Small Wars Journal

The Strategic Challenge of Riots

Mon, 02/13/2012 - 6:13am

The Strategic Challenge of Riots: Riot Action and Crowd Power 

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus

Abstract: Are we entering an age of disorder? Recent events worldwide, and the continuing threat of global economic downturns, suggest the potential for large-scale civil disturbances. If so, public order maintenance and containing riots and disturbances will become key concerns as states and their security forces (the police and military) respond to an age of political and economic uncertainty. An operationally sound response to riots, mobs, and other forms of disorder has strategic implications for governments across the world. This essay looks at the dynamics of riots and order maintenance.  We examine the politics of crowd power in a networked environment and suggest approaches to develop sound intelligence to understand the range of riot and crowd control issues that security services encounter in urban riot control. While the complex operations literature has understandably focused on overseas operations, domestic public order maintenance is an equally demanding undertaking with far-reaching political consequences.  Operations must simultaneously prevent harm and disorder while avoiding provocation and respecting the right to voice dissent. Managing public order, in turn, requires an understanding of the nuances of crowds and mobs and the dynamics of domestic interagency coordination.

Economic turmoil, a lack of opportunity—perceived or actual—and the seeming emergence of a networked global protest movement suggest that police and military services need to prepare for a range of public order missions. As the London riots, growing “Occupy Wall Street” and “Indignados” movements suggest, disorder, protest, disturbances, and urban unrest are once again key security issues.  During the Rome riots, cars were torched and banks and public buildings were attacked, demonstrating that economic populist movements connecting the “have-nots” or economically fragile can create a powerful backlash.

As the London and Rome riots so painfully demonstrate, mass social disturbances are not just a matter of policing or crowd control tactics. In his review of operational riot intelligence, Alex Calvo recently noted that the riots in London and other UK cities were punctuated with accounts of “flashpoints where the population was left unprotected in the face of what could be described as a combination of urban guerillas and occasional criminal insurgents.”[1] Riots are a bridge between tactical disturbance and wider social unrest, with possible violent implications.

Government failure to correctly handle civil disturbances can have wide-ranging strategic consequences. The threat of violent crowds—whether mostly spontaneous or the result of deliberate provocation and instigation—is perhaps the oldest internal threat to organized governance. From the ancient world to the era of totalitarianism, intellectuals and politicians have feared the wrath of the crowd and placed a premium on restraining political and criminal mob violence. While the fundamentals of riot control—a firm hand that applies overwhelming yet proportional suppressive force at the outset of civil unrest—have not changed, the challenge of 21st century civil disturbances demand a more cohesive style of command. Key to riot suppression in future actions is the ability to organize tactical actions in time and space to accomplish strategic objectives.

Riots are neither purely “political” nor “criminal events.” We are tempted to view them as either rebellions of the repressed or pure criminality. They arise from a complex array of motivations ranging from political grievance to pure boredom. Some mass social disturbances—like the perennial tendency of Los Angeles sports fans to riot after LA Lakers games—are completely criminal in nature and reflect the influence of strong drink rather than socioeconomic inequalities. Others, like the 1864 New York Draft Riots, are the violent outcome of larger political disturbances. Most riots are a combination of both “criminal” (profit and experience-seeking) and “political” (disputes over justice and power relations) causes.

Broadly “political” causes lie in the background of many riot situations. A recurring theme in mob violence is the struggle for political power. The Gracchi brothers, who tried to further the power of the Plebeians in ancient Rome, were murdered by armed mobs of aristocrats. The history of Italian city-states, particularly Machiavelli and Dante’s home of Florence, is marked by internecine conflict and civil war. In Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr and other local figures have been remarkably successful in instigating crowds of followers to engage in violent protests. Mobs—instigated by charismatic figures—are the oldest tool in organized politics for securing power and influence. Perhaps the most famous example of crowd power in literature is Shakespeare’s rendition of Mark Anthony’s funeral speech oration for Julius Caesar, which incites the mob to drive Gaius Brutus and his fellow conspirators from Rome.

United Nations peacekeeping and stabilization missions have also repeatedly dealt with crowds of militia and supporters of local warlords in many nations who aim to present them with the hard choice of using force—and hurting unarmed civilians—or ceding ground and possibly endangering their own lives. Such operations are made even more difficult by the intermixing of armed men with protesting civilians, and the presence of the mass media.

