San Diego Comic Con is filled with dense crowds of people who are very, very passionate about their favorite franchises. Could those elements ignite into a serious riot? According to scientists who study crowds, it's very possible.
During a riot, large crowds of people commit violent, destructive acts spurred by anger, fear, greed and the anonymity offered by the crowd itself. While riots can have many causes, they all have two basic elements: fuel and a spark that ignites it. Sometimes the fuel is anger and frustration over years of racial and economic injustice. Sometimes it's just the reaction to a sports team's loss or victory. Alcohol and being French-Canadian seem to exacerbate the chances of a riot occurring (seriously, no offense to French-Canadians, but I think Montreal has a riot every weekend). In any case, it's always a high level of emotion, amplified by the other members of the crowd reflecting that same emotion onto each other that fuels the initial impulse to riot.
The spark that finally starts the riot can be provided by a single incident, such as a fight. More often than not, the spark is provided by a single person or small group who incite the crowd and whip their emotions into a riotous frenzy. When the crowd cheers on those actions, more people join in and the whole thing snowballs. "If the group says, ‘Hey don't do that,' if they point you out to security, you're gaining disapproval from this group that's very important to you," said sports fan behavior expert Christian End in a 2005 interview for National Geographic. For this reason, riot control tactics focus on arresting or removing the leaders of riots, which often causes the whole riot to falter.
One interesting thing riot control experts have discovered is that riots can be started by people with no direct stake in the situation. They just want to loot. Groups will converge on situations ripe for a riot and start the window smashing themselves, even though they aren't fans of the sports team or members of the disenfranchised minority. After the 2008 hockey riot, Montreal Chief Inspector Sylvain Lemay observed, "It was a very, very small minority of people that acted out. They came because they want to loot and take advantage of the crowd to be anonymous." Is it out of the question that a group of thugs craving action figures and back issues could start a rampage through the SDCC convention hall? No, but it seems unlikely.
Is there a plausible riot scenario for SDCC? Let's list the factors favoring a riot:
- Large crowd of people, well above the critical mass needed for rioting.
- Highly passionate fans who can get extremely emotional.
- Fans of opposing schools of thought in close proximity (Twilight vs. Buffy, Kirk vs. Picard).
- Situations that cause anger and frustration (waiting in line for autographs, panels, con exclusives).
- Enclosed space, which can cause a fear response during an incident. A fight becomes a stampede, becomes a riot.
- Potential presence of Scarecrow, Mr. Fear, or Psycho-Man.
Factors against an SDCC riot:
- Alcohol is not served in large quantities on the convention floor.
- Relatively low proportion of French-Canadians.
- Splintered fan groups. The same thing that would get comic fans to riot won't get the people there for movie previews to riot.
- Enclosed space. The knowledge that you can't easily run away with your looted loot cuts down on the feeling of anonymity.
- Cooler heads. It's dangerous to make sweeping generalizations about a group this large, but in my experience at cons, genre fans are not especially prone to outbreaks of random violence. Even at their most frustrated, the worst you tend to get is shouted sarcastic comments. So, a snark riot is a distinct possibility. Burning police cars, not so much.
[Note: I've spent a great deal of time in Montreal. It's a beautiful city, one of my favorite places to visit. The people there are truly wonderful. Except when they riot.]
"Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem." National Geographic.
"What causes sports fans to start smashing things?" Globe and Mail.
Guide to Military Operations Other Than War: Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Stability and Support Operations Domestic and International. Stackpole Books.