Collective Behavior

& The L.A. Riots Essay, Research Paper

On April 29th, 1992 night was turned into day by over 5000 fires set by an mob of protesters in response to the verdict of People vs. Powell. Hordes of angry citizens, mostly from the low income areas of inner-city Los Angeles, ignored social norms,

lifornia state laws, and the Los Angeles Police Department; they created utter chaos only hours after the verdicts were announced. Over the course of three days, 58 people died, millions of dollars of damage was incurred, and the citizens of Southern C

ifornia were left with a deep emotional scar. The city was transformed from a relatively peaceful metropolis into a state of anarchy and pandemonium. The actions of the crowd during the Los Angeles riots displayed the classic characteristics of collect

e behavior; these actions were spontaneous and unplanned, with a lack of individual accountability.

The fear and tension about the mayhem that had erupted spread to many neighborhoods as well. There was a curfew enacted, from 7 am to 7 pm, and the subject of many conversations centered around whether or not the looting would spread.

Parents refused to let their children out, and the increased police presence was noticeable. Streets were eerily silent, and the normally crowded malls and coffee shops went empty when the sun went down.

Gustav Lebon’s definition of collective behavior states that the ego and the super ego disappear and behavior is controlled only by the id, “the part of the psyche associated with instinctual needs and drives.” His theory deals with the unconscious be

vioral takeover which occurs within the people of the crowd. According to Lebon, a crowd is defined as a group of people that are acting together and not just caught up in their own thoughts. The crowd has no spirit, reason, or judgment. It sees noth

g as impossible, will believe anything, and can even hallucinate. It provides a haven for people who are feeling insignificant and insecure, giving them a false sense of strength and invincibility. All personal feelings are replaced by the suggestion

and ideas of the crowd, causing the crowd to be “controlled by force, not reason.” Animal instincts simply take over. The crowd “goes to the extreme and ignores all evidence to the contrary,” eliminating the free will of the individual. A crowd effec

intelligence and emotions, allowing the individual, who would normally know they are responsible for their actions, to act without check.After the Los Angeles riots in spring of 1992, almost everyone in the country tried to explain why riots occur. W

can easily see how riots evolve from simple crowds to chaotic masses by applying LeBon’s theory of collective behavior to the stages of developing riots. We are able to answer the question of why the Los Angeles riots occurred from a sociological point

f view by utilizing his theory. Several precipitating factors and pre-existing conditions permitted the riots to transpire: why the crowd assembled, the generative stage of the crowd, how the crowd developed into a riot, police responsiveness, an

the socio-economic status of crowd participants.

Once the verdict was issued, throngs of people gathered in the streets. However, this did not necessarily mean that a riot was imminent. A crowd is not a potential riot solely because it assembles a great number of people. If people are caught up in

heir own thoughts it is not a crowd. Yet, the people were experiencing common emotions of anger and betrayal. They had all repeatedly seen the tape of Rodney King get savagely beaten; he had been clubbed by the police a total of 56 times. Nevertheles

the jury of 10 caucasians, one asian, and one hispanic decided that no law had been broken.

The potential for a riot was created when the trial concluded with a highly controversial verdict. Thomas Schelling, author of The Strategy of Conflict, presented what has come to be known as a “Schelling incident,” which examines the reasons for a ri

ous crowd to gather. He wrote, “it is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert.1″ Many people believe that media coverage was instrume

al in magnifying the problem. News coverage closely followed the developments at the corner of Florence and Normandie, where the riots began. By telling the public exactly where the crowds were, the media was guilty of helping the crowds to grow even


Still, not every crowd will become a riot, and this crowd was no exception. In fact, people inclined to be involved in criminal acts usually do not want lots of witnesses and the possibility of disapproving bystanders being around when they commit cri

s. Therefore, the mentality of the crowd’s members is extremely important. There has to be a “critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentio

of other members of the crowd.1″ In other words, a majority of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous.