Deep political, ethnic, and economic divides have also historically sparked rioting. Ethnically inspired riots have been particularly pernicious, as communities have increasingly grown less ethnically homogenous. This is not to say, however, that they are always the product of “ancient hatreds.” Many civil disturbances that are thought to be the product of spontaneous eruption of never-ending tribal hatreds are in fact the consequence of deliberate instigation by political elites seeking to manipulate existing prejudices for their own advantage or the actions of irregular groups fighting for larger political causes. This is not purely a modern issue, as the recurring horror of the blood libel in Europe over the centuries reflected deliberate instigation of mass violence against Jews.  Conversely, not every riot has a clear point of origin. Academic research and practical experience has long shown that riots are a “tipping point” phenomenon. A small group of violent rioters is all that it takes to derail a peaceful protest and generate increasingly high-intensity property violence and motivate less politically motivated looters to take to the streets.[2]

The Range of Action: Typology of Disorder and Riots

Riots are complex events.   Their complexity lies not only in the range of motivations, but the fact that riots--or violent outbursts of mass action—occur within a spectrum of crowd and mob activity resulting from a variety of underlying and proximate causes.  This is further complicated by the fact that they are transient events that generally occur at low frequency making preparedness problematic for both political and security authorities.  At the simplest level, riots can result from the spontaneous convergence of a number of contributory factors fueled by the acute interaction of precipitating events with a specific catalyst at a specific flashpoint.  For example protests (which are generally lawful and protected speech) can erupt into disorder when demonstrators are confronted by counterdemonstrations or unskilled police response (known as “police riot.)  Another variation of spontaneous eruption is the case of “celebratory” sports riots. At the other end of the spectrum are organized, deliberate violent outbursts, such as football (soccer) hooliganism or orchestrated political violence. A variation that may fall into either spontaneous or orchestrated events is the “flash mob.”

Crowds and Mobs

Different levels of mobs exist. At the highest end of the mob power spectrum are disorganized militia that cannot quite be called professional soldiers nor designated entirely civilians, who swarm with cheap weapons and even their bare hands. Perhaps the largest and most gruesome example of militia mobs is the 1994 Rwandan genocide, painstakingly organized by Hutu political elites. Historically, these riots require some level of organization or at least consistent political mobilization---especially if risk exists or the task is too large for spontaneous organization. Even so, political mobilization is no guarantee of effectiveness in the face of cold, hard, steel. Napoleon’s famous “whiff of grapeshot” blew away political opponents that surely would have butchered him and the assembled Directory holding court at the Tuileries in 1795 if their fervor had not been met with overwhelming violence.

At the lowest end of the spectrum are rioters in major metropolitan cities, usually unarmed and mainly seeking to carry out opportunistic crimes to take advantage of the temporary lifting of domestic order. These riots are as much a product of rioters taking the path of least resistance—casually looting storefronts and avoiding police patrols as they scamper to bring their new high-def flat screens home—as strong and passionate rage.

A typology (or order of battle) describing the range of actors that may become involved in disorder and riots is useful.  Crowds can be casual, cohesive, expressive or aggressive.  Crowds can morph into mobs with the right catalyst(s).  Mobs can be aggressive, expressive, acquisitive, or seek escape.  All of these variations are possible in hybrid combinations.[3] A brief description of each crowd/mob variation follows.

Casual crowds are composed of individuals gathered in a common space with no common purpose; they have no emotional tie to the crowd.  Cohesive crowds assemble for a common purpose such as a sports event or concert; members identify themselves as individuals but the collective can possess strong internal discipline and react with high levels of emotion. Expressive crowds gather for a unified purpose such as a demonstration or protest, they have common purpose and display of range of emotions.  They can become frustrated and agitated and quickly erupt if frustrated or provoked. Aggressive crowds have a strong unity of purpose and a strong sense of group identity.  They can be stimulated or provoked into destructive and lawless behavior.  They are the most dangerous crowd form since they can transition into an aggressive mob.

Aggressive mobs engage in violent and lawless behavior.  Violence is usually transient and can be directed against persons or property.  These are primarily emotion-driven and can trigger sustained rioting.  Expressive mobs view violence as a legitimate tool of rebellion, resistance, or protest.  Acquisitive mobs seek to acquire something.  They can be looters exploiting chaos or confusion.  They have little emotional investment and can be controlled effectively be police intervention.  The final mob type is the escape mob, or persons fleeing imminent danger.  These are extremely difficult to control since they are sustained by fear.

