New York

How to Create a Riot


A guide for the few of you who aren’t anarchists

Keeping in mind that practically anyone who’s bent on protesting the Bush-league coronation at Republican Square Garden is a card-carrying anarchist, a few tips for you stragglers are in order.

The first thing is to look for a “Schelling incident.” Thanks to the libertarians over at the Cato Institute, whose Understanding Riots lights the lamp here, we now have a rudimentary understanding of this phenomenon named after strategic-theory guru Thomas Schelling, a venerable professor at the University of Maryland who spent some time in the Truman White House.

A “Schelling incident,” says the Cato study, “is not a signal that tells a person what to do. It is a signal that tells a person what other people will probably do.”

When there’s a “conventional triggering event,” as it were, “crowds form spontaneously in various places, without any one person having to recruit them,” the Cato study says. “Each member of the crowd will know more about the intentions of fellow crowd members than people usually know about the intentions of strangers, because once a starting signal has been given, people know that a riot is impending. They gather into crowds because they want to participate and they know why the other people in the crowd, or at least a great many of them, have come.”

But before you cops grab your truncheons, note that, as Cato says, “not every crowd threatens to evolve into a riot. In fact, the opposite is more often true: People bent on criminal mischief usually do not want lots of witnesses and possibly hostile bystanders around when they commit crimes.”

This, according to the Cato study, is where the psychology of the crowd comes into play:

A significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous. That is, there has to be a critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.

The Cato study goes on to say that the authorities can, of course, stop a riot from even starting: The Sardinian police militia, for example “smothered” a soccer riot during the 1990 World Cup by simply surrounding groups of English soccer fans who had arrived by chartered jets and “beating them senseless with truncheons.” (Another account notes that that the English fans were quarantined “like diseased guests at a party.”)

Few arrests were made by the Sardinian cops, so they didn’t even have to do that much paperwork, the Cato study notes. And of course there was no riot, because the would-be perps were lying on the ground, bloody and moaning.

Not a good strategy for American cops, the Cato study thankfully concludes. But strangely, considering that Cato is a libertarian venture, the study advocates a “civilian auxiliary to reinforce and supplement the police force.”

So here’s an idea: You millions of anarchists go over to Central Park on August 29 and start milling around. The six or seven of you who aren’t anarchists can just wait for a signal of a “Schelling incident.” Or maybe the authorities will send the GOP delegates over as a “civilian auxiliary,” and we’ll just settle the thing.

But watch out: the Billionaires for Bush have a croquet match scheduled for 10 a.m. on August 29.

“The NYPD have kindly agreed to bar 500,000 anti-Bush protesters from Central Park’s Great Lawn,” notes the activist group’s coordinator Jen Trivication, “so that the Billionaires for Bush can play croquet without the distracting chants of the angry middle class. This is the first step in the Billionaires’ ‘Keep Off the Grass’ campaign to privatize Central Park.”

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