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How rioting gets out of control

If you have ever responded to or been in the vicinity of rioting, you have probably wondered how on earth it all really starts. There seems to be a Joker-like depravity that almost suddenly fills the minds of people who, to be honest, were probably pretty normal just a few hours ago.

I have a temper myself and there are many things that upset me, anger me and even sometimes get me thinking about going somewhere and screaming at someone at the top of my lungs. But I don’t. I cannot see how burning down my local drugstore is ever going to get any point across and then there is also the fact that…well, I wouldn’t have a drugstore anymore! I guess I do not understand destroying MY hometown or neighborhood just to teach YOU a lesson.

A few years ago I found myself in the midst of protesters angry about immigration laws, ICE and Border Patrol. To be honest, I was nervous as we located agitators in the crowd that had flown in from all over the country just to push the relatively peaceful protestors into an angry mob. It was unreal to me that these few strangers were able to incite such a large group, but I admit, they were good at it.

Generally, police will agree that only a small number of protesters ever engage in looting, but it still becomes undeniably widespread. Every time large groups of people gather, damage on properties is expected.

Sociologists Russell Dynes and E.L. Quarantelli explain that "looting that takes place in this situation is usually interpreted as evidence of human depravity." They wrote this in their 1968 study, another year in which protests resulted in widespread damage on properties and deaths.

There are three classical theories that attempt to explain this type of behavior.

First, the "mad mob theory" suggests that people lose their sense of self, reason, and rationality when they are in a group and therefore do things they are unlikely to commit when they are alone. As I said, the individuals that I have met in these situations are normally rational people but are just angry. They want to be heard, they want to be seen, but they would also probably return home without performing violent acts if just left to themselves. They would have been seen. They might have been heard.

Unfortunately, it takes very few agitators or trouble-makers to create a different outcome.

Second, "bad" persons (the trouble-makers) are enacting their violent predispositions together with these “normal” but angry folks in the same place, resulting in collective violence.

There is an experiment I like to share when I do trainings on collective violence that has been very effective. Have two people stand side by side. Ideally one should be large and strong

and the other should small and frail. Have the large one stand on a sturdy chair and have the two grasp hands. Now have the large participant attempt to lift the smaller one onto the chair. After they have failed (which they will), have the small participant jerk the large one off the chair.

This is a perfect example of how agitators can be effective in a crowd. You cannot lift someone up to your level (of normality) but it is easy to drag (or influence) someone down.

Lastly, is the combination of the two theories with the bad leading the mad crowd. The evil and unscrupulous people - often outsiders or enemies - take advantage of the gullibility of the crowd in order to use them as a tool for destruction.

The agitators will draw attention. The protestors will see this draw of attention and, wanting attention, will gravitate to the agitators. Once this gravitational pull begins, the agitators become leaders in the crowd.

Researchers say that this phenomena creates a form of unity and identification as a group making the participants feel stronger, louder and more influential; all things they wanted when they first arrived.

Furthermore, journalists have also contributed to looting as they tend to focus more on the looters than the peaceful protests, which reinforces their violent behaviors to get the media's attention.

There are many that say we should not use the “outside agitator” wording or even theory because it lends to the belief that nobody locally could cause such a ruckus on their own. I am not insinuating this at all but rather pointing out that rarely does an organized peaceful protest change without agitators whether they are from out of town or not.

It is also true that there are groups of agitators that travel the country from protest to protest for a myriad of reasons including the white supremacist groups I have seen arrive at riots to create violence that can then be blamed on the black community. These might be better referred to as “infiltrators”.

Federal officials are trying to quantify how significant a role the outside groups are playing in the unrest that spreads to cities all over the US. Officials have scrambled each time to identify the affiliations of the extremists taking part in the riots, property destruction and attacks on police, and allegations of foreign influence stoking the unrest online are being actively tracked.

Former NYPD Lt. Darrin Porcher warned about paid demonstrators infiltrating ongoing protests and riots and emphasized the importance of communities working with law enforcement back in 2020.

"As a former NYPD lieutenant, I refer back to me being a practitioner in New York City and the many instances we had -- what we referred to as paid agitators. These were people who were paid by specific groups to come in and quote, unquote, raise a level of anarchy - throwing things, just creating somewhat of a miscreant society ... We knew who a lot these people were because you would see them at one demonstration. Then a week later you would see the same demonstrator or agitator protesting all over again. They knew nothing nor cared anything about what the actual event was involved around.”

It is these actors that can be that small person yanking the big one off the chair. As this weekend comes into view (see last blog post), we can only hope that despite differences and anger issues top community leadership has or will maintain communication with law enforcement administrators in order to ensure peaceful protesting with messages that stay on point and bring to light the real issues at hand.

In Atlanta, a gentleman made a bad decision and chose to shoot at a large group of police officers and was killed when that gunfire was returned. There is no issue here that requires a protest other than whether or not that was a legal firearm that the now-dead subject possessed.

The issue is open communication needed between the law enforcement community and the Defenders of the Forest. There needs to be respect given on the part of the Defenders and respect returned in conversations from law enforcement. I am saddened that within moments of the event in the woods on Wednesday that anti-cop rhetoric was already being posted and so I do not have high hopes for this outcome.

If the Defenders are reading this, keep this your fight and encourage calmer heads to prevail. Send agitators home and turn away those that could change the way this weekend could progress.

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