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Nov. 18, 2005

Preventing civil disturbances

Experts: There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer

by Annette Hacker

The ISU/Ames community isn't alone in its effort to understand and mitigate celebratory riots, and no single solution will work everywhere. That's the message 176 participants from across the country heard at last week's National Summit on Preventing Civil Disturbances at the Memorial Union.

But those attending the summit -- elected officials, university and city administrators, students, health care professionals, law enforcement and social scientists -- also came away with a new sense of shared understanding about the history of disorderly gatherings, why they occur, how they are alike, and how they can be very different.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy, Penn State

"Jumping to an explanation has been the typical response," said John McCarthy, professor of sociology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and one of the summit's keynote speakers.

McCarthy and Clark McPhail, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have studied individual and collective behavior in crowds for more than two decades. Their literature review of 384 campus disturbances between 1985 and 2002 revealed:

  • Protest riots are different from celebratory riots (or "convivial disorders") in nearly every way -- the way in which participants come together, the way in which they disperse, and when the events are held. Protests occur during the week; celebratory riots happen on weekends.
  • Disorderly gatherings have historically occurred in waves: panty raids in the 1950s, war protests in the '60s, streaking in the '70s, anti-apartheid demonstrations in the '80s, and celebratory riots from the mid-'80s to date. McPhail and McCarthy said that while communities remain vulnerable to celebratory riots, they believe that wave may have peaked in 2002.
  • The more people available for a gathering, the more likely it is to occur. The newspaper data McPhail and McCarthy studied suggests that, between 1998 and 2002, campuses with more than 20,000 students were more than twice as likely to experience a riot than their smaller counterparts. "Size makes a dramatic difference," McCarthy said.
  • The availability of alcohol in a community is directly related to consumption patterns, McCarthy added, and "is something we think is a crucial factor."
  • Celebratory riot participants are most likely to throw things. Fewer than 15 percent make verbal threats, and only 17 to 23 percent engage in physical attacks. Violent actions against people and property are the exception, not the rule.
  • Describing a convivial gathering as a "crowd" isn't accurate or effective, McPhail said. That implies everyone is the same -- something his research disputes. While the word "crowd" connotes "blanket," McPhail likened participants in a riot to a patchwork quilt or a kaleidoscope.

"Uniformity is an illusion"

"We need to respond to actions, not the stereotypes we have about the way people act, dress, and how they talk," he said. "Temporary gatherings are composed of alternating and varied individual and collective action. Uniformity is an illusion."

Cynthia Buettner, one of the lead researchers on an Ohio State University (OSU) riot task force, also spoke at the Ames/ISU summit. She shared a number of revelations and positive changes that have occurred in Columbus since a 2002 riot that resulted in more than 100 street fires, 20 damaged cars and 64 arrests. It was the 18th disturbance OSU had experienced in six years.

OSU's study of 31 universities found that riots most often occurred in March, April and November. Schools with larger numbers of students living in residence halls were more likely to experience disturbances, but drinking and riots most often occurred in off-campus housing. And risk is a factor that seems to fuel riots, Buettner said.

Most risk-taking at college age

"Whether you're the squeaky-clean kid or the one who's always on the edge, the time at which you're going to do your most risk-taking is college age," Buettner said.

Other speakers at the summit included Craig Anderson, Distinguished Professor of psychology at Iowa State and a leading authority on aggression; Linda Langford, associate director of the Center for College Health and Safety, Newton, Mass.; and Patrick Smith of the United States Park Police, Washington, D.C.

The National Summit on Preventing Civil Disturbances was sponsored by ISU President Gregory Geoffroy, Ames Mayor Ted Tedesco and Government of the Student Body President Angela Groh. A first for Ames and ISU, the summit was designed to build upon the body of knowledge from two previous national conferences.

Follow-up session

A summit follow-up is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 1, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Memorial Union Cardinal Room. Interim dean of students Sharon McGuire will lead discussions on where ISU and Ames can go from here. All are welcome.