Orchestrated Political Violence or the “Deadly Urban Riot”

Horowitz described a range of orchestrated political violence in his landmark work The Deadly Urban Riot.[4]  These violent episodes are all characterized by selective targeting.  They include: violent protests, pogroms, feuds, lynchings, genocides, terrorist attacks, gang assaults, and ethnic fights.  They can be used individually or an in range of hybrids, such as the contemporary narco-blockades (or narcobloqueos) seen in Mexico’s criminal insurgencies.  The blogger Shlok Vaidya has also reported on bandhs, large-scale infrastructure disruption by crowds in India and their usage as a political tool.[5] The culmination of the orchestrated disorder is the deadly urban riot (or communal violence).  These can be concentrated (occurring in a single location) or dispersed (occurring at multiple locations in a single neighborhood, city, or region, multiple cities or finally globally networked in multiple cities across multiple regions).

Networked Disorder

Contemporary disorder, protest, riots, and communal violence can be events can be focal, distributed, or networked.  That is, they can occur in a range of settings due to advances in Internet Communications Technology (ICT).  New media, such as social networking sites and tools allow mobs to coordinate and synchronized their actions.

ICT acts, in this context, as a force multiplier. As Jack McDonald notes, historically, one of the major advantages of the state was information dominance. The state and its bureaucracies used superior access to information as a tool to mass larger amounts of resources against its opponents. Politically “neutered” populations gradually ceded the ability to make violence to the state and its security services. Of course, this ability never really went away, but always lay dormant—contingent on perceptions of the state’s power and legitimacy. The ability of individuals to organize themselves using person-to-person (P2P) technologies enhances the traditional small core of rioters always seen at the forefront of violent disturbances. The essence of flash-mobbing is the ability to create highly focused bursts of intense violence. This resulting “democratization” of violence allow a few people to turn a large city upside down.[6]

McDonald is also echoed by the netwar literature pioneered by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt.[7] Perhaps the most important insight of the netwar literature is that riots and street revolutions are a product of diverse groups of actors—activists, opportunistic looters, anarchist “black bloc” members, and other networks—coalescing on a single spot. Indeed, in revolutionary “coup d’street” as the fabric of order and state dominance breaks down, direct action—whether for political purpose, criminal gain, or sheer boredom—becomes more viable. The implications of this convergence, as Bruce Crumley notes, is more violence spread around a larger geographic area and with actors not typically seen in the typical American and European riot experience, such as well-off students and professionals in addition to the stereotype of the typical aggrieved slum-dweller.[8]

Corresponding to the increasing diversity of actors and network mobilization is the rise of “global cities”—large, extended sprawl zones that serve as hubs of commerce and cultural relations, and their dark cousins, slum-cities, that expand large global sums to form large mega-cities of terrifying size and scale. As Sophie Body-Gendrot notes, these spaces and the economic and political mismatches they engender are flash rods for disruption.[9]  The rise of  “global cities” and “global slums” can result in networked diasporas of discontent that may fuel future riots and revolt.

However, the network form is not so much important in the case of mass social disturbances as the tactical dynamics of swarming and the stresses this places on police response. Police are good at responding tactically to individual threats, and if need be flooding an entire city with numbers if they can afford them. Yet high-impact violence geographically distributed across a large urban operational space—and in some cases several cities at once—imposes massive coordination costs on a threadbare command and control system optimized for dealing with one incident at a time. Police are spread thin, finding themselves unable to marshal enough force to deal with incidents that are concentrated in time rather than space. In the military, the art of using tactics to build a larger portrait that corresponds to the needs of strategy is the art of operations. Yet in the police sphere this understanding is sparse.

Operational Art for Public Order Management

The lack of appreciation and application of police operational art unfortunate, as riot response is one of the most important truly “operational” police situations. The defense of a large, complex capital city or urban center—such as London, the District of Columbia, or Los Angeles—bridges policy and strategy concerns with very minute and detailed tactical maneuvers and movements. 

Police and emergency response to riots is truly a “whole of government” operation in miniature, requiring integration between political executives, the interagency community, and dispersed police commands struggling to concentrate their scattered sector-level concerns into a unified operational response. The function of operations are to make tactics achieve strategy, and serve as a kind of connective tissue binding purely spatial tactical actions into a coherent mass that serves an overall strategy of suppression. A large urban center and its peripheries (for large-scale, countrywide disorders), for police and paramilitary services, is essentially a theater of operation requiring the integration of theater strategy-like cognitive and planning devices.

The essence of containing a riot in progress is quick action to contain trouble spots before they metastisize, cancer-like, into greater dysfunction.  As McDonald notes, in some ways the metaphor of putting out forest fires is very accurate. While this sounds simple enough in practice, .there are a number of factors that can result in ruined cities and intense political blame games.

