Riot squads have a similar look in every culture — Commons

Back when I was on the University of Idaho football team I had the most interesting end to a conditioning workout imaginable. We’d just finished mandatory offensive line summer conditioning — about 16 of us 6’2″-6’8″ 280+ pound gorillas sweaty with our shirts off. Returning to the locker room in the Kibbie Dome we heard hip-hop music thumping inside the dome and saw flashing police lights. Like moths to a flame, we wondered in to see what was happening. The Dome floor had several police cars, a large military enforcement vehicle, blockades, and a line of about 50 police officers in full riot squad gear like those in the picture above. As we were standing there, an older guy yelled, “Hey! You guys want to throw shit at cops??” — moths to a flame.

It was a practice for the Quad Cities riot squadron. Two of the senior organizers were trying to behave like a disobedient riot and had evidently forgot to invite anyone else. The line parted and about 10 of us crossed to the “bad side”. Knowing that this could get ugly, but was going to be an experience, I made sure the two senior organizers were throwing stuff too. Surely the riot squadron wouldn’t injure one of their senior commanders?

We started grabbing tennis balls, garbage cans, barriers, anything at hand became a resource to throw at the line. It was fun! And they were trained! My old trick in snowball fights is to underhand one high up into the air and then nail somebody in the face as they watch the first fly up — not this group. The line, following commands, made steady, even marches down one side of the floor to corner us. We improvised blockages of various forms to disrupt the line. Eventually, one of the senior organizers formed a ring circle with us. About 8 of us sat down in a circle with our backs to each other and locked our arms and legs. The approaching line of police halted — some murmuring discussions — then I heard the tinkling of aluminum tear gas cans as they fell in the middle of our ring and the area around us. Not expecting this, I looked up at the senior organizer, he looked back and said, “we only had so many fakes, one of those is likely real!!!!” Instantaneous disbursement.

Sensing the game was coming to an end, one of my biggest friends decided to test the fortitude of the line. He got about a 10 yard run. As he approached the eyes went up towards his. The “target” of the line, sensing the need to act, took his shield and checked my friend across the head and chest, flat-backing him on the Kibbie Dome floor. My friend was ok, but that ended it. I left with a renewed confidence in the training of our regional riot squad. Later I found out that they were well trained, even in our small communities of less than 40,000, for a good reason. Just three years prior, about 500 WSU students had rioted after a ban on campus drinking, injuring 23 officers and landing it on the list of top 25 college campus riots.

And that was pretty much it. We all went our separate ways and everything returned back to the way it was. Except for my friend who had one heck of a bruise. The sad thing is, riots seldom create the positive change the participants are seeking. With any luck we can use the ideas below to utilize social energy and potential for change more efficiently.

Looking at a list of human stampedes (often associated with riots) you’ll see that the frequency, at least of documenting these events, is increasing. A stampede, crush, or riot strikes a chord with many of us, as it’s not something external, but ourselves that cause the damage and death. One of my friends, Kshitij Jerath, experienced a serious riot first hand during his youth in India and was traumatized enough to shape a life goal to analyze the swarm dynamics of riots.

When I looked through the list of human stampedes one event in particular stood out: the Nigerian Immigration Recruitment Tragedies of 2014. Nigeria has a very high unemployment rate near 25%. The Nigeria Immigration Service opened 4000 jobs and held crowd interviews. Hundreds of thousands (the wiki estimates 6.5 million) people showed up to be interviewed in sweltering heat. Crowds became frustrated and unruly, and riots/stampedes occurred in at least six of the locations leading to at least 16 deaths. What is interesting about this case is that riots occurred in isolated and separate locations that were under similar conditions. We’re seeing this again with the riots occurring across the United States in the wake of the George Floyd killing by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes. This is a strong indicator that riots are not a random problem, but a statistical problem that naturally happens when the conditions are right. By drawing analogies from the governing laws of chemical reactions and fires — thermodynamics — we can infer ways to help resolve riots and stampedes.

