How to stop a mob
A few days ago, I had a chat about the riots here with Franco-American political scientist Arun Kapil, whom you may remember from our French Election Twitter Summits. He kindly gave me permission to publish our exchange:
Arun: France is in a potentially dangerous place right now, and with a problem that has been festering for decades and appears insoluble.
Claire: Are you referring to the fact that the police executed a 17-year-old kid and no one believes this was just one bad apple? Or to the fact that large numbers of French youths think the appropriate way to respond to this is by sacking and pillaging their own neighborhoods?
Arun: The problem, of course, is the banlieue-ghettos, the people who live there, the police, politicians, and you name it. The police are a huge problem. It’s more than a bad apple or two.
Claire: When you say France is in a “potentially a dangerous place right now,” do you mean that these riots are potentially dangerous, or do you have something else in mind?
Arun: It’s dangerous because the situation could get out of control and with destruction on a level we have not seen.
Claire: They need to put overwhelming force on the streets.
Arun: Are you out of your mind?
Claire: No. It’s common sense.
Arun: Why not shoot to kill while you’re at it? Put the fear of life in those 14-year-old branleurs!1
Claire: No, just restore order. People will stop rioting if there’s an adequate number of police (or the military) on the streets. The worst solution is what they’re doing now—enough force only to enrage and create more incidents in which cops and rioters are injured or killed.
Arun: What is needed to stop the rioting is someone or some force that will turn down the temperature. Problem is, that person or force appears not to exist. It certainly isn’t Macron or [Interior Minister Gérald] Darmanin, that’s for sure. And the more you flood the streets with police, the more the branleurs will come out and clash with them—and with Black Blocs joining in—as that’s what they like to do. The military? Don’t even think about it. One thing is certain: If even one more “jeune”2 gets killed by the police, all hell will break loose.
Claire: That’s why this needs to end. And to that end, you need a massive number of police or the military. If you put enough on the streets, the violence ends. It’s Riots 101. It’s not an extreme idea.
Arun: No, Claire. No, no, and no! There is no such course as Riots 101.
Claire: There is, absolutely, a massive body of empirical research on crowd violence.
Arun: Massive empirical evidence? Such as?
Claire: I’m writing about it right now.
Arun: Look forward to reading.
The U-shaped Curve
Scholars in Europe and the United States have done extensive work on the relationship between riots and repression. (The latter is the academic term for “putting a ton of cops on the street and arresting the rioters.”) The answer to the question, “Does repression work?” is yes.3
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