A contrarian view: the rioters are a skilful mob

I heard something on the radio as I was lying in the bath this morning. For days, the news has been about the riots affecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere in England. It isn’t pleasant listening, and it is making many people question our society.

But what I heard made me think about things a little differently. (Lying in the bath can do that.)

Before I want to go on, I feel I must express my disgust, horror and fear at the behaviour that the rioters and looters have displayed over the past couple of days. It is close to home – literally: I live two minutes from Wood Green Shopping City. The rioting in Tottenham has devastated an area I know quite well and where friends have lived for many years. It is hard to comprehend the harm done in cities throughout England – especially to small businesses struggling with the economic downturn. (Here’s a link to what people can do to help those harmed by the Tottenham riot, and a similar site on helping those affected by the disturbances in Croydon.)

But, as I say, I heard something on the radio this morning that made me look at things with a slightly different perspective. A pundit was talking on BBC 5Live Breakfast about, I think, disturbances in Birmingham. What he said was something like “the looting was planned and organised”. Planned and organised.

Planning and organising is something I do a fair bit of. It isn’t easier to co-ordinate the activities of people working a project together. Getting people who one can command to cooperate to work together. So the rioters are clearly skilled – despite the stereotypical views one might have of them.

This got me thinking: what skills might these people have? And could we learn from them? This is what I’ve thought of so far…

  1. Planning and organising. Well, the guy on the radio said that. He described looters as gangs of eight or nine youths (pretty close to the optimum number for an effective team – maybe teamwork should be added to the list, too) who would attack a shop, disperse as the Police arrived and then congregate elsewhere to start again. On the fly, therefore, they were making plans and organising themselves effectively.
  2. Communication. This clearly needs effective communication skills. They may not be able to communicate outside their peer group [and I’d recommend reading this post for its views on those rioting], but within it they must do very well.
  3. Technologically literate. They may be functionally illiterate, but they clearly know how to use technological tools at their disposal. Apparently, extensive use of Blackberry Messenger and other social media tools was made by rioters and looters to coordinate their activities. (Fortunately, the riotwombles and their use of the #riotcleanup twitter hashtag also used social media to organise, and have been one of the most positive things to come out of the riots so far.)
  4. Adaptable. The looting in Wood Green was apparently opportunistic – taking advantage of the Police being occupied dealing with the riot in Tottenham. The looters saw that authority was occupied elsewhere, and took advantage. Their attack-and-retire action, regrouping elsewhere as described on the radio shows that the rioters were adapting to changing circumstances. (They may be innovative, too, and problem-solving.)
  5. The power of crowds. The madness and wisdom of crowds has long been known. The looters and rioters have demonstrated what people can do together; better, so have the riotwombles. Together, we can achieve a lot.

There are things in the looting mob to admire, then. That list of skills could come straight out of the list of competencies used by any organisation. What is distressing is that the mobs’ energy is put to such destructive objectives. If our communities – if the mob – could harness that energy for positive ends, think what they could achieve.

I wish I could think how to do that…

[As well as the blogs I’ve linked to in the body of this post – and I heartily recommend reading Rosamicula’s post, “most of the kids are alright” – other informative posts on the rioting and looting include: Inspector Winter for a policeman’s view; Dib Lemming and Caron Lindsay on some political aspects; and Mindhacks on the psychology of the mob.]

Addendum: I had followed the crowd and assumed that the looters were like the failed school pupils described in Rosamicula’s post, as have most of the media. Many may be, but this report of court proceedings indicates that looters also included students, journalists, an estate agent, an aspiring ballerina, and a would-be social worker. Rather different to the usual view of rioters. It could be that these people were just the ones that got caught, of course…


9 thoughts on “A contrarian view: the rioters are a skilful mob

  1. Francesca

    How much of this do you ascribe to properties of the individual rioters and how much might be emergent properties of any mob?

    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      Thank you for letting me know! I thought I had checked my links before posting, but clearly not…

      It was linking to Rosamicula’s post on her experiences teaching the 15% of school pupils the system fails (http://rosamicula.livejournal.com/540476.html) – she describes how the young people in her care were unable to hold a conversation with an adult.

  2. Little Richardjohn

    Leaving aside the deplorable reasons for this vast alienated medieval scale underclass, their tactics, whether conscious or not, are a criminal masterstroke of stunning brilliance and simplicity. The assorted urban gangs all over the country have simply discovered strength in numbers, and the power of co-operation. After thousands of years of concealing their crimes in fear of prosecution, the criminal classes have completely lost their inferiority complex. So the more who commit crimes, the more will go unpunished. Schools of fish adopt a similar strategy.
    As a great Leap Forward in the history of Crime it overturns at a stroke all the old assumptions and conventions of secrecy and concealment. They know that they can, if they want, arrive in their longboats and pillage any settlement they choose.

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