Vancouver, beware the 'mad mob myth'

A leading British soccer crowd behaviour expert says Canadians shouldn't succumb to the allure of terms like "hooliganism" and "mad mob" when examining the causes of the Vancouver Stanley Cup riots.

Britain's soccer tragedies helped change understanding of crowds: expert

Vancouver's rioters have been called thugs, drunks and morons. Even the mayor called them "hooligans."

But a leading British soccer crowd behaviour expert says Canadians should avoid succumbing to the allure of terms like "hooliganism" and "mad mob" when examining the causes of the Stanley Cup riots.

In an interview Tuesday, Dr. Clifford Stott wouldn't comment on what might have prevented Vancouverites from looting, burning cars and battling each other and police on the streets. Instead, he's interested in preventing such violent incidents from happening again — and said commonly held "myths" about crowd behaviour don't help stop them.

Stott, a professor of social psychology at the University of Liverpool, said the public has long believed most riots occur when a "thug or ruffian" gets into a crowd and exploits it as a platform to engage in mindless acts of violence, or whips others into a collective frenzy to do the same.

"Those ideas about the crowd have been around for hundreds of years," Stott said via Skype. "But the most important thing to recognize about them is that they've been wholly rejected from science because they lack the capability to explain the events that we're trying to understand."

Stott has worked with governments, police forces and soccer associations to apply scientific understanding of crowd behaviour and reduce incidents of fan-related violence, particularly involving English fans travelling to continental Europe.

"This understanding that we've now developed about crowds and crowd dynamics has moved us away from these myths, this idea of the mad mob and the hooligan," he said.

Psychologists, he said, draw a distinction between a physical crowd and a collective crowd, with physical crowds containing multiple groups with different agendas, perspectives and identities.

"So when we talk about violent crowds, we generally mean violent collective action engaged in by a number of people within a crowd," he said. "Only a proportion of that crowd will be engaged in that violent action."

But even when only part of a crowd becomes violent, police around the world tend to react to a crowd as a whole, which Stott said is a common mistake authorities in Europe have tried to avoid in recent years.

Under the "public order management" approach with soccer games in Europe, smaller police elements monitor the crowd to determine where problems begin to develop and try to intervene in a low-impact way, he said.

"Then If that doesn't work, they draw on more resources," he said. "But what's critically important about that, because the police have done the early work, they're more capable of targeting the actual problem and avoiding the indiscriminate interventions that we know contribute to a riot."

Stott wouldn't comment on Vancouver police tactics during the riots. But he stressed that more successful probes into violent crowd incidents in Europe have tried to look at the events comprehensively, instead of just the violence itself.

"What happens, of course, is that these events create massive political pressure, and people who are responsible, police, authorities in governance, they themselves get under massive pressure because these events are seen as a failure on their part," he said. "That's a tragedy, really."

From tragedy to change

Fan violence and tragedies have led to an overhaul in the police management of soccer crowds in Britain. ((Jon Super/Associated Press))
In previous decades, English soccer fans were embroiled in a whole series of major riots that Stott said were easily on par with those in Vancouver, which contributed to the terms like the "British Disease" or "English disease" spreading across Europe and a rise in concerns over "hooliganism" at home and abroad.

English soccer already had a tragic history associated with  following a number of fatal crowd incidents in the 1980s, including the deaths of 39 people at Belgium's Heysel stadium in 1985 and the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989 that killed 96 Liverpool fans.  While the Heysel disaster featured violence between rival Italian and English fans, the deaths at Hillsborough were the result of police opening a gate to the stands, which led to a surge in the crowd and spectators being crushed against the metal fence surrounding the playing field.

But through these tragedies came lessons, along with major changes to stadium infrastructure and how police managed crowds. Since Heysel and Hillsborough, European authorities have been focused on understanding the crowd violence problem and reduce the overall levels of disorder, Stott said.

"And we've been very successful with that," he said, while also acknowledging a long road before all soccer-related violence in Europe is eradicated.

Canadians are lucky not to have to face the debate about crowd violence more often, Stott added.

"The reason you all are so concerned about it is these events don't happen very much," he said. "That's a great situation to be in because they happen in Europe all the time."


Andrew Davidson

Senior Producer

Andrew Davidson is a senior producer with CBC News in Toronto.