Freedom to Riot

Police cars were overturned and shops looted as the mob descended on the city’s central square. Rioters tore the police station’s outer door off its hinges and “used it as a battering ram” to break inside. Others smashed their way into the city building where they assaulted government workers, shattered windows, and destroyed furniture.

The portrait of a powerful leader was pulled from the wall and sent dangling from a balcony as angry voices below cursed him and the other “fascists” believed responsible for their condition. One man, a lathe operator who had gone on strike, ran onto the balcony holding up two plates loaded with cheese and sausage. “Look and see what they eat,” he shouted to the crowd below, “yet we cannot get such food!”

The Novocherkassk riot on June 2, 1962, was Soviet Russia’s largest public uprising to date. More than two thousand took to the streets in response to the Communist Party’s decision to increase food prices by 30 percent at the same time that wages were being reduced. Workers walked out on the job, students left their classrooms, and men and women of all ages joined the chorus of protest. The crowd marched peacefully through lines of soldiers backed by armored vehicles that had been hastily assembled and went to voice their grievances directly with a communist government that claimed to be on the side of the worker.

But when authorities inadvertently fired on unarmed civilians the “noisy, aggressive, and far less reasonable members determined its focus and direction,” wrote historian Vladimir Kozlov in his book Mass Uprisings in the USSR (M.E. Sharpe Inc, 2002). Drunken fights and petty theft occurred alongside the anger over poverty and police brutality. From a crowd made up of individuals, each possessing the ability to make a free choice, something more powerful had been unleashed in which normal rules of conduct seemed not to apply.

“For some reason some kind of force filled me,” testified one of the rioters during his trial. “Until this day, I do not understand how I got into this. What kind of devil was it that asked me to go and forced me to enter into the police department?”

Collective violence, extending from riots to warfare, presents a challenge to our ordinary understanding of free will. Actions that would rarely be taken by an individual on their own seem to be embraced when supported by a larger group. This can occur in societies ranging from the communist regime of Soviet Russia to the capitalist free market of modern day England. Given this commonality, perhaps the collective violence of a riot can be best understood as a biological event in which evolved cognitive responses encounter a unique environmental threat. And if that is the case, do individuals caught up in such incidents have any choice in the matter?

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Scientific American, September 2011