Street fighting is a term used to denote unsanctioned, usually illegal, hand-to-hand fighting in public places, between individuals or groups of people. The term also usually carries the connotation that the fighters are not professional martial artists or fighters. Participants may use basic boxing, kick boxing, wrestling, or improvised tactics, including biting, eye gouging, hitting other participants with objects or throwing objects at them. Any rules of combat are dictated by personal choice or code of honour.
When street fighting escalates to include large scale destruction of property by numerous participants it becomes a riot.
Street fighting may include edged weapons, blunt weapons or improvised weapons. Duelling such as a gunfight which may take place in a street is not considered a form or street fighting due to its formal nature. Fighting that takes place in streets as part of combat by military forces is known as urban warfare.
While street fighting as an actual activity is relatively rare, street fight video games and films are very popular.
All fights, whether in a home, place of work, place of business, or the street, are covered by criminal laws which make illegal various forms of aggression and public disturbance, including assault, battery, trespass and vandalism. Street fighting planned and carried out specifically to cause civil disorder and riots may be prosecuted under a variety of conspiracy laws, including anti-terrorism laws. In most countries, participants in a street fight may also be able to sue in a civil court to recover for their injuries.
In some jurisdictions, and historically, a theory of "mutual combat" prevailed, which decriminalized a street fight that was mutually agreed upon by the participants. This concept has largely been abolished, especially in the United States, where in some states it may even be charged as a substantive crime. It is now more common for both participants to be held criminally liable for disturbing the peace, assault, battery, attempted murder, or any other crime applicable to the facts. Whether or not a participant in a street fight may claim self-defense against his opponent depends entirely upon the laws of the jurisdiction. Note, however, that a "mutual combat" scenario usually precludes either participant from claiming self-defense. Otherwise, self-defense would usually apply only if the fight was begun unilaterally by one of the participants, and only then if various other requirements are met, again, depending upon the jurisdiction.
Street fights may arise from personal or social disagreements, harassment or bullying, drunkenness, drug usage, mental illness or attempted street crime or by organized bouts. They also may be motivated by various factions' or gangs' desire to control territory or to exert the authority or superiority of their group. Or they may be a tactic used by political, religious or other groups to achieve certain political objectives within the state apparatus. Depending on circumstances and the motivations of participants, street fighting may be random and spontaneous, deliberately instigated by a few trouble makers or planned in advance by a number of highly organized participants.
A common factor in many street fights is drunkenness and other forms of intoxication which impair peoples’ judgment and lead to arguments and violence. A street fight between two intoxicated individuals can quickly escalate to a major brawl among many individuals, intoxicated or sober. Most nightclubs have staff members called bouncers whose job is to manage unruly people.
Conflicts may arise out of competition among differing social groups or prejudice and persecution against other groups. The most common differences giving rise to inter-group conflicts are race, religion, nationality, social class and subculture. Incidents between members of such groups may spark spontaneous fights, or members of one or more groups may foment fights to harass or punish members of other groups or to claim or protect group territory. Such attacks can lead to street fights among attackers, victims and their defenders. Under some legal systems, violence proved to be motivated by such prejudice gets special legal treatment as hate crimes. Prejudice expressed in street fighting can escalate into even more violent and organized actions such as ethnic cleansing, pogroms, and genocide.
Street gangs may form along social lines like the above. However, even within similar races, religions, nationalities, etc. gangs may form around some common identity based on neighborhood turf, gang names and insignias, and private rituals. Such gangs may fight with members of gangs sharing common social traits.
Throughout American history lower income and/or immigrant youth formed gangs. English, Scottish, Irish, Italian and German gangs of the nineteenth and early twentieth century gave way to African-American, Asian and Latino gangs as we entered the twenty-first century. It has been estimated there were as many as 25,000 gangs in America in 2002.
Some groups of sports fans consider their territory to be in the stands of sports stadiums or in the surrounding streets. Groups of individuals, whether or not they know each other, often coalesce around symbols of their team and fight with those that belong to the opposing sports team. This hooliganism may be an expression of loyalty, approval, anger, or celebration.
