How to Stop a Riot


Two weeks ago Charlottesville erupted into
chaos. Violence met the streets as a groups of white
supremacists, neo-Nazis, and far right demonstrators clashed with counter-protesters. Some have criticized and blamed the violence
on the police response. “The police had every opportunity. They’re getting overtime pay, they’re
getting hazard pay, they’ve got tens of thousands of dollars of equipment per officer
and they came out here and guarded empty space the entire day.” But to better understand why the demonstration
ended up the way it did, you have to understand how riot control works. The fundamental problem with riot control
is that there are almost never more riot police than rioters so the police need to artificially
give themselves an advantage. Part of it is psychological. They make it so rioters think that the police
could defeat them. The uniforms riot police wear are intentionally
dehumanizing. Clad in protective gear head-to-toe, you can
hardly tell one person from the next. This creates a psychological barrier between
the police and the rioters. Studies have show that these uniforms make
both protesters and the police themselves feel like the police officers are more powerful
than they are. It has also been proven that the way riot
police act increases their perceived power. The officers almost always march and act in
unison. When they act as a collective, just like the
protestors, they personally feel as if they have the power of the collective and the crowd
does too. The most basic riot police formation looks
like this. With the goal of moving the crowd to another
location, this front echelon slowly advances, pushing rioters forward with their shields
and batons. They’re followed by a team leader who organizes
the whole group, most likely this officer in this Charlottesville footage. Right with the team leader are a few gas officers. You can see one here. They have tear gas or pepper spray to deploy
over the front echelon towards any demonstrators that put up a fight. Following them is a group of arrest officers. Should the front group encounter any particularly
difficult rioters, they can open up, let the demonstrator though, then the arresting officers
can take the troublemaker into custody. Finishing is the rear echelon which protects
the group and can sub out with the front echelon when they tire. Violence happens at rallies because of three
facts: crowds are anonymous, anonymity breeds violence, and violence lowers consequences. Crowds are deindividualizing. When you’re just one of a number, you don’t
think or act as much like an individual person. A group of people all with a common goal and
a common way of thinking breeds a collective conscience. In a crowd, people don’t think about consequences
the same way they do when they’re on their own. There’s a sort of contagion of feeling. Just like a sports game or a nightclub, people
act differently than they normally might because other people do too. There’s a sort of wordless peer-pressure. Individuals subconsciously escalate their
violence to match that of the leaders. People act almost by instinct in crowds and
the individual breaks down and becomes a part of the collective. When there’s widespread violence, individuals
are punished less. There’s a lower sense of legal culpability
since police often make far fewer arrests than normal. In a riot, authorities can’t arrest everyone. They target the leaders, the most violent
protestors. It’s like running from a bear. You don’t have to be faster than the bear,
you just have to be faster than the slowest person. Dozens or perhaps hundreds of people committed
violent acts in Charlottesville that normally would have resulted in arrests, but out of
them, only eight were arrested. Police have to be very careful with the directionality
of the protest. The police’s goal is to stop or slow the
riot while widespread arrests will often further ignite the violence. In Charlottesville, for example, if the police
had intervened too strongly, the direction could have turned and members of both groups
could have directed their violence towards the police. Police never want to be perceived as unjust,
in a riot scenario that is dangerous, so they have to play a careful balancing act between
too little and too much response. So what went wrong in Charlottesville? Why did it end up so violent and could the
police have prevented it? The “Unite the Right” rally was initially
slated to begin at noon but by 9 am there were already hundreds of demonstrators from
both sides. The police were not ready that early. They weren’t in their riot uniforms and
they didn’t have significant numbers. The initial plan was to physically separate
the two groups on separate sides of Emancipation park in downtown Charlottesville. There were barriers set up, but nobody seemed
to anticipate the number of people that showed up. The “Unite the Right” rally was in fact
a permitted assembly. That group’s presence at Emancipation park
was fully legal, but the city did not want them there specifically. The city government tried to block the demonstration
permit unless the group agreed to hold their rally at nearby McIntire park, a much larger
and more open park nearby, but the rally’s organizers successfully contested this move
in court on first amendment grounds and was allowed to hold their rally right there in
