The Power of the Situation
A week of urban mayhem was ignited by the April 29, 1992 jury acquittal of four white police officers who were captured on videotape beating black motorist Rodney King. The angry response in South Central produced its own brutal footage, most dramatically the live broadcast from a hovering TV news helicopter of two black men striking unconscious with a brick, kicking, and then dancing over the body of, white truck driver Reginald Denny. The final three-day toll of what many community activists took to defiantly calling an uprising, revolt, or rebellion, was put at 53 dead, some $1 billion in property damage, nearly 2,000 arrests, and countless businesses in ashes. These two men, Damian Williams and Henry Watson undoubtedly committed a heinous crime, but thousands more looted, burned, and destroyed property with the same disregard for life and property. Were all these people criminals who used the verdicts as an excuse to commit crimes, or was the nature of the social situation the primarydeterminant of this nefarious behavior? In the course of this paper, I plan to explore this question from a psychological perspective with an emphasize on conformity and social norms, bystander intervention, social perception and reality, and finally, prejudice. Generally looking at the Los Angeles riots, and specifically drawing upon the Reginald Denny beating and subsequent trial, the power of the situation becomes evident, as thousands of people living in an extremely poor and crime-ridden area of Los Angeles, lashed out against a perception of injustice through violence.
The conditions that lead people to perceive themselves as victims of unjust actions are rather complex. In this case, the favorable verdicts towards the officers who beat Rodney King was the "unjust action", not only for Rodney King, but for the community he came from. The perceived damage to desired social identities and justice led to resentment on the part of a historically poor and underprivileged class of citizens. The individual attempts to explain the event (the verdicts) by processes of attribution in which grievance may or may not be formed. (DeRidder, Schruijer, and Tripathi, 1992). The attribution of responsibility and blame is activated when confronted with unexpected behavior, unwanted consequences, or stressful, puzzling, and important events (Wong & Weiner, 1981). Thus the attribution process may be activated either when the individual experiences harm, or perceives an anti-normative action by another person or group.
Contrary to popular belief, not everyone residing in south-central Los Angeles looted. Instead the majority stayed in their homes until the participants ceased their destructive activities. This does not take away from the validity of the attribution theory due to the individual differences in attribution. These differences correspond with discrepancies in how one copes with a perceived injustice towards them. In the case of the rioters, they overestimated the dispositional factors and underestimated the situational ones (the fundamental attribution error). They saw the verdicts less as an explainable, rational decision by a jury of their peers, under the laws of California (situational), and more as a direct consequence of "the white man's power over the black man" and the failure of the American legal system in general (dispositional). But although attribution process plays a significant role in the motivation and rationalization of the rioters, it is only one of many factors that eventually led to the infamous Los Angeles riots.
It is safe to assume that for the most part, the individuals participating in the riots did not have a history of criminal activities. Yet why did they act upon their grievances in a matter totally unacceptable in their society and step beyond their social roles? The answer can best be illustrated by considering at an experiment preformed 20 years ago...
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