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Sunday, March 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fat Tuesday revisited: Has mayhem become form of recreation?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In the aftermath of the Mardi Gras melee, our fair city has scratched its head in bewilderment, and our mayor has made the astute observation, speaking for all, that "something is wrong here."

Peace march today

In the aftermath of the Fat Tuesday violence, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, under the leadership of Plymouth Congregational Church and Mount Zion Baptist Church, is coordinating a peace march at 2 p.m. today. The march will leave Plymouth Congregational, Sixth Avenue and University Street, and proceed to Pioneer Square. There will also be a prayer vigil to memorialize Kristopher Kime.

He wants to know specifically what forces came together to turn a festive crowd into a violent mob. Like a true modern mayor, he appointed a task force to find the answer.

We did some research, spoke with thinkers and experts, and found our own answers, none of which were comforting or conclusive. Among the findings:

Although thugs have always been with us, and riots are not new to Seattle, there appears to be a rise in the number of incidents involving groups of young men committing murder and mayhem recreationally. For fun, in other words.

"We have taught our kids to destroy and kill, and we have taught them to like it," says Dave Grossman, author and researcher in violent behavior.

The phenomenon, unpredictable and episodic, happens when thuggery intersects with opportunity at sporting events, concerts and other large public gatherings. It happens most in the U.S., Europe and South America.

That Seattle has experienced three recent instances of mass violence instigated by small groups - at WTO, the one-year anniversary of WTO and Fat Tuesday - in addition to a number of "wildings," may indicate that the phenomenon is simply catching up to the Puget Sound. It has happened in other American cities for years.

Trained experts in crowd control can point out where Seattle, for instance, went wrong nearly two weeks ago on Fat Tuesday. But these experts admit they deal only with planning and preparation.

They cannot erase the existence of hooligans looking for action. No matter how thorough the planning or prepared the police, thugs looking for an opening will find one, if not at this event, another. Or maybe at a party, or on a stroll down a lonely street.

The day after a group of young men stomped 20-year-old Kristopher Kime to death in a Fat Tuesday frenzy, a distraught Mayor Paul Schell asked a Pioneer Square crowd: "Who are these kids and what have we done to fail them?"

`Among the Thugs'

It's a similar question author and journalist Bill Buford asked in researching his book on soccer violence, "Among the Thugs."

Violence at soccer games in Europe and South America has caused hundreds of deaths and untold damage to property.

The violence has little to do with who wins or loses the game, or with social protest, Buford says. It is routinely instigated by young men, many of whom care little about the game but are there to exploit the opportunity for violence.

"They do it for the same reason that another generation drank too much or smoked dope or behaved badly," Buford writes. "Violence is their antisocial kick, their mind-altering experience, an adrenaline-induced euphoria."

These are young men who have nothing to look forward to or believe in except "a bloated code of maleness and an array of bankrupt social habits."

Out of boredom and frustration, he says, they use violence to feel alive and invigorated.

Last year, in Tacoma, eight boys had a barbecue and roamed the neighborhood until they found 30-year-old Erik Toews walking home alone. They allegedly beat Toews to death.

Police say the youngest, an 11-year-old, used the handle of a croquet mallet, and that the 19-year-old ringleader did wrestling-style knee-drops on Toew's head. Later, when asked why, one of the boys told police they were "bored."

In Seattle last summer, a half-dozen "wildings" - random assaults by roving bands of young men - were reported in downtown. One incident, in which five teenagers savagely beat a 44-year-old man, was caught on videotape.

What "wilding" and "recreational rioting" have in common is the element of thrill, according to Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. Farley believes an increasing proportion of crime in America is committed simply for the thrill.

It doesn't take a genius to note the exhilarated expressions, even jubilation, of rioters caught on videotape at Mardi Gras and in the riots that followed NBA Championship games in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. These riots began as celebrations.

The video images of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, after the Rodney King verdict, were full of expressions of glee. The riot may have begun as a protest, one observer said, "but it became a party."

The thrill-seeking almost always intertwines with other emotions, such as deep-seated anger or resentment, the kind you might typically expect to find in poor or disadvantaged communities.

Another reason for the apparent rise in thrill-seeking violence in the U.S., Farley says, has been the absence of war. War channels aggression toward a foreign enemy and siphons off young men who would otherwise have no outlet for their violent impulses.

A `so what?' mentality

Grossman, author of "On Killing" and "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill," believes a more ominous force is at work in Western - and particularly American - culture.

Violent movies, television and video games make killing acceptable, even fun; they provide violent role models, and some teach the actual mechanics of killing.

In 1997, a 14-year-old boy in West Paducah, Ky., fired eight shots into a student prayer group, making eight hits on eight different kids. (Three students were killed.) The FBI says the average police officer under similar conditions would not have been as accurate. Up until that day, the 14-year-old had never fired a real gun.

"How did that boy acquire such killing ability?" Grossman asks. He says some of the most common video games are equivalent to shooting simulators used to train law-enforcement officers.

A former West Point professor of military psychology, Grossman says if he wanted to design a program to mentally and technically prepare people to kill, "I couldn't do a better job" than American entertainment media.

Most insidious is its impact on the human capacity to empathize with the suffering of other people, he says. The catch is "desensitization." On the street, it translates into: "So what?"

Perhaps this element was most germane to the Feb. 27 scene in Pioneer Square, where gangs of young men (and some women) descended on fallen victims, hitting and kicking them in the head repeatedly, as if working toward the visual reward of blood.

Furthermore, many of the Fat Tuesday assailants were part of a large group, and the group was in the middle of an even larger crowd, thus affording the perception of anonymity.

Anonymity in a group diffuses responsibility and allows individuals to do what they would never do alone. It's the old idea underlying mob violence:

"Man is not a killer," the late Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz said, "but the group is."

The mob functions as a separate entity with its own mind, and goes through several stages of excitement and build-up, until finally a member - not necessarily the leader - commits a definitive act, and the rest follow.

Farley says other factors probably added to the incendiary mix at Mardi Gras: the free-flowing alcohol, which loosened inhibitions, and the anything-goes atmosphere.

Many have castigated Seattle police for not intervening early. Those who study mob dynamics say once a riot gains momentum, it is difficult to stop.

How about a rain dance?

Walt Crowley, a local author and historian, points out that crowd violence is not new to Seattle. On his Web site, www.historylink.org, he lists a number of instances, dating back to 1886. That year, a riot broke out after police confronted a large mob of whites trying to drive out all the Chinese in the city.

In 1913, anti-labor crowds brawled with radical organizers. In 1944, black soldiers rioted at Fort Lawton, lynching an Italian prisoner of war.

Anti-war and civil-rights demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s often turned into riots. And in 1979, the Fat Tuesday celebration degenerated into mayhem, injuring 91 revelers and 29 police officers.

"Historically, people have not changed that much, our culture has not changed that much," Crowley says. "We see these outbursts all through our history."

He resists the idea of a new culture of violence that has created a more lethal generation of young people.

Besides, "we don't have the capacity to redirect culture," he says. But cities like Seattle can deploy simple, practical tactics that can go a long way in preventing violent outbursts.

Think about this:

"The specific circumstances that came together to ignite the violence at Mardi Gras would not have occurred if it had rained that night," Crowley says.

A hard rain would have diffused the situation.

"I'm not saying we should do a rain dance," Crowley says, but surely the city's brightest minds can come up with ways to have the same effect: limit the alcohol, intersperse police in the crowd, impose a time limit.

These may not solve the conundrums of modern culture nor appease the simmering anger of a would-be mob, he says, but they might make for a more pleasant evening for the rest of us.

Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216, or at atizon@seattletimes.com.

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