Michael Smerconish had an interesting discussion today with Professor Cliffort Scott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University. Scott believes that rioting should not be portrayed as random and without meaning. I think that is true. There are deeper causes that should be considered when considering violent dimensions to some protests. While I find Professor Scott’s work on protests and “hooliganism” quite interesting, I do not agree with his assertion on the program that “looting is an expression of power.” It is more often a means of acquisition not expression (unless they are expressing their desire for a Nintendo Switch). In other words, it is a crime act that arises in a myriad of public emergencies that offer an opportunity to steal with less risk of detection or arrest.
Scott is the co-author of such work as Understanding crowd conflict: social context, psychology and policing. Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 35, 76-80. I commend his research to you because such work can challenge assumptions and bias in viewing scenes of violent demonstrations.2020.
However, it is the looting point that I find troubling and less compelling. Scott invoked Dr. Martin Luther King who once said riots are “the voices of the unheard.” It is obviously not a view shared by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who declared last night: “This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.” Likewise, Minnesota Tim Walz objected last night “The absolute chaos — this is not grieving, and this is not making a statement [about an injustice].” Today he called claims of the violence as an “expression” is a “mockery.”
Sometimes a crime is a crime. Deterrence is often found in the relationship between the rate of detection and the severity of punishment. As detection falls, increases penalties can theoretically achieve the same deterrence. When detection rises, penalties can be lower. During a public emergency a rational actor can conclude that the chances are lower that they will be detected or arrests. The result of the reduction of deterrence is greater crime.
I have previously discussed my problem with the media “guide” to refer to rioters or looters as protesters. I think that framing of such terms is as artificial as claiming that everyone involved in a riot is just drawn to mayhem. I have the same reaction to Professor Scott’s view of looting. I fail to see how running out of a Target with a flat-screen television is an expression of anything other than opportunistic crime.