The best books on mob violence

Zachary M. Schrag Author Of The Fires of Philadelphia: Citizen-Soldiers, Nativists, and the 1844 Riots Over the Soul of a Nation
By Zachary M. Schrag

The Books I Picked & Why

The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America

By Barnet Schecter

Book cover of The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America

Why this book?

The four days of deadly fighting that shook New York City in July 1863 are best known as the Civil War Draft Riots, but they combined multiple, overlapping grievances. While some men rioted in outrage that poor men must fight while rich men could buy an exemption, others seized the chance to lynch African Americans, settle old political scores, loot shops, or smash the grain elevators and street-sweeping machines they blamed for their unemployment. Schecter connects the intimate, block-by-block events of a riot with the largest debates facing the nation, helping to explain the ultimate disappointment of Reconstruction.


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Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy

By Cherian George

Book cover of Hate Spin: The Manufacture of Religious Offense and Its Threat to Democracy

Why this book?

Unscrupulous leaders often stir up mob violence in service to their own ambitions, taking offense at slights that they could choose to shrug off. George charges such groups as the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the Front Pembela Islam in Indonesia, and ACT! for America in the United States with pursuing power, money, and attention by shrieking that a blasphemous cartoon, a multicultural textbook, or a new house of worship threatens the dominant religion. “Explosions of righteous indignation and incitement are more than the hysteria of mad mullahs and enraged mobs,” argues George. He reminds us to look past the young men throwing rocks and find the movement leaders who stand to gain.


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Among the Thugs

By Bill Buford

Book cover of Among the Thugs

Why this book?

Whatever rhetoric leaders deploy, they depend on others—usually teenagers and young men—who will fight for the joy of it. “Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences,” writes Buford. “For those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures.” He reaches this conclusion after years of observing the largely apolitical English football hooligans who follow their favorite teams around Europe, plundering and brawling as they go. The crime is brutal and pointless, but, Buford explains, the thugs thrill to the mayhem, the naughtiness, and the sound of broken glass. 


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Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today

By Anna Feigenbaum

Book cover of Tear Gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today

Why this book?

Democratic governments want to control riots, but they are generally reluctant to use firearms against crowds that include nonviolent protestors and wholly passive bystanders. When chemists developed gas weapons during World War I, army officers argued that irritants—colloquially known as tear gas—could solve the dilemma: forcing crowds to disperse without inflicting permanent injury. But as Feigenbaum shows, tear gas was never as simple, effective, or harmless as its promoters claimed. And no technological fix can reconcile the rights to security and protest.


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Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

By Derf Backderf

Book cover of Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio

Why this book?

In May 1970, Kent, Ohio, witnessed four days of violence, from a rampage downtown that left fifty-six store windows smashed, to the shooting of thirteen Kent State University students by the Ohio National Guard. To tell this story, cartoonist Backderf blends his craft with the historian’s. And it works: The same visual conventions that render the deeds of superheroes also effectively portray historic violence. Relying on oral histories, official investigations, and photographs as sources, Backderf depicts punches and kicks, the grins of victors and the grimaces of the vanquished, and the accompanying sounds: Pop! Crak! Bang! Crash! While contemptuous of the Guard’s senior leadership, he nonetheless takes care to present multiple points of view.


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