Flash Mobs and Social Media – a 21st Century Threat
There’s nothing new about rioting and civil/social disruption.
Indeed, it is currently the 20th anniversary of what are known as the ‘Rodney King Riots’ in Los Angeles – a five-day period of mayhem that erupted with no notice, and which saw looting, destruction, arson and murder across substantial parts of South Central Los Angeles.
It is helpful to quickly review lessons from this before moving on to a look at future vulnerabilities.
The Rodney King/South Central Los Angeles Riots in April/May 1992
The jury decision acquitting the police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King was announced at 3.15pm. The first protest response was at around 3.45pm when a crowd of about 300 gathered outside the courthouse to protest the decision. This was nothing too alarming.
Between 5pm and 6pm, a group of 24 police officers confronted a growing crowd of African-Americans – not at the courthouse, but a considerable distance away in South Central LA. Out-numbered, the officers retreated, ceding command/control of the territory to the crowd. By 6.45pm, this crowd, with no police presence to moderate or control them for almost an hour, started looting, attacking vehicles and people.
A television helicopter at 6.45pm, hovering over the crowd, filmed and broadcast live scenes of the crowd dragging a white man (Reginald Denny) out of his truck and viciously beating him up. We suggest that this live coverage of the crowd gone wild and with no police presence may have encouraged and incited others to join in what was spiraling into major rioting.
It quickly became apparent that the police had withdrawn entirely from large sections of South Central Los Angeles, leaving lawless anarchy behind. Opportunistic looting and destruction started taking place on a widespread basis, opposed only by Korean store owners who armed themselves and banded together to protect their stores.
Over the course of the five days, nearly 1600 buildings were destroyed or damaged as a result of 3600 different fires. More than 2300 people were injured, and at least 53 people were known to have been killed in riot related violence (including 10 shot by either the police or armed forces). 22 of the 43+ non police shootings remain open and unsolved now, and in view of the passing of time, will probably never be solved.
The murders are significant because the rioting looters were not just unarmed people looking to steal a color television. Many of them were armed, and were either randomly shooting at people for no reason at all, or were using their firearms to force their way past store owners so as to loot their stores.
The police were immediately overwhelmed and unable to maintain control, and it was only after not just the National Guard but also regular US Army soldiers and Marines too were deployed that the rioting ended, five days after it started.
Lessons from the LA Riots
From our perspective, we see several key lessons. The first is that civil disruption can develop very quickly. It is hard to say at what point ordinary citizens would have become alarmed at this rioting – remember the timeline above. The court decision by itself didn’t mandate that rioting in this scale would follow, neither did the people protesting at the courthouse – if anything, that was safely away from South Central LA and a safety valve for upset citizens.
The two key events were the police retreating from the group of protesters sometime around 6pm, and then the evolution of the mob from angry upset people to a lawless group of rioters, and the broadcasting of the mob violence over live television, indicating to other disaffected people that they could riot with impunity.
From the flashpoint sometime after 6pm to the televised beating of Reginald Denny was less than 30 minutes, and rioting on a regional basis was underway within an hour after that.
The second lesson is that it took 4 – 5 days before the police – by then augmented with some 15,000 reinforcements in the form of other state police and federal officers, National Guardsmen, plus regular Army and Marines, to get the rioting under control.
We Are More Vulnerable Now to Similar Rioting
There was a lot of analysis into why such a large group of people chose to riot in 1992. Much of this analysis took the form of liberal hand-wringing and blaming society and other factors/forces for the bad behavior of the rioters; you can choose to accept or reject that as you wish.
But one point is relevant – the point that the rioting came after some extended period of rising disconnection between the rioters and society in general. This disconnection was economic and social in nature.
We make this point because it seems probable – whether validly justified or not – there is a similar disconnection across much of the country at present. For further exemplification of the current disaffection of large groups of society with the society in which they live, look at the riots in England in August 2011. This was a four day period of mayhem that infected not just many parts of London, but also other cities and towns across England too that ended up affecting 48,000 businesses with losses to a greater or lesser extent.
The last few years have been marked by a difficult economy and a growing disaffection at the dichotomy between ‘evil bankers’ at one end of society and their ‘economic victims’ at the other end of society (we’re not judging the merits of such disaffection here, merely reporting on what we observe). The Occupy Wall Street movement has done a good job of exploiting this unrest, albeit largely peacefully.
We have also seen groups mobilizing against what they see as the evils of international trade, protesting at World Trade Organization meetings.
And in addition to these groups of people who are suffering real or imaginary grievances, there are the ever-present anti-social groups in the country who are keen to take part in violent mayhem any time they can just for the sheer devilry of it, and/or as a way to enrich themselves with the spoils of looting.
