New Variations on Old Crowd Psychology
The Kerner Commission experts also owed a debt to the military's patronage of expert work on the nature of social upheaval and to those elements of the crowd psychology tradition that had survived as themes in postwar theoretical models of crowd formation and revolutionary stages. By the late 1960s, crowd psychology was called by a new name, "collective behavior," and had migrated throughout the social sciences via the behavioral revolution of the 1950s, which stripped crowd psychology of its obvious antidemocratic tendencies and injected it with a heavy dose of scientific method. The theoretical work of Kerner Commission consultants Neil Smelser and Ralph Turner kept alive the residue of the old psychology in the form of a sophisticated new sociology. The idea that groups were subject to unconscious social contagion remained viable, alongside the conviction that race rioting was appropriately classified with religious cults, natural disasters, and other types of social panic.
The Kerner Commission experts employed phase models of urban disturbance, compiled elaborate chronologies, designed multifactored riot classification schemes, and hypothesized that rioters shared a common personality profile. All of these recalled military efforts, like the
failed Project Camelot, which had used these very techniques to make the explosiveness of civil unrest in the Third World at least a little bit more predictable for military and foreign policy-makers. They also all employed, sometimes almost verbatim, the theoretical jargon of social science for descriptive purposes: riots were labeled as "expressive," "suggestible," "permissive," or as prototypes of "social contagion."
There were significant differences, however, having to do with the sympathy that black Americans had gained since the 1950s through the civil rights movement and the growing presence of intellectuals in a variety of 1960s social movements. The justice of civil rights demands, the slowness of racial change, and decided patterns of activism among highly educated Americans on university campuses had momentous consequences within the literature of particular social science disciplines. Also important was the movement of the psychological professions away from their preoccupations with the abnormal, a shift that decisively changed the subjects of psychological experts, beginning with World War II. All of these developments combined to make it less likely that experts in the late 1960s would view urban rioters as deviants in the grip of irrational forces. We have already considered instances of this tendency toward a more positive and rational theory of collective behavior among Kerner Commission experts, such as Elliot Liebow, who suggested that rioting was psychologically empowering for individuals whose lives were otherwise impaired by apathy and hopelessness.
Rioting was sometimes even posited as an ideological stance, a necessary, if destructive, stage in the civil rights movement, or, as it was more likely to be called in the late 1960s by advocates of this position, the black revolution. This perspective was only possible because the irrational contamination of ideological commitment, a core element of the World War II worldview, was challenged in the 1960s. The terrible destruction wrought by enemy national characters and the deep emotional appeal of fascism faded from view during a decade when the ideological commitments closest at hand—eradicating racism, poverty, and imperialism—seemed beyond reproach and the postwar "end of ideology" appeared nothing so much as an irresponsible abandonment of moral principle.
A number of Kerner Commission experts and research projects tested out this positive new assessment of ideology. Riots could appear to be purposeful, organized protests against legitimate and pressing grievances, instead of hysterical fits. That riots were taken seriously as a form of political action was sometimes indicated through the vocabu-
lary used to describe them: "urban rebellions" competed with "mob violence" and "lawless anarchy."
Widespread consideration of riots as a rational collective activity was new, but the idea itself was not. As early as the Harlem riot of 1943, Kenneth Clark had suggested that a significant number of black Americans condoned rioting as a specific means to achieve the end of racial justice. By 1965 he denied that ghetto violence was an uncontrollable force and chose instead to call it "a weird social defiance" of objective social conditions ranging from substandard housing and soaring crime and infant morality rates to impoverishment and discrimination. Clark, however, sometimes reverted to the old crowd psychology themes in his observations of riots. "Such anarchy could even be a subconscious or conscious invitation to self-destruction," he noted that same year. "Those who despair in the ghetto follow their own laws—generally the laws of unreason."
Gary Marx, one of the commission's in-house researchers, did not so much criticize the old crowd psychology as try to turn it upside down, by applying its principles to the behavior of police, rather than rioters. "Who controls the agents of social control?" was, Marx submitted, a major question that generally went unasked and unanswered. He went so far as to suggest that law enforcement personnel had caused urban riots, or at least intensified them, through the classic pattern of contagion, panic, and frustration usually attributed to crowd members. Marx's themes found strong encouragement in the publications of the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University, a research center, established in 1965, that had blazed trails eagerly followed by Kerner Commission experts. The Lemberg Center staff insisted that rioters could be understood as reasonable actors frequently faced with "police panic." Further, they speculated, rioters were attempting to solidify a positive sense of community and masculinity. They simply could not be compared with Gustave Le Bon's primitive and herdlike crowds.