The physics of reactions — from deflagrations to detonations

As you’ll see in the subsequent discussions, marches, riots, and stampedes almost always begin with the need for change. Whether due to poverty, suppression, or injustice, people are gathering because they’ve had enough of the current conditions and are demanding change.  Change is something we deal with all the time in chemical reactions and is governed by the Gibbs Energy:

g = u + Pv -Ts

where u is the internal energy (values in the social realm) you’re bringing to the problem, P is pressure (stress in social realm), v is the inverse of density (number of people in an area in social realm), T is temperature (resources in the social realm), and s is entropy (empathy in the social realm). If the change (g2-g1) in Gibb’s energy is negative (the value for g is less after something happens then before) phase change will spontaneously occur. In other words, if g2 is less than g1 a reaction (riot in social realm) could happen at any moment and just needs a catalyst/initiator. The larger the difference between g2 and g1, the more energy the reaction has to proceed. In general, phase change happens if the u + Pv terms reduce, and the Ts term increases. Said simply, if we can make this simple, reduce our stress, and increase our resources and understanding of others, we’ll do it.

The riot/stampede problem has very similar boundary conditions as our Social Thermodynamics: Explaining the Bubonic Plague and Renaissance problem: you have a high density of people in a condensed phase and a change in conditions (plague or panic) causes people to move out of the system. In the case of the plague this change happened relatively slowly over the course of several years such that a standard phase change from liquid to vapor and associated thermal wave could account for the relatively modest changes of temperature and pressure that would occur. In the case of a riot/stampede the change in conditions happens very rapidly on the scale of minutes to hours to halve or completely dissolve the density, which is much more in line with the engineering definition of an explosion: spontaneous and rapid disassembly.

So we have an opportunity here and a choice — we can use this social energy to cause positive change, or destruction.

There are two types of explosive phase changes that are important to differentiate: deflaration and detonation. A deflagration is a thermal driven combustion front moving through a flammable material over a much larger area than a detonation. A detonation is a pressure driven shock wave that causes the reaction to occur and moves through the explosive material close to the speed of sound. Deflagrations go whoomf. Detonations go bang. We’ll proceed in that order.

Deflagration: When riots occur and how to diffuse them

Riots are more in line with a deflagration, or brush fire, and are subject to the availability of fuel and how confined of a space the reaction is occurring within. Hence the time scale of a deflagration/riot should be longer than a stampede and is subject to the continued fueling of the rioters.  Often, the values are socio/economic/injustice inequality (low Ts trying to become higher Ts).

Diffusing a riot situation like this is all about facilitating the phase change process in a slow and controlled fashion. Basically increasing the values (nobody needs to get hurt, we’ll work through this), decreasing pressure and density (let’s all take a deep breath and have a seat), and increasing resources and empathy (we have a meal cart coming over, let’s all sit down and talk through this, acknowledging faults — we hear you, we’ve made mistakes, we are working to get this right and can use your help right now). It’s the very same tactics advocated for hostage negotiation by Chris Voss in his book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating like your life depends on it.” Also emphasized in Daniel Coyle’s, “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.”

Here’s a script for mayors and other leaders to continuously improve their communities while resolving riot situations:

  1. Call up every local food truck in the area and buy them out for the evening (trust me the cost will be less than fixing a the results of a riot), have the trucks go to a nearby gathering location like a park.
  2. Get in contact with the local paper and work to get a front page article on dialogue from the event, in advance.
  3. Have the police or riot squad reach out to the protest leader or organizer, emphasize that we hear their frustrations and need for change. Offer to help their voices to be heard, to make change happen in as efficient of a way as possible.
  4. Sit everyone down in the local park with food, intermix the riot squad with the protesters, take notes on frustrations and ways things can change. It really is simple — nobody wants a riot, nobody wants injustice, nobody wants the need for force, nobody wants unnecessary death; except for the empathy disordered. It’s probably generally true that everyone wants a minimal need for police.
  5. Give people a voice to be heard, listen, make changes. The problem has always been communicating what needs to be done, and efficiently enacting those changes. Make sure the notes are published in the paper the next day — so voices are heard. Make sure commitments are honored.

