In my lifetime, I’ve had the misfortune of being present in two major natural disasters and one violent social crisis. Each taught me valuable lessons.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, there’s the danger of the loss of shelter, services and food. In most cases, people who experience the loss of shelter and services realise that “things are bad all around” and they tend to do the best they can, accepting that life will be hard for a period of time.
Food is a different matter. People, no matter how civilized, tend to panic if they become uncertain as to when they will next be able to eat. And, not surprisingly, this panic is exacerbated if they have dependents, particularly children who are saying, fearfully, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” As Henry Lewis said in 1906, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” Quite so.
Intelligent, educated, otherwise-peaceful people can be driven to violence and even murder if the likelihood of future meals becomes uncertain. This has been the cause of spontaneous riots throughout history.
But this is not the only cause of riots. In the post 1960 period in the West, a new phenomenon has occurred that has steadily grown: governments and the halls of higher education have increasingly taught people that they are “entitled.” Governments have been guilty of this for millennia, beginning at least as early as the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome. It’s a way for governments to get people to be dependent upon them and thereby to do their bidding. But, since the 1960’s, it’s become a systemic norm.
And it always ends in the same way. The false economy of “free stuff” eventually devolves into over-taxation and economic collapse. When it does, people are more likely to riot, as the entitlements are “owed” to them. In today’s world, however, this condition has peaked far beyond what the world has ever seen before.
Increasingly, those who are angry that the free stuff they are receiving is not enough to placate them, take to the streets. Typically, they throw rocks and Molotov cocktails, burn cars at random, destroy buildings and loot stores. All of this activity, of course, does not make it more likely that they will receive more free stuff from the authorities who presumably owe it to them. Instead, it victimizes those who have lived lawfully and with less dependence upon the state.
Riots occur for a great variety of reasons. The trigger can be something as absurd as in the 2011 Vancouver, Canada riot, in which locals became infuriated over the loss of a hockey game. Over 140 people were injured and over five million dollars in damage was done in a five–hour period. That last bit of information should be emphasized, as the fans had plenty of time to calm down after their team’s loss, but the rage, once ignited, became self-regenerating. This is one of the important dynamics of a riot that’s often overlooked. The riot, which may begin as a reaction to an event, becomes the event and is continued for its own sake.
In the same year, thousands of people rioted in London. The trigger was more serious this time – the shooting of a local man by a policeman. (Although the man had fired on police prior to being shot himself, this fact failed to deter rioters.) The riots, like most irrational retaliations, only served to cause more deaths and injuries. The riots lasted a full five days over a dozen London boroughs, then ignited further in a dozen other cities. Over £200 million in damages occurred and over 3400 crimes were logged.
There’s another dynamic that’s not revealed as it’s seen from the safety of our television screens and that is the spontaneity of a riot. For anyone who has lived through a riot, as I have, the lesson is an indelible one.
Riots, on occasion, are planned and, once they begin, there are occasions in which individuals capitalize on them (such as the riots in Ferguson Missouri, where hired rioters were bussed in). But, in most cases, they’re spontaneous. They begin as a reaction to pent-up anger. (In the Vancouver incident, the anger was building even before the hockey game had ended, but many riots, especially socially-related riots, are often the result of many years of pent-up anger.)
The riot itself is generally a small spark that’s added to the existing anger and is often related to a specific event, such as the riots in US cities the night Martin Luther King was shot in 1968.
Once started, riots, for the most part, are entirely unplanned and rely on random acts of violence. Within minutes of the first violent act, entire neighbourhoods spontaneously ignite. As in the London riots, the same incident can spark off multiple riots, miles from each other.
A third often-misunderstood dynamic is uncontrolability. Police can race to the centre of a riot and, in some cases, quell the rioters, but, as the riot is not “organized,” the rioters have merely to stop whatever they’re doing and, for the moment, they cease to be participants. If police move on to other riot locations, the rioters who had been temporarily inactive could begin to riot again. Even if police are successful in quelling all violent activity in a neighbourhood, they could receive a radio call directing them to a new riot location, just blocks away.
In my own experience, new locations of violence erupting seemed to be going off all around the city, like popcorn. Before one could be quelled, others would pop up. The incidents were therefore, unstoppable by authorities.
Warfare has traditionally been approached from the standpoint that one army faces another and they fight until one surrenders. Guerilla warfare, however, has always proven unwinnable, as long as the guerillas are fighting on their home turf. Rioters have the same advantage as, say, an armed sheepherder in Afghanistan or a rice farmer in Viet Nam. The violence only ends when all rioters have decided they’ve had enough.
Of course we’d hope that rioters would learn from their crimes, but this is rarely the case. In the London riots of 2011, rioters burned down the local Sainsbury’s in their own neighbourhood. The next day, the same people were on the streets, in front of the television cameras, angrily stating that their grocery store was now gone and their children needed food. They demanded that the government truck in free food as an emergency measure and, not surprisingly, that’s what they got.
This is exemplary that, in every case, reason is abandoned and anger rules the day. No lessons are learned by the rioters. In fact, months later, rioters have often been quoted as saying, “We showed ‘em.”
So, what can we take away here? First, and most importantly, that riots are, by their very nature spontaneous, mindless and, for the most part, uncontrollable. Second, if an individual lives in or near a location where sociopolitical tension is on the increase, he is living in danger. The spontaneity of a riot means that he cannot prepare for it. If it arrives on his doorstep, or if he’s on the street at the time when it occurs, he may lose everything, including his life.
Since riots are mindless, rioters cannot be reasoned with. There’s no talking your way out of the danger, once it has reached you. Finally, as riots cannot effectively be controlled, the one and only defense against them is to conclude that, if one lives in an area where socioeconomic conditions indicate that the location (whether it be a neighbourhood or even an entire country) is an unsafe place in which to live, it may be time to move.
The key here is that the move occur before violence erupts. Once it has, it’s too late.