In August 2011 riots broke out in the Tottenham section of London, after protests against the police killing of a 29-year old man turned violent.
Over the ensuing days riots spread to other sections of London, spurred on by social media posts that encouraged looting and out-of-control behavior. The world was shocked by the scale of lawless activity and how small the initial spark had been.
Professor Clifford Stott [LINK] of the University of Liverpool has been studying crowd violence and public order for decades. In recent writings he suggests that the traditional view of riots—mindless mayhem—is completely wrong. Crowds, he states, frequently are not anonymous. They represent communities that have real grievances and need to be treated, as far as possible, as individuals.
In Stott’s view a crowd’s capacity for losing control hinges on two dimensions that we can make explicit and map. The first is legitimacy or the degree to which individuals view authority as having legitimacy. Legitimacy can range from total disrespect for police to absolute deference.
The other is power, defined as a crowd’s perception of its own power. As a crowd grows in size and becomes conscious of its ability to do whatever it wants, the capacity for mob actions grows. Power ranges from very low to very high.
The big new challenge for police, according to Stott, is that technology has altered how crowds perceive their power. This is key. In a pre-smartphone era police and crowd confrontations were defined by geography. You wouldn’t know a riot was starting unless you were there. The instant communications capability of tools such as Twitter and Facebook have expanded the geography of crowds. In the case of the London riots, Twitter instantly connected individuals in disparate neighborhoods, creating a ragged but effective communications structure that helped direct the looters to particular locales. As soon as police thought they had contained looting in one street, it would break out in a new area a few blocks away as crowd members tweeted new opportunities. Though police can physically contain a large crowd, they have a harder time preventing crowd members from communicating with one another. This was evident in various uprisings during the Arab spring as well, particularly that in Cairo.
There are exceptions. In 2011, San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system was targeted by demonstrators, once again angered by a police shooting. The demonstrators were eager to shut down the ability of commuters to get to their trains, and used cellphone communications to elude police barriers within the terminals. The BART authorities responded by cutting all cellular communications within their stations, effectively shutting down the crowd’s ability to expand its geography beyond physical line of sight.
Let’s examine the perceptual map of Legitimacy and Power and see how it affects policing options.
Upper Left: High Legitimacy, Low Power. Crowds comprised of people who are deferential to police authority and low in their perception of their own power are very unlikely to riot. Average citizens in impromptu groups—say shoppers in a store—fit this definition.
Lower Left: Low Legitimacy, Low Power. A crowd of people who have no respect for police may be dangerous, but unlikely to engage in mob action unless their perception of their own power increases. Police dealing with this sort of crowd are wise to defuse grievances and do nothing to spark increased anger.
Lower right: Low Legitimacy, High power. Danger zone. This is the kind of group spawned in London last summer. The images of police arrests, tweeted among friends, reduced the legitimacy of authority. As the size of the crowds grew, violent action was easy to spark.
Upper right: High legitimacy, High power. This type of crowd may be more amenable to taking orders. They feel powerful but also respect authority. Think of a typical crowd at a concert, park, or other public event where there is a powerful shared group experience occurring. There is a potential for violence but it’s low and most people will follow the rules.
Professor Stott has written a book called Mad Mobs And Englishmen, Myths and Realities of the 2011 riots.