downtown Charlottesville. There simply was not enough space for the
number of people who showed up, but the fundamental issue in Charlottesville was numbers. Charlottesville is a small town, fewer than
50,000 people live there, and their police force is correspondently small. While there were thousands of protestors,
the police force had fewer than 130 officers. At the same time, the officers working in
Charlottesville were hardly experienced with riots. It’s not a big city with frequent protests—this
might have been the first time many officers used their riot gear in the field. They could not afford for the violence to
turn towards them. While the chief of police hasn’t spoke much
about his tactics, experts have said that the lack of initial intervention was likely
a conscious choice to assure that the violence stayed between protestors and protestors,
not between protestors and police. Virginia is an open-carry state and many demonstrators
carried assault weapons so escalated aggression could have turned the riot even deadlier. At around 11:40 am, the Virginia State Police
declared the protest an unlawful assembly meaning it was then illegal to participate. They subsequently began the process of breaking
it up carefully. Now, how you break up a protest is very important. Doing it wrong can turn deadly. Their first priority was clearing Emancipation
Park. This was both the symbolic and physical center
of the protest. They made it know that the assembly was now
unlawful, “This gathering has been declared to be an unlawful assembly,” then began
to slowly work their way outwards in a uniform fashion pushing back anyone who put up a fight. They strategically removed the violence leaders
from the public area. Here you can see the man in red pulled through
the front echelon of officers. (12:10) He was likely brought into custody
by the arrest officers behind the front echelon since he was one of the main escalators. There were other aggressors escalating the
situation like this man with the flag, but the police didn’t risk breaking rank to
take him into custody. Doing so would expose officers to the violence
of the main crowd. Tear gas was used to get the final people
out of the park. Part of the reason tear gas is so effective
is because the discomfort it brings makes people stop their collective action to worry
about themselves. It takes them out of the mass and has them
concentrate on the individual. The park was eventually cleared but the riot
largely continued on the surrounding streets. What was important was that they police did
not try to contain the demonstrators. They did try to contain the violence, but
not the people. Whenever riot police intervenes, they always
want to leave an escape route for the demonstrators who decide that they’ve had enough and want
to leave. A big reason why riot police look and act
so intimidatingly is to get rioters to leave. This is, in fact, exactly how you stop a riot—by
getting people to leave. In Charlottesville, after the clearing of
Emancipation Park, many of the alt-right protestors moved to a secondary location while the counter-protestors
starting marching in the surrounding streets. After many hours of violence, the groups did,
to an extent, naturally separate from each other given the additional space and pressure
of the illegality of the protest. The police had set up a plan to physically
separate the opposing groups from the start but that was an idealistic plan. It was unrealistic to think that passionate,
aggressive protestors would self-select into their proper areas. It’s hard to know exactly if the police
could have done a better job at preventing violence. From analysis its clear that they were overwhelmingly
cautious in their techniques which some may consider merited given their inexperience
with riots and disadvantage in numbers. The techniques riot police use are designed
to give them an advantage where they don’t have one. They’re tasked with preventing damage, injuries,
and death but they do have to play a careful game of balance to make sure that violence
isn’t immediately directed towards them. If they’re overwhelmed with directed violence
they can’t effectively prevent damaging violence. The police are in a position where they’re
criticized when they have too little response and criticized when they have too much. Everyone’s opinion on the proper level of
response differs so it’s almost impossible for an assembly to occur without criticism
of the police. Charlottesville was an unfortunate situation
where thousands of people all came into a tiny town to hold one of the most violent
and passionate protests of this decade. The best analysis of the police’s response
may be in the outcome: there where no directly preventable deaths and damage to the city
was minimal. The United States and many other countries
around the world are centered on the idea of free speech, so these police officers have
the unenviable job of deciding where the demonstration of this unalienable right stops and where
dangerous, violent hooliganism begins. On a lighter note, I’ll be launching a brand
new channel this Thursday, August 31st. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s
essentially the continuation of the old TWL series. All you should do now is subscribe here to
get the first video right when it comes out.

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