At the top level, strong political direction is needed to contain the situation. Policing--always a high-stress endeavor—is also an outgrowth of municipal (and the case of riots in capitol cities, national) politics. In Los Angeles, the impact of the Rodney King beating induced excessive political caution that impeded the ability of the Los Angeles police department to train effectively for civil disturbances that might result afterwards and restrained police from deploying in strength during riot itself. Poor coordination and distrust between the mayor and the police chief also resulted in a confused and disaggregated planning and response.[10]

At the police executive level, systematic training and drills on both agency and multi-agency levels for civil disturbances and mass arrest situations are essential. Specific plans for civil unrest must be communicated, and the police executive must command in person. At the level of the emergency operations command, a breakdown in both the physical and human elements of command and control networks are often decisive as police commands find themselves isolated and overwhelmed by operational frictions. At the lowest level, proper personnel and equipment, logistical and technical support, and a willingness to engage emerging incidents are essential tactical elements of riot response.[11] During riot operations officers, without firm operational direction, revert to a reactive tactical mode. A lack of direction and coordination results in excessive force, poor discipline, tactical timidity in the face of danger, and poor force flow to trouble spots.

A key to operational response in riots is the civil equivalent all-arms capabilities. A major urban region hoping to quell a mass disturbance, like the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) must have all of the necessary assets necessary to carry out full-spectrum stabilization. Emergency response means far more than riot gear and mass arrests. Tactical medical response, fire control, aerial reconnaissance, and bomb squad and counter-explosive operations are only a sampling of the many functions that civil authorities must deal with in high-intensity riot situations. Obviously the key to employing them is a resilient and effective organization and command and control organization.

In the United States, the Incident Command System (ICS) provides a standardized model of unity of command across organizations. Yet ICS alone is unlikely to provide the cohesion necessary to manage fluid incidents in time. One alternative—yet ICS-compatible—model of disaster response is the Emergent Multi-Organizational Networks (EMONs). Developed in the late 80s by Thomas Drabek, the concept calls for a temporary organization that can be scaled up and down as need be as disasters either expand or lessen. EMONs, while decentralized in execution, have a clear chain of command and delineated roles for multiple organizations. Former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department officer and police theorist Sid Heal would later use the EMON and the MAGTF concepts as the centerpiece for his police tactics book Sound Doctrine.[12] Organizations are also only as effective as their ability to manage situations in time, something that requires full-scale watch capabilities, particularly in collecting, analyzing, and disseminating tactical and operational intelligence in real-time.

Even more important than riot action is proactive policing. In a multicultural environment, a consistent effort to carry out effective community policing to develop a presence in communities regarded by police as “no-go” areas is necessary. The alternative model, a “raiding” concept in which police contact with locals consists mainly of sharp raids and gunfights followed by tactical withdrawal—does little and starves police of information and community knowledge necessary to quell riots. During tense incidents that have yet to erupt into force, overt show-of-force can actually be counterproductive compared to more dispersed patrolling and crowd control designed to quickly break up small disturbances and pre-empt large-scale disorder. Intelligence preparation for operations (IPO), a modified form of the military Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace (IPB) concept also can help police pre-empt riots by making arrests, identifying likely causes of violence and instigators, and better positioning assets to make use of scarce resources before events.[13]

Intelligence Preparation (IPO) for Public Order

Intelligence to support counter-netwar activity (riots and networked swarming) requires active intelligence, as well as tactical and operational synchronization. Intelligence Preparation for Operations (IPO) can be a foundation of this needed situational understanding.  Building from IPB’s four steps: 1) Defining the Operational Environment, 2) Describing the Operational Environment, 3) Identifying and evaluating the threats, and 4) Developing Course of Action for Adversary, other threats, and non-aggressive groups, IPO seeks to identify the threat envelope in a dynamic fashion and craft corresponding courses of action to mitigate and resolve the disorder situation.

