On Collective Violence

United States author Michael Davis contends in his  Radio Free Corgi: Post-Election Dispatch 1 that consciousness is vital to defeat the collective violence that is arising since Donald Trump’s election win.


The late sociologist Charles Tilly‘s insights are invaluable to understand what is happening and why. The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2003) outlines the different forms that collective violence can take and its causal factors. Regimes and Repertoires (University of Chicago Press, 2006) explains how different ‘repertoires of contention’ can shape political regimes and the mobilised public protests against them.


In the past few days I’ve seen a deluge of messages on social media platforms about Donald Trump’s election win and the widespread protests in response. Panic and confusion have been the sentiment. Tilly’s sociology highlights the utility of how good social science research can anticipate and help us to understand complex phenomena like collective violence. This can inform what actions to take in order to preempt future violence. Alternatively, it allows an event arbitrage hedge fund to profit from shocks like Brexit and the 2016 United States election outcome.

The Square


Jehane Noujaim’s third film The Square tracks the lives of four Egyptian protesters during two years in Tahrir Square, Egypt. The Square covers the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak; the Egyptian Army’s deal with the Muslim Brotherhood; the 2012-13 term of president Mohamed Morsi; and how the protesters interacted with the Egyptian Army and Western media.


Noujaim continues themes from her earlier films including using a small group as a symbol of broader social forces (Startup.com‘s study of the 1995-2000 dotcom crash); and how senior army officials deal with social activist media (Control Room).


The dialogue between activists about the Muslim Brotherhood recalls P.R. Sarkar’s analysis of the Hindu case system articulated by Pakistani futurist Sohail Inayatullah in the Sarkar Game: the Egyptian Army (khsatriya military) deal with the protesters (shudra workers, vipra intellectuals) in a vacuum of enlightened Sadvipran leadership, and in which the Muslim Brotherhood broker deals that affect election outcomes (vaeshya merchants). The Square captures the gap between revolutionary ideals of social illuminism and how these play out amidst different power dynamics, values, and worldviews.


The protesters filmed express a still-forming revolutionary praxis and worldview: they might have benefited from awareness of the late sociologist Charles Tilly’s study of protests and regime responses (Regimes and Repertoires); Gene Sharp’s work in peace studies on nonviolent strategies; and constructivist institutionalism theories in political science on how to transform major social institutions like the government, judiciary, armed forces, and political parties.


The Square hints at unexplored topics that might inform other documentaries on Egypt’s sociopolitical changes. These unexplored topics include: the history and role of Western governments who backed Mubarak’s regime; the Egyptian Secret Police’s targeting of domestic political dissent; political Islamist controversies involving the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; and the CNN Effect’s variability that involves Western media pundits, geopolitical flashpoints, and human rights challenges.

Calling All Nations

Several weeks ago I noticed new graffiti on street signs in the Melbourne suburb Northcote from an unknown group: the Saracen Soldiers.  A block away from the most prominent graffiti two houses displayed nationalist flags in their front windows.  It could have been coincidence or maybe a signalling game to establish psychological turf.

At the time I thought of the ominous graffiti in Philip K. Dick‘s posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth (1985).  The grafiti also reminded me of the wanna-be teenage mercenaries in Leo Berkeley‘s film Holidays on the River Yarra (1990), who are recruited by a racialist organisation to engage in graffiti, brawls and other low-level politically motivated violence.

Two nights ago police fatally shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy during a confrontation in Northcote’s All Nations park.  Earlier that evening, Cassidy left home after a family argument then stole two knives from Northcote’s Kmart store.  Four police were called to arrest Cassidy and Victoria Police will now investigate what happened next.  As Rosie X observes, several media outlets speculated about Cassidys membership in the nationalist group Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS) and posed a ‘suicide by cop’ explanation for Cassidy’s death.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about blogosphere and media coverage.

Journalists described Cassidy’s online life as “subterreanean” – a mix of Sherry Turkle‘s theories about online identity fused with cyberterrorist fears – yet did not link to Cassidy’s MySpace page or mention the SCS sites above.  In contrast, Richard Metzger observed to me in 1998 that Disinformation had a different strategy: it would link to white supremacist groups such as Aryan Nations so that readers would understand their ideological worldview.  This got Metzger into trouble with several anti-racialist organisations who confused him with Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance.

Anarchist and anti-racialist bloggers knew SCS for months before Cassidy’s death as a white supremacist gang or youth network. The SCS band has copied Rahowa‘s white separatist music as a recruitment strategy.  The social network Bebo has pages for SCS recruitment and the SCS bandJacques Ellul would be proud: SCS (and perhaps Cassidy unwittingly) use a blend of Australian historical imagery for in-group identity and integration propaganda (“Aussie pride”, the Southern Cross flag, conflation of national identity with ethnicity) with agitation propaganda that is aimed at specific out-group enemies (Italians, Lebanese, anyone who does not meet SCS’s criteria for being Australian).

Several questions: How many other pages are there?  Who has been monitoring them?  What if any threat assessments were made?  Will anyone get an opportunity to conduct a sociometry analysis of SCS’s online social network before the pages are pulled (Marc Sageman established a benchmark with his study of Salafist cells that may have had weak ties to Al Qaeda).

Bloggers and journalists alike noted that police might have de-escalated the incident if they were armed with a Taser electroshock weapon.  The incident captures why there is a tactical role under specific circumstances for law enforcement personnel to use non-lethal or less-lethal weapons that could have saved Cassidy’s life.  The four police will likely receive critical incident debriefs and stress counselling.

A few days after Cassidy’s death Northcote remains largely subdued apart from occasional police sirens in the distance.  In contrast. Greece has faced a week of riots after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos which may spread to Europe.  As a ‘paired study’ – SCS’s street gang violence, the shootings of Grigoropoulos and Cassidy, and the divergent reactions – illustrate the late sociologist Charles Tilly‘s distinction between individual aggression (Cassidy), brawls (SCS) and scattered attacks (Greece) as different types of collective violence.

Tilly’s urban sociology in the 1960s foresaw how today’s social network sites may be used to coordinate street violence.  Perhaps police intelligence analysts would benefit from a few hours with Tilly’s masterful study The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) to pre-empt any SCS revenge attacks for Cassidy’s death.  SCS might then remain the purveyers of bad hip-hop/rock/metal hybrids (not exactly Australian), poorly designed web sites and street graffiti: the opportunist yet ineffectual extremists that Dick and Berkeley tried to warn us of . . . and that Greece and Europe may face again.