Experts who’ve studied riots and other large-scale disturbances are meeting at Iowa State University in Ames for the National Summit on Preventing Civil Disturbances. The summit is an outgrowth of discussions on how to deal with violence that broke out on the I-S-U campus in the spring of 2004.
University of Illinois sociology professor Clark McPhail has studied crowd interaction, and says it’s not inevitable that a gathering of colleg-aged kids in going to turn into trouble. He says there are hundreds if not thousands of gatherings on large university campuses each year, and he says 99-percent of them are uneventful. He says many of those involve alcohol, so he says it’s not whether you have small or large gatherings or even alcohol that lead to a disorder.
McPhail says there is some truth to the idea that there can sometimes be a mob mentality — but he says getting together in a group doesn’t have to lead to problems.
He says he’s asked all the time if people behave differently in groups than they do alone. He says people act differently even in the presence of one other person because there’s interaction and a dynamic to go one way or the other. He says that present opportunities that might make you go a way you wouldn’t go if you’re alone.
McPhail says some of the problems with student violence on campus can be in part blamed on how an event is viewed. He says if the media talks about potential violence after championship wins or violence that occurs during Halloween, it can become self-fulfilling prophecy.
He says if students, police and the community expect there’s going to be violence, disorder or trouble, they approach the event and participate with a different sort of mindset, then if they’re encouraged to participate and told to be smart and stay safe.
McPhail says alcohol can have a big impact on the event too. He says alcohol experts talk about “alcohol myopia,” which is “the shortsightedness of considering what the consequences might be if I purse course of action A versus course of action B.” He says if they don’t think it through, they might take and action they wouldn’t have taken had they not been drinking alcohol. McPhail says one of the ways to counter the impulse of alcohol and other factors to participate in violence or riots, is to have students look out for each other. He says we all have a group of people we tend to go to events with and follow.
He says a very successful campaign in England and the U.S. is the “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” He says police and university administrators can use that campaign to get people to counsel one another that “Friends don’t let Friends do stupid things” in these types of explosive situations.
McPhail says they can also use the same idea to tell students about the potential future consequences of having a riot arrest on their record. He says students need to understand that one night doing something stupid could have a big impact on their ability to get a good job once they graduate.