NATO/G8: How a Crowd Becomes a Riot and How to Prevent It

The shadow of 1968 continues to loom over Chicago, particularly with the twin summits coming later this year. Had the city been more flexible with protesters then, it might not have turned into a fiasco.

The easy passage through city council of greater restrictions on public protest last week caused some consternation, and confusion: is the city government trying to stifle protest or prevent street violence? Does increasing bureaucratic layers and tightening rules actually prevent a protest from becoming a riot? The old but ever-present shadow of 1968 continues to loom in advance of the G8 and NATO summmits.

Last month Wired ran an interesting cover story on how riots form and emerge from mass gatherings, written by the inventor of the “flash mob” (in the classical, zany sense), Bill Wasik. The center of the piece is a social psychologist, Clifford Stott, whose spent his career analyzing crowds, mobs, and riots:

Stott sees crowds as the opposite of ruleless, and crowd violence as the opposite of senseless: What seems like anarchic behavior is in fact governed by a shared self-conception and thus a shared set of grievances. Stott’s response to the riots has been unpopular with many of his countrymen. Unlike Zimbardo, who would respond—and indeed has responded over the years—to incidents of group misbehavior by speaking darkly of moral breakdown, Stott brings the focus back to the long history of societal slights, usually by police, that primed so many young people to riot in the first place.

One of the rules that mobs operate by, according to Stott, is power—the perception that a sufficient mass of protesters makes it, for all practical purposes, safe to do whatever without fear of arrest or other consequences. This is pretty self-evident, but Wasik makes an addition, that this perception can spread faster with the use of mobile technology. If a riot is on some level a neural network, mobile communication makes the connections faster and more robust.

The second factor in crowd violence, in Stott’s view, is simply what he calls power: the perception within a crowd that it has the ability to do what it wants, to take to the streets without fear of punishment. This, in turn, is largely a function of sheer size—and just as with legitimacy, small gradations can make an enormous difference. We often think about flash mobs and other Internet-gathered crowds as just another type of viral phenomenon, the equivalent of a video that gets a million views instead of a thousand. But in the physical world, the distance separating the typical from the transformational is radically smaller than in the realm of bits. Merely doubling the expected size of a crowd can create a truly combustible situation.

In that sense, I can see some logic in attempting to minimize the size of protests by making them less convenient. Obviously city council’s new restrictions won’t stop people from protesting, but if one difference between a crowd and riot is numbers, turning it into a numbers game follows.

But that’s obviously not the only thing that turns a crowd into a riot:

In combustible situations, the shared identity of a crowd is really about legitimacy, since individuals usually start out with different attitudes toward the police but then are steered toward greater unanimity by what they see and hear…. A crowd where every member has a low L [legitimacy score] will be predisposed to rebel from the outset; a more varied crowd, by contrast, will take significantly longer to turn ugly, if it ever does.

As a side note, Wasik ties this into last summer’s “flash mob” crime/media trend:

Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist and Philly native who studies poor urban communities, has coined the term “cosmopolitan canopy” to describe these kinds of spaces [plazas, malls, dense commercial areas]. They’re the places where people of different races and class backgrounds come together, which makes them the closest thing we have today to a commons; for teens, especially poorer teens, the cosmopolitan canopy represents society and authority in the way that a statehouse or bank headquarters ought to but doesn’t.

Regarding “legitimacy,” I’d add that it cuts both ways. In Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Frank Kusch presents the case that some cops believed the protesters had no legitmacy:

Other cops admit, however, that there may have been a desire to see hippies and the counterculture as the same—radicals looking to do harm. Says former officer Warren MacAulay, “I know people who wore a uniform who really didn’t care—they hated the entire generation and they used any excuse they could find to go after them and teach them a lesson. These Yipps with their tough talk were making that very easy for some of the members.”

Some of Daley’s actions will sound familiar:

Fringe material became fodder for police with an ear to the ground or an eye on the local paper. “The press loved these crazies,” writes historian Allen Matusow. “Frightened officials took their wildest fantasies literally; and the myth of the Yippie grew.” The most telling reaction was how Mayor Richard Daley seized on the threats to restrict permits for marches and ordered curfews for city parks.

In his Walker Report summary, Dan Walker described the actions of a minority of CPD officers as a “police riot,” and it seems apparent that their actions stemmed from a lack of legitimacy assigned to the protesters. And it was an attitude shared by not just officials but a substantial number of Chicagoans:

Daley knew he had the support of the citizens of Chicago. As Allen Matusow has deftly pointed out, “Daley knew that if push came to shove, the great mass of white Chicagoans who bathed, prayed and pledged allegiance to the flag would have backed him all the way.” The mayor’s tough stance also had the support of the press. A week before the delegates arrival, the Sun-Times praised Daley’s “forthright” manner in establishing tough “ground rules.”

Kusch attributes Daley’s iron fist towards the protests to a fear that “massive disturbances would damage his city’s reputation.” While the DNC violence may not have hurt Daley at the ballot box, it’s left a legacy that’s obviously still with us. His contempt (and the contempt of the press and the general public) led to a crackdown on the protesters that worked briefly but became increasingly futile as the week went on. Kusch even suggests that the crackdown was ratcheted up after a brief, relatively uneventful impromptu march on the Saturday of the DNC, one that left me for some sympathy for the low-level cops who have been left on the hook for the ensuing violence:

The spontaneous [Saturday night] march, however, reverberated throughout police ranks. Officer Ronald Lardo remembers it well. “We caught major shit for that, let me tell you. That Old Town shit, well, we heard about that that night and the next day before our shifts began. We were reamed out. The word was that there was not going to be any people marching down the middle of the street anywhere stopping traffic, peaceful or not. Word was it didn’t matter. Disperse everyone, no matter who they were, quick and sure, no screwing around. No Mr. Nice Guy.” Other cops such as Milt Brower, said that the Old Town episode sent shock waves through the department. “We had been hearing for weeks how crowd control was everything, and then before the convention even began, while we were napping on that nice Saturday night, a damn march began right there in the main street, stopping traffic, and the press is there taking photos. I think that the reason shit hit the fan was that one of those photos made its way to someone at city hall, or Daley’s desk, and someone had a fucking conniption, and it went down the food chain. From then on, we were going to be there before they were and if they stepped onto the street we were going to knock them all the way back on or else. We were not going to wait for the crowds to pour in and overwhelm us.”

From the Walker Report, it’s clear that the violence got much worse following that Saturday night:

The Old Town area near Lincoln Park was a scene of police ferocity exceeding that shown on television on Wednesday night. From Sunday night through Tuesday night, incidents of intense and indiscriminate violence occurred in the streets after police had swept the park clear of demonstrators.

Walker attributes the police-riot reputation of DNC week to a minority of cops who “lost control of themselves under exceedingly provocative circumstances.” But Kusch’s interviews, and some of the historical research that’s been done since, suggest a more complicated scenario, one that implicates the administration, not to mention the support it received from the general public. Even to the extent Walker’s take might be true, the police don’t operate in a vacuum, and the environment they were operating in was hostile to the protesters.

If various newspaper comment threads during Occupy Chicago have been any indication, there’s still a fair amount of contempt for left-wing protests, if not on the level of 1968. But if the city wishes to prevent outbreaks of violence, the best strategy would be to minimize the contempt on both sides—that of the city towards protesters, and in response of that of protesters towards the city. An excess of order often serves only to preserve disorder.

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.