As the crowds swelled, thanks to aggressive media coverage, the LAPD was noticeably absent. There had been no expectation of a full-scale riot. Since police presence was at a relative minimum (if that) and the crowd had become monstrous, people reali

d that their individual accountability had diminished. LeBon states that being in a crowd allows the person to act without check. The crowd members at Florence and Normandie knew that the risk of being caught was at a very low level; all they needed w

the entrepreneur to “throw the first stone,” and a riot would ensue. One reason why it was so easy for someone to start a riot was that their “own hopes and expectations about the potential behavior of the crowd were also the hopes and expectations of

any of its other members.2″ When the first rock was thrown, the first bottle was broken, and the first window was smashed, the entrepreneur knew that the crowd would follow. LeBon tells us that everyone is a savage underneath a level of good. This “g

dness” was stripped away by the betrayal of the system. He also explains that the people’s ids can join together, forming a force that overrules reason. In a normal situation, the citizens of South Central Los Angeles would reason that breaking window

and starting fires within their own neighborhood would not only cause them to be arrested, but also to be ostracized from their community. Yet, with ids of the people controlling their mentality, animal instincts took over. Suddenly, people were no lo

er attacking inanimate objects, but humans as well.

The first person to feel the wrath of the crowd was Reginald Denny. His beating transformed the situation from a group of angry protesters to a full scale riot. As the crowd watched the entrepreneurs brutally beat Denny, they realized that anything

as possible and there were no consequences that needed to be feared. The LAPD could have stopped the riots right there. Schelling wrote that “overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority t

ing to prevent mob action. In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone.1″ In theory then, all the LAPD had to

was quell the initial uprising. But if the entrepreneurs could get away with beating a man half to death while television cameras only filmed and police only watched the footage with the public, then it was obvious to the crowd that accountability had

isappeared. LeBon states that the crowd sees nothing as impossible and that the conscious disappears, while the subconscious and unconscious takes over. The conscious of a person would see the human aspect of the beating and either stop it or not take

art in it at all. We see another theory of LeBon comes into play here: all the ideas and feelings of the individual are turned around by the suggestions and notions of the contagion.

When we look back at the riots, probably the most memorable aspect of it all was the looting. Electronics stores, places that sold food, such as supermarkets and convenience stores, and clothing stores were hit the hardest. Since the riots took plac

in a low income area of Los Angeles, stores that carried necessities and basic household items, such as televisions and VCRs, which we sometimes take for granted, were carried away by the willing looters. LeBon’s theory on individual accountability can

e related to the looting. These people felt that it was safe to steal anything that they wanted. An individual acting alone would not have tried to break into a Radio Shack at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, stealing thousands of dollars of electronics, a

then burning the store to the ground. The crowd had lost all moral judgment, all respect for their neighbor’s property, and all care for human life other than their own; we see the characteristics of the id replacing the ego and the super-ego. It was

oted that after the first day “there came a point at which the police passed from inadequacy to impotence.3″ This caused “the police to actually pull back from the trouble when it became obvious to everyone, including themselves, that there was nothing

onstructive they could do.3″ Even by the third day the crowds knew that the police were still not going to intervene. The general public wonders why so many people took part in the looting. LeBon answers this question by saying that it is very diffic

t for individuals to resist the power of the crowd. The individuals realized that attempting to quell the mayhem and prevent any further looting ran the risk of the crowd turning on him or her.

Collective behavior, as explained by LeBon, ruled the Los Angles riots. Crowds had no judgment, reason, spirit, or limitations. The crowd members had common feelings, ideas, and reasons that brought them together. The ids had overcome the intellect,

ausing the animal instincts of humans to control their actions. Citizens no longer feared the police; the public saw that the LAPD was not accountable for a brutal law enforcement episode and the violation of human rights, so to them there was no way

ey should be responsible for any criminal activity they took part in. The crowds ignored any evidence to the contrary, and raveged the city for 3 days and 2 nights. Perhaps with a better understanding of LeBon’s theory of collective behavior, society

n be better prepared to prevent another event like the one that began on a beautiful, warm, sunny April afternoon in Los Angeles.


Buford, B. (1991) Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Cato Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring/Summer) 1994.

Schelling, T.C. (1960) The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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