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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 livebroadcast 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 in Stanford, California.

“The Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney ; Zimbardo, 1977) created a new
“social reality” in which the norms of good behavior were overwhelmed by the
dynamics of the situation.” (Zimbardo 586). In the same sense, the outcome of
the verdicts, which was totally unexpected by those who most identified with
Rodney King, created a new social reality, a society which does not deliver
justice to blacks and minorities in their minds.Just as the Stanford students
radically altered their mind-set to adapt to the situation, the rioters
disregarded the norms of society because they were overwhelmed with the new
social reality created by the outcome of the Rodney King case. Once a few
members of the community began committing crimes, those who identified with
their view of social reality and shared the same attribution processes, joined
them.

Specifically now I draw on the case of Reginald Denny, a white truck
driver who was savagely beaten by two black males as he slowed down to avoid
hitting rioters on the street. The nature of the beating was particularly
disturbing because the assailants were joking, laughing, and dancing while they
smashed Denny’s skull into nearly 100 pieces. As one of the witnesses [race not
specified] explained to the New York Times, “They [the defendants] seemed just
like anyone, just like you and I. I see them just as two human beings. They
just got caught up in the riot. I guess maybe they were in the wrong place at
the wrong time.” Although the witness may not of realized it, he was applying
an aspect of psychology to justify the actions of Damian Williams and Henry
Watson. The objective of this paper is not to excuse the actions of the
individuals involved in the riots, but to help explain their actions from a
psychological perspective so that one can judge for themselves the rationale
behind their actions on an individual and group basis. The Reginald Denny
beating is particularly useful not only because it demonstrates the power of the
situation, but also because it reveals other aspects of situational forces
acting on the observers as well as the participants.

Reginald Denny was beaten by these men in broad daylight in front of
many bystanders. True the context of the beating was that of a full fledged
riot, but not a single person came to the aid of the helpless victim as
helicopters overhead recorded the 47 minute beating for the nightly news. This
phenomena of bystander intervention is explained in this case by the diffusion
of responsibility theory (Darley & Latane, 1968). This result arises when more
than one person can help in an emergency situation and people assume that
someone else will or should help. Another factor which plays into this serious
apathy is the situational cost of helping Denny. Perhaps bystanders felt that,
yes the two men were going too far, but they did not do anything because they
felt that the cost would be too high, in this case, their own safety. They
simply did not feel responsible for the well-being of Denny in the new social
reality they were absorbed in.

Perhaps the best method to analyze the behaviors of the rioters is
through the humanistic approach. Humanistic psychologists study behavior but
unlike behaviorists, they “focus on the subjective world experienced by the
individual, rather than on the objective world seen by external observers and
researchers.” (Zimbardo 18). In short, they believe that social and cultural
forces are critical to true understanding of a person’s inner self. With the
Los Angeles riots, it would truly be a mistake to attempt to interpret the
actions of the participants without considering the social and cultural forces
within the community. This approach is particularly useful because it looks for
personal values and social conditions that develops self-limiting, aggressive,
and in this case, destructive perspectives. Looking at the riots from a
humanistic perspective, the issue of prejudice must be explored to understand
the reasoning behind this “blind ethnic retribution” (Deviant Behavior, 1994,
Feb, 1-32).

Would Reginald Denny have been pulled out of his truck and nearly beaten
to death if he were black by these black men? After the verdicts, people living
in south-central Los Angeles and other minority neighborhoods began chanting,
“No Justice, No Peace!” They saw the enemy as white, whether it be in the form
of the white officers who beat Rodney King, or for the Denny’s assailants, Denny
himself. “Prejudice is the learned attitude toward a target object, involving
negative feeling (dislike or fear), negative beliefs (stereotypes) that justify
the attitude, and a behavioral intention to avoid, control, dominate, or
eliminate those int he target group.” (Zimbardo 615). The “us” versus “them”
mentality results in social categorization in which people place themselves and
others into groups. To say that prejudice had little or no role in the riots is
simply wrong. Yet a thorough examination of racism and it’s socio-economic
implications in America cannot be explained within the context of this short
paper. Instead, for the purpose of this study, it is important to realize that
once formed, prejudices exert a powerful force on the way relevant experiences
are processed.

African and Hispanic Americans living in the inner cities harbored
grievances against a perceived discriminatory system imposed by whiles, and when
officers’ Koon, Powell, Wind, and Briseno were acquitted of charges of brutality
toward Rodney King, there ensued a riot in Los Angeles which lasted for three
days and took the nation by utter surprise. This is a powerful case which
empirically displays that human thought and action are deeply affected by
situational influences. The participants constructed a social role that caused
them to act contrary to their beliefs, values, and personalities in order to
resolve their grievances.
Social Issues

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