Let’s start with the fundamental paradox: Our personal technology in the 21st century—our laptops and smartphones, our browsers and apps—does everything it can to keep us out of crowds.
Why pack into Target when Amazon can speed the essentials of life to your door? Why approach strangers at parties or bars when dating sites like OkCupid (to say nothing of hookup apps like Grindr) can more efficiently shuttle potential mates into your bed? Why sit in a cinema when you can stream? Why cram into arena seats when you can pay per view? We declare the obsolescence of “bricks and mortar,” but let’s be honest: What we usually want to avoid is the flesh and blood, the unpleasant waits and stares and sweat entailed in vying against other bodies in the same place, at the same time, in pursuit of the same resources.
And yet: On those rare occasions when we want to form a crowd, our tech can work a strange, dark magic. Consider this anonymous note, passed around among young residents of greater London on a Sunday in early August:
Everyone in edmonton enfield woodgreen everywhere in north link up at enfield town station 4 o clock sharp!!!!
Bring some bags, the note went on; bring cars and vans, and also hammers. Make sure no snitch boys get dis, it implored. Link up and cause havic, just rob everything. Police can’t stop it. This note, and variants on it, circulated on August 7, the day after a riot had broken out in the London district of Tottenham, protesting the police killing of a 29-year-old man in a botched arrest. So the recipients of this missive, many of them at least, were already primed for violence.
It helped, too, that the medium was BlackBerry Messenger, a private system in which “broadcasting” messages—sending them to one’s entire address book—can be done for free, with a single command. Unlike in the US, where BlackBerrys are seen as strictly a white-collar accessory, teens and twentysomethings in the UK have embraced the platform wholeheartedly, with 37 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds using the devices nationwide; the percentage is probably much higher in urban areas like London. From early on in the rioting, BBM messages were pinging around among the participants and their friends, who were using the service for everything from sharing photos to coordinating locations. Contemplating the corporate-grade security and mass communication of the platform, Mike Butcher, a prominent British blogger who serves as a digital adviser to the London mayor, wryly remarked that BBM had become the “thug’s Gutenberg press.”
Nick de Bois, one of Enfield’s representatives in Parliament, was whiling away that Sunday afternoon at the horse races in Windsor, where a friend’s wife was celebrating her 40th birthday. It was a fine day of racing, to boot: In the third, Toffee Tart bested Marygold by just half a length, paying off at 7:2. “Unusually for me, I hadn’t looked at my handheld in two hours,” de Bois says. But when he did look, he saw something disturbing. Gossip was swirling about more riots that night, with Enfield named as a likely target. De Bois decided he had better cut his race day short. “I never even had a chance to recover my losses,” he deadpans.
By five in the afternoon, he was on the streets of Enfield Town, along with a handful of police. Was there a riot? No—not really, not yet. But there was a gathering crowd, a mixed-race group of mostly young men, just milling around in small bunches. Some were conducting what de Bois describes as “reckys”—reconnaissance missions—around the town center. “They were just having a good look!” he says.
Then, at around 6 pm, as if at some unvoiced command, the street exploded. The crowd hit a Pearsons department store, a Starbucks, an HMV. Police were able to move in and contain the violence—or so they thought—to a small part of the town’s shopping district. “Of course, there were side roads,” de Bois says. “But broadly speaking, the looting had been contained. Calm had been restored.” It was a loose version of what the British call kettling, an anti-riot tactic where police keep a disorderly crowd penned in, often for hours, to avoid their causing any more trouble.
Only then, though, did the situation in Enfield get truly surreal. De Bois was standing outside the sealed-off zone, behind one line of police, in an open area that led to the train station. As he watched in amazement, more and more people—some disembarking trains at the station, some stepping out of cars—continued to pour into the plaza. Riot police were convoying in, too, but their numbers couldn’t possibly keep up. And even if they did, it was impossible to definitively separate the would-be rioters from the bystanders.
Right behind a line of armor-clad police who had successfully contained a riot, this new crowd of hundreds was gearing up to touch off a second riot. As 7 pm approached, face coverings went up, and a small group walked past de Bois with a crowbar. Gangs began to break windows throughout the plaza—one local jewelry store lost nearly $65,000 in stock. Police would descend on a group, but then the crowd would disperse, only to reconstitute itself someplace else a few minutes later. Part of the issue was a peculiarity of British policing: Largely because most cops lack guns, they can’t easily carry out mass arrests, even in emergencies. Instead, each arrestee is physically accompanied by individual officers for booking. With their numbers already stretched thin, the police could not take looters off the streets without further depleting their own ranks.
But there was also something strange about the character of this riot, and these rioters—something that seemed to make the violence unstoppable. At base, it was their confidence: their surety that, as they streamed out of their cars and trains, or as they milled around in small groups, or even after they were dispersed by police, they would always find one another in sufficient numbers. As de Bois wandered through the crowd, he buttonholed one of the young men, asked him who they all were and why they were there. “Don’t worry,” said the looter to the MP, in a tone of gruff reassurance. “We’ll be out of here soon.”