in Community Safety

Learning from the rioters (and the cleaners)

I am not alone in spending a lot of time thinking, possibly brooding, about the recent disorder, and one of the things that has struck me is that, in many ways, there are things we can learn from the rioters. Just as we can learn from the responses of public agencies and things like #riotcleanup.

That might seem controversial (I’m not aware of anyone praising the looters organisational skills) and to some it might seem offensive. It certainly isn’t meant that way. Instead, it has struck me that just as we can learn from the positive public response and from how the police responded, we can learn from how a huge group of law-breakers formed, seemingly quickly enough to avoid giving enough advance notice to counter them.

Part of my thinking is influenced by recently re-reading a Demos report, Resilient Nation into the role of the public in resilience which I referenced in my speech at our recent Neighbourhood Watch conference and have had a blog post sitting in various states of drafting on exactly the topic of how we work, collectively, in those extreme circumstances like riots.

You could argue there are two case studies here: the rioters and the cleaners. I’d stress I have no inside knowledge other than what is publicly available.

Case study one: the rioters
From what you can gather via the media, it would seem they organised via Blackberry Messenger, nominating a meeting point at which they could congregate and then descend en masse to begin their looting.

It doesn’t seem there was any particular leadership structure, although obviously some people would have more influence than others. Indeed, it might well be that the method of selecting the unfortunate area to suffer was almost democratic, with unpopular suggestions being deleted and popular suggestions being forwarded until they became the dominant proposal (such a model could account for a number of the rumours circulating, as well as creating a few strong contenders until late in the day, meaning the police had to spread resources between them).

However, there was a clear vision of what they were doing: arriving in such numbers that the police would struggle to control them, leaving them able to loot with relative freedom.

Case study two: the cleaners
It is easier to see what happened with the clean-ups, because they organised far more transparently via, predominately, Twitter. Essentially, a number of people had the idea of turning up to help clean up. I was even one of them, and was going through the motions when it became clear that some of the meeting points and times were becoming very popular and gaining a lot of support.

Again, there doesn’t seem to have been any real leadership structure, but again, like any large group some people took on more responsibility, such as setting up the Riot Clean-up website.

And, again, there was a simple, clear and utterly compelling vision of what they were doing: they were going to clean up the mess in their town.

Parallels between the two
There are obvious parallels between the two, but I would argue the simplicity of the vision they both shared was a real strength — it resulted in a distributed leadership model that was incredibly powerful in achieving its aim. It didn’t actually matter that not everyone followed central orders, if they turned up late, or somewhere else, so what? There were plenty of people in the right place at the right time who all knew what they wanted to do.

The lessons are perhaps in how we work with that sort of model. With the cleaners it was easy. They actually had a shared vision with the police, council and businesses — they worked with them and were perfectly willing to respect their decisions. I’m willing to bet a lot more man-hours were spent patiently waiting behind cordons than cleaning, simply because those wanting to help recognised the police’s need to examine the scene took precedence over their will to clean.

But how does one deal with the distributed leadership of the looters? That’s the tricky question, and one I’ll leave for another time.

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  • At the frontline

    […] For all their length and complexity, emergency plans can never foresee every eventuality. The military adage that ‘no battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ is true in emergency planning. You can plan for the start of a generic situation, like public disorder, and you can attempt to foresee and plan for what happens next, but ultimately events unfold in a different way and decisions made in response to changing circumstances. (I’ve already commented on my belief that across London the rioters and broom armies were able to respond to circumstances far more quickly th….) […]