In May, 2003 developmentally disabled 22-year-old Jessica Williams was tortured, stabbed, beaten and her body burned by her ‘street family’ for alleged betrayal. At least eleven people were charged. I worked with most of them. In custody they ranged from respectful to fearful.
This level of group violence gets called a lot of things. A group stomping, a wilding, a gang-rape…even a drive-by shooting has some of the same dynamics. Humans are primates and sometimes, as primates, we indulge in violence as a group or even as a mob.
This type of violence isn’t about status: there is no proving you’re a better man by being part of a group that kicks someone to death. This, the Group Monkey Dance, is about one of three things:
1) Teaching an outsider to respect boundaries. Domestic violence calls are often cited as one of the most dangerous police situations. No matter how brutally damaged the victim is, there is always a chance that both the victim and the victimizer will turn on the responding officers. I have a video of a young man breaking up a fight. Both of the involved fighters and the audience turn on the young man.
Humans in groups prefer to handle things within the group. They become resentful and sometimes violent if an outsider decides to ‘fix’ things. The tighter, smaller and more cohesive the group, the more interference is resented.
Here’s an example that most readers will relate to, one that many readers have actually done. If you are an older sibling, you picked on and fought with your younger brothers and sisters, right? Little dominance games happen all the time between children.
However, when your little brother or sister started school, if they were bullied, didn’t you step in? Though the dominance game (new kid with a group of other kids in a new school) was natural, it violated the idea of family. You may beat up your kid brother. No one else can.
Stopping others from picking on your family is an example of forcing an outsider to respect boundaries.
Emotions are contagious and when one member of a group starts getting violent, other members of the same group join in. It seems logical that they do this out of fear, that their own loyalty to the group might be doubted and they might be seen as outsiders. It seems logical, but I doubt there is that much thought involved. People join in too quickly.
The solidarity with the group allows an intense level of violence. The more one identifies with the group, the easer it is to see an outsider as ‘other’ and the ability to other sets the amount of damage one can do.
2) Betrayal. Betrayal is one of the deepest emotions in the human animal. Treason is punishable by execution even when nothing else is. For many years, killing a cheating spouse had it’s own legal defense and was termed an “excusable homicide” Florida’s statute for instance in part read:
782.03 Excusable homicide.—Homicide is excusable when committed by accident and misfortune in doing any lawful act by lawful means with usual ordinary caution, and without any unlawful intent, or by accident and misfortune in the heat of passion, upon any sudden and sufficient provocation, or upon a sudden combat, without any dangerous weapon being used and not done in a cruel or unusual manner.
Perhaps this comes from our prehistory, where starvation was a real danger and anyone who couldn’t be trusted risked everyone’s life.
In any case, in any group or subculture where violence is an acceptable tool, betrayal (real or not) can be met with horrific violence. It becomes a contest where each member of a group proves loyalty by what they are willing to do to the betrayer.
The case that opens this story was a local example. Middle-eastern stonings over adultery are another. In almost any culture, however that culture defines betrayal, betrayal will be punished with the most extreme force allowed.
3) Bonding. There is very little as bonding as committing violence with a small group of friends. Our ancestors would hunt big animals as a group and tell stories about the hunt and each other. In the intensity of the chase and the spear you would find out much about your compatriots: who was cool under stress, who lost control, who was afraid and who you could trust. The intensity of shared experience makes a tight group.
Nothing has changed. I am tighter with the former members of my tactical team than with most of my blood family. Combat veterans and even people who went through intense training feel a close bond. The dynamic is the same in drive-by shootings, wildings in Central Park or even fraternity hazing.
Avoiding the Group Monkey Dance
The first rule is to never betray a group. You may leave a group (and all groups that I am aware of, even the most violent, have a mechanism to leave) and may even become an open enemy afterwards, but betraying a group from the inside, or even being believed to, is very, very bad.
If you choose to get involved in an insider situation as an outsider, think it through. Cops have a duty to act. Civilians don’t. If you don’t need to get involved, weigh the risks and decide if it is worth it. Be as objective as you can. It is dangerous.
The best verbal intervention is to present yourself as an objective outsider who has no opinion and doesn’t care about who is right or wrong. Right or wrong are determined by in-group standards in any case. “Break it up! You’re hurting her!” immediately puts you in a position of both being an outsider and judgmental.
“You’d better knock it off, I overheard someone calling 911 and the cops are on the way,” will break up the situation without turning the focus to you.
The bonding monkey dance is a special case. Some are performed for fun (wildings in Central Park, videoed beatings on youtube) some are protecting territory or market share (drive-by shootings) and some are simply for cash.
Situational awareness is an over-used phrase. Without specific education of the things you need to be aware of it’s only words. Meaningless. For this type of crime, what you are looking for are patterns of motion. Groups moving purposefully together. Groups that cease talking and laughing and split up after spotting a mark. The patterns of a pincer movement or triangulation. Staged loitering, where people lounge against walls but with unusual separation, so that when you walk past they are perfectly staged, one in front of you and one or more behind.
Sometimes, in neighborhoods with experience of gang violence or where a violent group is creating trouble, you can read the flow of other people. As a rule of thumb, if you’re in an unfamiliar place and all the natives clear the street, you might want to think about it as well.
If you become the center of a Group Monkey Dance it is hard to overstate the level of danger. The safest of the variations is the simple group mugging for cash. There’s no value in excessive damage and the bloodier the crime the more it gets investigated. But if any member of the group is insecure and senses a loss of control he will explode into violence. Emotions being contagious, the rest of the group will likely join in. The damage can be horrific. None of the other variations are better.
There are four tactics that I have known to prevent a Monkey Dance. Three require special abilities.
The most obvious and the easiest was an act of such overwhelming violence that it shocks and scares the group. An officer and friend stopped a riot in a jail by walking into the module, grabbing the largest of the rioting inmates, spinning him in the air and slamming him in to the ground. Not many people can snatch up a 240-pound man and lift him overhead.
The second is to make the threats laugh. That’s hard to do. Don’t count on it. The things that make a group of people who enjoy hurting others laugh are not the same things that tickle audiences in nightclubs. This will not work if the GMD was triggered by betrayal or a perceived betrayal.
The third tactic is to increase either the doubt or the danger level. If the threats know that you are armed, it raises their risk. Looters in major disturbances famously avoid armed premises in favor of unarmed. I generally don’t advocate ever showing a weapon, except, perhaps in this case. Like any time that you show a weapon, if the threat display doesn’t work, you will almost certainly have to use the weapon or it will be taken away and used against you.
People who have allies, back-up or a reputation for fighting all raise the risk. People who do not respond like victims, who stay unusually calm or act strangely increase the doubt. Neither of these will matter in betrayal or some random acts of group violence but they might dissuade a group lacking in confidence without a personal issue with you, the victim.
The fourth and most effective tactic is to get the hell out of there. Run.