How to start a riot

At the time of the August 2011 riots I was on holiday in Cyprus. By the time I came home, they were over. As I had far better things to think about at the time (or rather, not think about), I didn’t really pay very much attention to them. I do remember hearing Tottenham MP David Lammy condemning the rioters as “mindless people”, David Cameron stating that it was “criminality pure and simple” and Ed Miliband asking him if he was being tough enough on those involved.

However, as I was a  thoughtful  student of social psychology at the time, I was also wondering about the causes of the riots. Too much of what I was hearing simply prompted more questions. How could the media and politicians really know what had happened and so quickly, before anyone had properly investigated the circumstances of the riots.? Worse, if our parliamentarians hadn’t correctly understood the causes of the riots, how could they know that they weren’t simply prescribing treatment for the symptoms, rather than the underlying disease?

Of course, I wasn’t the only person wondering these things. Sometime afterwards, I purchased Reicher and Stott’s ebook “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots” which was the first truly satisfying explanation of the causes of the riots I’d read, as well as having the only evidence-based suggestions I’d seen for reducing the risk of future riots.

It turns out that at much the same time, members of Worklight Theatre were not only asking similar questions, but got the chance to work with Dr. Clifford Stott on a theatrical exploration of them. The result is “How to start a riot“, which played to an almost capacity studio at Derby Theatre last night.

In it, the cast start from the position of having no knowledge about the causes of the riot – “Maybe they were just all knobheads”. They then explore popular but discredited theories such as de-individuation which argues that people in crowds become “mindless”.

Through the creative use of mainly hand-held lighting effects, they eventually lead the audience to the conclusion that instead of people losing their identities and being unable to control themselves in a crowd, people shift from thinking of themselves as individuals to thinking of themselves as being members of a social group. Control is not lost, but as individual identities are redefined in group terms, control moves to become an expression of what the group values. In other words, people behave in accordance with their perceived social identity at the time.

It was refreshing that the play explored the creation of social identities not only in the context of the rioters, but also from the police’s perspective. If I went into the auditorium already convinced that I’d never want to be put into a position of feeling that I had to join a riot, I also came out of it with a much greater understanding and sympathy for individual policemen and women who are put into the terrifying position of having to temporarily adopt the social identity of a “riot policeman” when such disorder occurs.

“How to start a riot” is currently on tour with dates in Truro, Reading, Cheltenham, Barnstaple and Leeds already in the calendar for 2013.

Do go and see it. It’s only an hour long, but it is a far more convincing explanation of the causes of riots and a starting point for change than any politician or media outlet came up with at the time.

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