What reliably and repeatedly doesn’t work — using force, intimidation, or fear to contain the reaction — like throwing more fuel on the reaction then putting a cork in a bottle to contain it. You’re dealing with the core values driving a person — deny those and you’ve created a martyr, or worse yet a terrorist. The command and control approach shown by the riot squad members at the top of this post is the non-empathetic authoritarian/legalistic way to control stampedes and riots. The simple physics of reactions shows that this non-empathetic approach is the opposite of help and leads to greater cost, damage, and inefficiency.

Most of the time issues resulting in protests and riots are simply the result of a misunderstanding, lack of communication, and lack of empathy. Simply being truly heard and acknowledged is often what people need. And we always have room for continuous improvement — even when goals seem opposed a solution (not necessarily a comprise) can be identified to enact change with some clever thinking. Just like in the physical realm, this is energy for change and we can either harness it carefully and efficiently for positive change, like in the case of a fuel cell slowly using a catalyst to extract energy, or we can bottle it up and cause an inefficient explosion like we have been.

Detonation: When human stampedes are likely to occur and how to diffuse them

In the case of a stampede, the detonation analogy is much more relevant. You have a crowd of tightly packed people (similar to a solid state as they have limited ability to move), these people are under pressure, and then suddenly a gun shot or scream cries out that sends the information through the crowd that somebody is getting hurt or killed. The values of the people in the crowd immediately drop into a survival state and the need to get back to your own comfortable space (gaseous or liquid state) is paramount but highly restricted by the rate people can move away. At the speed of sound this wave moves through the crowd which starts to run or move as fast as it can back to a comfortable density. In the case of a detonation the immediate change in phase from solid to liquid or gas takes a considerable release of energy that gets converted to temperature and pressure. In the social case, the pressure/stress is real, but the question is where the temperature/resources comes from? I thought back to my riot experience in the Kibbie dome, when you’re functioning in that survival mindset ANYTHING can become a resource (we were throwing the Kibbie Dome’s garbage cans!) In the case of a stampede, any tree, light-pole, truck to climb on can become the key resource to deal with the value problem of not being trampled. So the conditions where a stampede could happen at any moment:

  1. huge drop in values from u1 to u2, associated with people trying to suddenly survive at all costs, often initiated by a gun shot or catalyst.
  2. high packing density that has limited ability to initially change from v1 to v2, associated with the people gathered in a tight area, but eventually increases dramatically as the crowd disperses.
  3. huge drop in pressure/stress as people spread out to safety P1 to P2.
  4. low empathy for fellow crowd members going into the situation s1, resulting in a much higher empathy for the people who were hurt or killed s2.
  5. low resources T1 going in, but everything/anything becoming a resource on the way out T2.

Steps for leaders trying to avoid a stampede or crush:

  1. Work with leaders to spread out the density of the population, spend the money and make many poling stations or events. Work to establish laws that minimize population densities for given urban topologies (much like the capacity of people in a building allowed by fire code).
  2. If an unusual event is occurring that exceeds the established limits, get in contact with the organizer/leader of the event, warn them of the risk and give them specific instructions for dissipating the issue.
  3. If necessary, use police with megaphones to inform people of the risk, repeat values that they are safe, but they need to start slowly dispersing to avoid a stampede or crush. Give distancing guidelines and help with repetition of message and cadence until everyone is dispersed.
What resolution will take

Each of my solutions above involved a necessary application of resources (often in the form of money) to help diffuse the issue. Thankfully, we have plenty of resources in modern times, not only to assess crowd capacities, but to feed the masses, and facilitate dialogue. Repeated analysis of history shows that socio-economic disparity is a strong predictor of catastrophe, revolution, and social unrest. The COVID-19 crises is exacerbating these issues which have created conditions prime for reaction and unrest. Anti-empathetic statements from leaders make an already sad situation much, much, worse. It is my hope that our local officials follow some of the advice above towards positive change. As a final disclaimer, understand that I’m politically fiercely independent and am using analogies from science as the rational for this post.

With any luck we can make the riot training I participated in from my youth just that — practice. And hopefully our leaders will figure out how to efficiently and effectively harness this potential for positive change.

(Note: this post is one chapter of what could become a book someday. The other chapters can be found here: )