rioting can cause change at least some of the time. A basic understanding of American history endorses this view. Here, we will take the opinions of the above experts to heart and consider five times in American history that rioting was able to deliver the change that people demanded.

Of course, there are plenty of examples from outside the United States as well. This list is also far from exhaustive when it comes to the United States.

Stamp Act Riots

The Stamp Acts were the first attempt at directly taxing the American Colonies by the British Parliament. Like the later taxes that would directly lead to the American Revolution, these were imposed without the representation of the colonists. The act required that all printed materials in the colonies be on specially printed paper that carried a revenue stamp.

Shortly after the law passed, the protests and riots started. Street protests of unprecedented size broke out from New Hampshire to Georgia. In Boston, an effigy of the appointed tax collector Andrew Oliver, who didn't know he had been appointed to the role, was beheaded by an angry mob who then threw rocks at his house and raided his wine cellar. A few weeks later, the same group stormed the mansion of the Lieutenant Governor and took everything not bolted down, including the slate roof.

Similar riots broke out in every colony. Ships bringing in the stamped paper were turned back at harbors. Every designated tax collector resigned within eight months of the law's passage. The act was repealed after only one year of existence and without having raised much money at all.

Groups that had organized to resist the act formed the Sons of Liberty, which would play a large part in the beginnings of the American Revolution.

The Dorr Rebellion

In 1660, when the colonial charter of Rhode Island was drawn up, it included an uncontroversial requirement that all voters own property. After all, when they wrote it, most people were farmers who owned their land. Nearly two hundred years later, however, this situation was intolerable. Only 40% of the state's white male population could vote, and even this group was far more rural than the white male population as a whole.

Given that most other states had near-universal white male suffrage by 1840, the people of Rhode Island tried to peacefully replace the colonial charter with a more liberal state constitution. However, these attempts all failed at the hands of the misaligned state legislature. In 1841, having given up on working within the system, a group of supporters led by Thomas Dorr had a people's convention that drafted a liberal constitution granting universal white male suffrage, which was supported by considerable margins in a later referendum.

Both Dorr's supporters and the original government of Rhode Island held elections for governor the next year, with neither party recognizing the other. Predicting trouble, the old state government instituted martial law. Dorr's supporters later attempted a raid on the Providence Arsenal but were driven back. After the state militia was called out to battle a collection of armed Dorr supporters who gathered for another convention, Dorr dissolved his forces and fled the state.

Shocked by the strength of Dorr's supporters, the old state legislature passed a new constitution that expanded suffrage even further than the one Dorr suggested. Dorr was arrested, given a harsh sentence, and then released after a public outcry. He is traditionally listed as a governor of Rhode Island in recognition of his popular support.

The Lager Beer Riot

In 1855 as the temperance movement began to pick up steam, it was not uncommon for legislatures to limit which days alcohol could be purchased and who could sell it. In Chicago, under Know-Nothing mayor Levi Boone, the city increased the price of liquor licenses from $50 to $300*. It also reduced their term of validity to three months, down from one year, in an attempt to reduce the number of saloons in the city.

This action had a distinctly anti-immigration tone to it, as the legislation most impacted German and Irish immigrants. They enjoyed a drink on their one day off at saloons in their own, often more impoverished neighborhoods.

Saloon owners ignored the law, and two hundred were quickly arrested. On the day of the first criminal trial related to the law, immigrants swarmed the downtown area. After several arrests, an armed group of German immigrants marched on the area from the North Side to rescue the prisoners. The bridges across the Chicago River were swung to prevent crossing and allowing the police time to gather. When the bridges were turned back, the immigrants charged and were fired upon, killing one.

As a result of the rioting, the licensing fee went back down to $50, residents of Chicago started to pay attention to who was running the city, and the Sunday law went back to infrequent enforcement. Those charged with violating the law were not released, but the rioters got off scot-free.

The Detroit Riot/King Assassination Riots

Two riots separated by less than a year, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Sparked by a police raid on a bar hosting a party to celebrate the return of two GI's from Vietnam, the Detroit riot soon spread all over the city. The national guard was quickly called in by Governor Romney. However, the guardsmen's lack of professionalism and experience led to several deaths and did little to stop the rioting. So many people were arrested that the Windsor, Canada police stepped in to help process fingerprints. Several instances of incredible police brutality took place. This did nothing to help restore order- nearly 500 fires blazed on the second day of rioting.

Around midnight on the third day, President Johnson sent in federal troops. While the army proved more effective than the National Guard, it took another 48 hours for the riots to end. Dozens of people died, hundreds were wounded, more than a thousand buildings burned, several thousand people were arrested, and the images of tanks in the streets of a burning American city graced screens worldwide.

While the riots were still ongoing, President Johnson formed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the riots and suggest solutions. Their report found that African Americans did, in fact, endure problems related to what we would now call "systemic racism." It called for a variety of policy changes, including fair housing laws, job programs, and more public housing. As has been a theme in the American history of addressing racism, Johnson and Congress proceeded to ignore these suggestions.

One month after the release of that report, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down, riots broke out in more than 100 American cities. President Lyndon Johnson pressured Congress to act. With the sound of rioting audible from within their smoke-filled meeting rooms, Congress found the votes to pass the previously stalled Civil Rights Act in six days.


The dawn of the LGTBQ+ rights movement, Stonewall was a standard police raid on yet another gay bar that went in a very different direction.

At 1:20 on the morning of June 28, 1968, the police knocked down the door of a mafia owned gay bar in the Village without running water to clean glasses with. The patrons of the bar refused to cooperate with police demands for identification and verification of what sex they were, resulting in the decision to arrest them all. A crowd began to form outside the bar, which dramatically outnumbered the police.

After witnessing the police strike an unknown woman* with a baton, the crowd attacked the police vans, slashing the tires and helping the arrested escape. The police barricaded themselves inside the bar, which was then besieged by the assemblage with an impromptu battering ram. The officers who brought the paddy wagons fled.

Police reinforcements arrived, but the situation only deteriorated from there. Nightstick wielding officers attacked a singing kickline, police were chased down the street by the crowd, and the Stonewall Inn was laid waste. Rioting continued over the next few days before dissipating.

Unlike the other riots on this list, the immediate effects of Stonewall were oriented more towards psychological and activist outcomes rather than changes in the legal system. Raids on gay bars continued, but gay newspapers, organizations, and activist groups sprang up like flowers in the spring. Two years to the day of the riot, the first Pride parades took place. Gay rights activists Randy Wicker and Frank Kameny, who were both initially embarrassed by the riot, went on to claim that there was a definite psychological effect caused by the event, which "stirred an unexpected spirit among many homosexuals."

The results of that psychological change and the fruits of that post-riot organization are evident today in the robustness of the LGBTQ+ movement and its successes.

* Today, this would be around eight thousand dollars.

* Ideas as to who this person was vary and a definitive answer remains elusive.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

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Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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