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 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