I had been watching Baltimore’s mayor on TV. She reported that in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody, massive riots had erupted in Charm City. The National Guard was deployed to help restore peace; a strict curfew was instituted; neighboring police departments sent reinforcements and the city was in the midst of riots the likes of which had not been seen since Martin Luther King’s assassination. Large numbers of city residents had been peacefully demonstrating, but those protests, peaceful though they were, set off pockets of opportunistic violence across the city in an ever escalating series of destructive acts. Police officers were attacked, many injured, stores were damaged and robbed, fires were set, property was destroyed and the city erupted into stampedes of rioting, thieving teenagers.
In an instant, the city regressed to the late 1960’s as lawbreakers ran wild through the city streets, unconcerned with consequence or conscience; right and wrong, good and bad, fair or unfair have no meaning to impulse driven mobs. Like with Ferguson and Los Angeles after the Rodney King incident, there are deep chasms between the police and members of the minority community and all it takes is a spark, just one spark to reduce ‘ordinary’ residents to a stampeding horde. It seems there’s something ‘safe’ about running with a gang. Something about gang mentality blinds individuals to themselves and their own behavior creating the illusion of a Harry Potter “cloak of invisibility.” Once that ‘cloak’ is in place, any degree of lawlessness can occur seemingly without restraint. This is true if we’re talking about school kids throwing rocks and stealing stuff or ISIS killers chopping people’s heads off in a desert somewhere.
What does mob mentality actually do to people? Well one of the things it does is alter, at least temporarily, the individual’s identity. It seems that chaos and wild activity stimulates the limbic system, that primitive part of the brain where impulses and self-gratification are rooted. Immersed in the wildness of the moment, the brain’s cognitive functioning is over-ridden and for that time nothing exists but impulse-driven behavior. Throughout their lives these rioters, or most of them, have ostensibly lived in a socialized society. Ostensibly, they lived in a community, probably in some type of family structure; they attend school and work in these communities, but for some reason they don’t feel that they are part of these communities. That sense of anomie or normlessness leaves many vulnerable to that spark of gang violence. Their societal alienation surfaces and they emerge as fully formed anti-social gang members.
It’s likely that some of these rioters never really lived in this city of laws, they never really accepted the rules and norms and customs that society superimposes. Living on the fringe they never really belonged to or accepted the values, principles and rules that we think they did. But that’s not necessarily true of every kid caught on camera throwing rocks or stealing stuff. There are probably some kids who are just following the crowd, doing what their buddies are doing and doing it just to belong. On a vast continuum we have criminal gangs devoted to hatred, violence all the way to the other end of the continuum where we have a bunch of teenage hangers on who are just caught up in the action.
So we have an extensive continuum of behavior; so what do we do about it? Well first we have to be honest. We cannot afford to be simplistic. We need to acknowledge that we are not dealing with one problem, we are dealing with many interlocked, long-term, complex problems including poverty, institutional racism, unemployment, over-crowding, the welfare system, mental illness, addictions, child abuse and the collapse of the family structure to name a few.
Another thing we have to be honest about it that we as a society have not done enough to solve these problems many of which have drifted down to the sidewalks of our cities and left there for the police to deal with. That leads us to the rift between the police and the minority communities is another huge obstacle to recognize that cannot be addressed in isolation from the other interwoven social problems that surround it. Unfortunately the police, tasked with maintaining the peace are put in the unfair, thankless position of addressing every day what the rest of us failed to address. As representatives of our society they get hit with everything people are disgruntled about and make easy uncomplicated targets for rage filled gangs roaming around looking for something to attack.
If we want any of this to change we need to define the problem clearly, comprehensively and without abbreviation. We need to develop both long and short term goals for each problem subset. It will take money, lots of it, and it will take time, lots of it because changing our society, our cities, our socio-economic structure, our social views, politics and values is a massive undertaking. However, if history is an indicator we can see that the propensity toward violence doesn’t just go away with the passage of time. As long as the basic factors of poverty, social alienation and gross discontentment remain, the potential for violence will remain waiting for a spark to ignite it.