Specifically, active intelligence for addressing distributed riots requires an understanding of the geosocial construction of actors involved.  This includes knowledge of the type of disturbance (focal, dispersed, networked), as well as insight into spatial dynamics (terrain)—both physical and in cyberspace—and crowd composition (crowd or mob typology).  The density and complexity of urban terrain (physical and human) complicates this understanding making intelligence support critical to mission success. . Specific intelligence requirements for public order events include:

  • Spatial Dynamics
  • Location(s)/Terrain
  • Temporal Dimensions (Time/Duration; Day/Night)
  • Crowd Size (number of persons)
  • Crowd Composition (range of actors, violent/non-violent)
  • Crowd Dynamics (type of crowd/mob; profiling key actors/agitators; counterdemonstrations and factions)
  • Media/Social Media Influences

Tactical and operational objectives include assessing the crowd/mob, containing and isolating disruptive activity, and dispersal of violent and unlawful actors.  Tactically, this demands an assessment of alternative dispersal routes, knowledge of crowd composition and dynamics (including focal/convergence points and axis of crowd movement), and a description of closed areas.  Crisis mapping, red teaming (alternative analysis), CyberInt (or cyber intelligence that gains understanding of social media), and an understanding of our own organizational capacities are needed to navigate the space of emerging disorder. 

Conclusion: Avoiding Pathways to Failure

Civil disorder is fraught with complexity and misfortune. Dissecting failure also helps future operations by going beyond individual use of force to look at systemic failures. In this way, Eliot Cohen and Michael Gooch’s concepts of military failure in Military Misfortunes can be usefully applied to the civil realm. Most studies of civil failure center around “simple failures”—individual failures to learn, adapt, or anticipate that are nevertheless survivable and in some cases are inherent to complex endeavors. Much more dangerous are aggregate failures—where a combination of two simple failures build up to something larger—or a catastrophic failure when three simple failures occur simultaneously or consecutively, leading to a complete organizational breakdown.[14]

Cohen and Gooch’s critical failure methodology can be utilized to look at the 1992 Los Angeles riots. As seen in Los Angeles, a failure to learn, anticipate, and adapt coalesced to resulted in catastrophic failure.  Crucial to understanding that breakdown was the dysfunction of command and control across all levels of command for the counter-riot response (strategic: political, police executive; operational: senior command, and tactical: field command).  “[B]reakdowns at all levels, each compounded by lapses within each critical task [lead to the} ultimate outcome of catastrophic failure.”[15]

Addressing complex civil disturbances, disorder, and riots is likely to be a staple of contemporary security operations (police, constabulary/gendarmerie, and military) operations globally for the foreseeable future.  Negotiating this unstable civil environment will require an understanding of the dynamics of crowds and mobs in physical and cyber space to discern between constitutionally protected speech and dissent and unlawful mobs of many types.  It can be anticipated that these dynamics will occur simultaneously demanding adept and adaptive operational responses and agile intelligence support over a broad area of (distributed) operations.

This portends many complicating factors. Most dangerous is complacency. Make no mistake—what occurred in London (and Rome) may happen in the US and elsewhere. What occurred in London is less the consequence of ethnic tension but a large-scale epidemic that struck even affluent districts.[16] The difference between local failure and catastrophic failure will be government response (including civil-military interoperations) and preparation by all echelons of political and civil order.


[1] Alex Calvo, “London Riots: Decentralized Intelligence Collection and Analysis,” Small Wars Journal, 09 August 2011 at

[2] Edward Glaeser, “How Riots Start, and How They Can Be Stopped,” Bloomberg News, 12 August 2011,

[3] See Christopher Kozlow and John Sullivan, Jane’s Facility Security Handbook, Alexandria: Jane’s, 2000,  277-280.

[4] Donald L. Horowitz, The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, op cit.

[5] Shlok Vaidya’s reports can be found at the blog India’s Naxalite Rage:

[6] Jack McDonald, “The Leviathan’s New Clothes: Information and Power Relationships,” Kings of War, 10 August 2011,

[7] John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt (eds), Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, Santa Monica: RAND, 2000.

[8] Bruce Crumley, “The Paris and London: A Tale of Two Cities,” Time, 9 August 2011,

[9] Sophie Body-Gendrot, “Disorder in World Cities: Comparing Britain and France,” OpenDemocracy, 15 August 2011,

[10] John P. Sullivan, “Critical Pathways: Responding to the 1992 Los Angeles Riot,” Journal of California Law Enforcement, Vol. 30, No. 1, 1996, 14-18.

[11] Sullivan, ibid.

[12] Thomas E. Drabek, “Managing the Emergency Response.” Public Administration Review, Vol. 45, 1985, 85-92 and Sid Heal, Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer, New York: Lantern Books, 2000, 41-51

[13] John P. Sullivan, Hal Kempfer, and Jamison Jo Medby, “Understanding Consequences in Urban Operations,” On Point, 2005.  Available at

[14] Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War, New York: Free Press, 1990.

[15] Sullivan, “Critical Pathways: Responding to the 1992 Los Angeles Riot.” 

[16] Crumley, ibid.



Categories: riots - crowd action

About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.