So our first point is that the underlying social tensions that could create violent rioting are as strong today as they have ever been.
Now for the second point, hinted at in our headline.
We have suggested the Rodney King riots grew from the televised coverage, beamed into everyone’s living rooms, showing people that they could riot with impunity, and in effect encouraging them to join in the party. That factor remains ever-present today too, of course – maybe even more so. Video isn’t just sourced and distributed from professional news gatherers in their helicopters, now everyone with a cell phone can shoot video and within minutes have it live on YouTube or elsewhere.
We now have a new factor – a factor that has contributed to successful revolutions in other countries (notably Egypt and other ‘Arab Spring’ countries) and believed to have been a key element of the rapid growth and spread of the rioting in England last August. This is the use of social media by rioters to promote their actions and to call in more people to join with them.
By social media we mean primarily Twitter and texting because these are almost instantaneous ways of passing information, either from one person individually to other individuals, or from one person to groups of any size up to many thousands of people. With such information being sent to people’s cell phones, there is little or no delay between a message being sent and it being received by tens, hundreds or even thousands and tens of thousands of people.
Twitter in particular has two very powerful features for social networking – the ability to ‘re-tweet’ and to forward on twitter messages to other people, and the ability to add ‘hashtags’ as a way of reaching other like-minded people who the sender doesn’t already know and hasn’t met before. A twitter message can potentially ‘go viral’ and end up on hundreds of thousands of people’s screens in minutes.
We have already seen this in a slightly less threatening sense – the new phenomenon of sudden flash mobs, coalescing out of nowhere. Until now, these flash mobs have been largely non-violent and haven’t got out of hand.
These tools can also be used by mobs as a way of passing ‘intelligence’ among themselves – letting mob members know the whereabouts of police, road blocks, etc that might impede their actions, and also letting them know where the best tempting targets are.
There is also an added dimension with social media has helped facilitate. It is less regional and more national/international. The Rodney King riots didn’t spread to the rest of the US. The London riots last August were instantly emulated and copied in other cities and towns all across England.
We suggest there is at least as much underlying disconnection between large elements of the ‘under-classes’ (define that term any way you wish) and society in general now as there was in 1992. Social media make any flashpoint more likely to spread, further and faster, than ever before.
Riots seem to take 4 – 5 days to bring under control (assuming they are controllable).
There is little reason to expect riots would spread out of the concentrated downtown areas of cities and into the outlying ‘leafy suburbs’ – there’s just not the density of population and tempting targets to sustain a riot in a residential suburb full of single family homes. But if you live in a downtown area, you are vulnerable to the direct effects of rioting, and if you live in a suburb, you may be vulnerable to flow-on effects such as disruptions to food supplies and to utilities.
It is impossible to predict where riots may start or what the flashpoints may be that initiate them, and also impossible to predict where they may spread.
In a major riot situation, you should expect rioters to be armed and to be senselessly shooting at people, places and things for no reason other than because they can.
Seeking refuge inside a building in a riot affected area is only prudent if there is no risk of the building being set on fire. In a riot situation, you have two choices – evacuate the area entirely as soon as there is evidence of growing rioting; or be prepared to defend your property from safe positions and with the possible need to use lethal force to do so.
If you choose to evacuate, you need to be careful with your choice of route – you don’t want to abandon the possible greater safety of your residence and then find your car ambushed by rioters, or to be trapped by destroyed cars blocking the road ahead.
If you choose to defend your property – perhaps because it is not safe to evacuate – you will need to have as many people as possible with you and willing to actively defend your property. One or two people are unlikely to dissuade a rioting crowd of 20 – 50 (or more) rampaging towards you. The Koreans were reasonably successful because they grouped together, and because the rioters recognized in the Koreans a determined adversary.
A less than lethal way of getting the attention of a crowd and persuading them to leave you well alone might be some exotic shotgun rounds – in particular, the Dragon’s Breath rounds that spit out a brief jet of flame approximately 50 ft or more, a ‘fire siren’ round that sends out a very loud whistle (send this first to get their attention) or a thunder flash round (very loud noise – implies very great power), and stinger type rounds that send out nylon balls that hurt but usually don’t seriously wound or kill.
In such a case, you’d want to test these rounds before an emergency to get a feeling for their range and effects, then you’d want to carefully understand where those range points are around the property you’ll be defending. Note also that the Dragon’s Breath is massively more spectacular at night. And you could only use this in places where there was no risk of starting fires as a result of your firing the round – you might end up causing more property damage to other people’s property than that you prevented to your own property.
Needless to say, you only have a short time to use such warning devices before needing to use something more serious. Don’t still be warning a crowd when it engulfs and overwhelms you.