Such sports riots have occurred over the centuries, with the year 532 Byzantine chariot races leading to the Nika riots being a famous example. Football (soccer) fans are infamous for drunken brawls in the stadiums, which only escalated after the Heysel Stadium disaster, in which 39 football fans were crushed to death in a battle between Liverpool F.C. and Juventus fans). Ice hockey fans have been known to riot in the streets. In 1955 the Richard Riot in Montreal, causing $500,000 of property damage, after Maurice Richard was suspended for deliberately injuring another player. Fans of the Vancouver Canucks rioted in 1994 after losing the Stanley Cup in game 7 to the New York Rangers.
Some sports psychologists suggest that sports riots stem from cultural attitudes that support other types of violence in sports. Common injuries include deep wounds from broken glass and stab wounds.
Individuals involved in organized crime are more likely to be embroiled in street fights, as these organizations often resort to violence in their quarrels over territory and profits and as a means of controlling their own members. Drug dealers, prostitutes, gamblers, and other individuals and gangs involved in illegal or quasi-legal activity often become embroiled in street fights.
Any crime against individuals, such as personal assault or sexual assault, robbery or mugging can result in a street fight if the victim attempts to fight or if a passerby intervenes on the victim's behalf.
Political conflict can occur between and among groups or gangs of rival political persuasions. These groups often see police as just another opponent to be fought in the streets.
During the 1930s, there were numerous street fights between large crowds of fascists and anti-fascists (particularly socialists or communists). The Battle of Cable Street was one such confrontation that occurred in the East End of London in 1936 when Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists attempted to march through a Jewish district of London and were stopped by large crowds of local residents. In Toronto, the Christie Pit Riot in 1933 broke out during a baseball game in a public park when an anti-Semitic youth group unfurled a swastika banner at a game between a Jewish team and a Christian team. Street fights between Nazis and Communists were common in Germany prior to Hitler's consolidation of power.
The 1960s saw street fighting by factions of anti-war activists in the United States and Europe, with the leftist group the Weathermen being a particularly well-known street fighting group. The 1970s saw an example of factional street fighting in the battles between the punks and the teddy boys on King Street in London during the summer of 1977. Street fights between activists and police have been frequent throughout Latin American, African and some Asian nations for decades. In some countries, like Italy and Turkey, street fights continued between fascists and communists sympathizers.
While street fighting was rejected by most activists during the 1970s and 1980s, it made a comeback after the massive media attention given anti-globalization protests in Seattle in 1999, Washington, DC in 2000 and Genoa, Italy and Quebec City, Canada in 2001. Street fighting largely is practiced by young activists operating in black bloc formations. In such fights, protesters set up and tear down barricades, vandalize corporate property and police vehicles, throw rocks at windows and police, and even commit arson and even use incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails. Police react by beating protesters and using tear gas, pepper spray and even rubber bullets. One goal admitted by some black bloc street fighters is to provoke police into attacking non-violent protesters to "radicalize" them to accepting street fighters' radical, usually anti-capitalist and anti-state philosophies.
Other evidence indicates that many of the recent violent conflicts between peaceful, legal protesters and police are the work of "agent provocateurs" working for the police or even policemen themselves. Dressed as a protester and usually masked, police provocateurs commit violence such as throwing bottles at police, or rocks through windows or even committing arson. The police use these acts by provocateurs as an excuse to march on otherwise peaceful protesters, with batons, horses and tear gas. Video has identified police officers, in one case by their SWAT issued police boots, at several protests acting in this capacity. Canadian police have admitted one "protester" with a rock and a bandana tied around his face was in fact a police officer. The video shows a burly guy with a crew cut handling a hefty rock and trying to throw it at police while real protesters try and stop him. The Canadian police insist he was there to stop any violence with his rock.
Work disputes may escalate into street fighting when management tries to break a strike by bringing in strike breakers across picket lines. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, management would sometimes hire "private security forces" (such as Pinkerton's in the United States) or so called "goons" to harass and physically intimidate picket lines.
Street fights may also occur during widespread labour unrest such as during a general strike. The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike resulted in the deputization by a committee of local companies opposed to the strike, of hundreds of men who were instructed to put down the disturbance at all costs. Street fighting was also a byproduct of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strike which saw confrontations between "workers defense brigades" set up by the Teamsters union and representatives of business owners as well as the police.