You could hear hoots of laughter as people aimed their smartphones in the air to video-record an angry woman beating up on a black Toyota Hilux vehicle on the night of March 28 in St James on Ariapita Avenue, just outside the Good Luck Chinese restaurant.
One four-minute video posted to Facebook on March 29 shows the woman initially using a windshield wiper to hit the car.
"Wha–she buy de wiper? She buy de van?" asks a voice on the video.
The slim woman, possibly in her 20s or 30s, discards the wiper and twists off the front license plate from the Hilux. She scratches the car's front with the twisted plate, hits the headlights, hits and grates the bonnet, then focuses on breaking the windshield. It does not shatter, but gets cracked and chipped.
Spectators give running commentary and advice, their food boxes and drinks in hand.
"Mash it up! Mash up de screen!" encourages one.
"Get out! Get out!" shouts one female viewer to the male car driver; she adds, in support to the angry woman: "Jump up on top de car!"
Meanwhile, you can hear the continuous, methodical "thwack thwack thwack" sound of the angry woman hitting the large metal vehicle.
"Waaaay, she real f***ing up dey car boy," comments one man.
"Look a glass bottle for you here!" offers another man, half-mocking.
"Break it, break it, wooooooooo!" shrieks a woman. One or two other women at times seem to briefly shield or protect the hitting woman, as if giving her space to vent, unencumbered.
People pause to watch, encourage, support, jeer or cackle in prurient glee at the unexpected Hilux drama, which many viewers assumed was caused by a personal relationship gone awry.
All the while, a male driver in the car (not visible in the video) is quietly taking the hits, secure in his locked car. Eventually, he slowly drives forwards, his Hilux gently pushing the woman backwards along the road, in an anticlimactic denouement. He leaves. She leaves. The video ends.
The video went viral over the weekend of March 29, and drew varying comments, from people chastising the woman, to others praising her.
At least one online humour site later spoofed the incident, with a story headlined: "Poverty-stricken Avenue crowd wants money back for lame ending to Hilux fight." (www.lateoclocknews.com)
What do incidents like this say about us? Was any crime committed? Was the crowd response evidence of herd behaviour, was it a shaming form of "street justice," or was it just idle voyeurism fuelled by alcohol and easy cellphone video recording technology?
The herd theory:
dangers of the mob
According to some psychologists, when enough of us get together, we may often end up doing some really nonsensical and downright violent things that we'd never consider on our own. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as herd or mob mentality, defined as unique behavioral characteristics that emerge when people are in large groups. A few people influence the majority. Anonymity in crowds fosters a feeling of a lack of responsibility. This in turn can encourage negative behaviours–such as the T&T crowd of "limers" lustily encouraging the woman to mash up the man's car.
Researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK discovered in a 2007 study that it takes a minority of just five per cent of a large crowd (defined as 200 or more people) to influence a crowd's direction–and that the other 95 per cent will follow without realising it. The 2007 paper relating to this research, entitled Consensus Decision-making in Human Crowds, was published in an issue of Animal Behaviour Journal. It points to the truism that all our actions have an effect: we influence each other's behaviour.
There are many examples of crowds making us stupid. Herd behaviour in history and internationally ranges from destructive football violence in the UK, to the more positive, expressive herd behaviour sometimes evident at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, to the violent 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver after losing a hockey match (see box).
The cultural view
Meanwhile, Dr Dylan Kerrigan, an anthropologist who lectures at UWI in the Department of Behavioural Sciences, commented in a telephone conversation that what was shown on the local T&T viral video posted to YouTube on March 29 may well say more about us as a "peacock" society, where a culture which includes carnivalesque exhibitionism (with some definite seedy aspects to it) allows such public expressions of private dramas.
Kerrigan emphasised that all his comments were "pure speculation and should be treated in that context." He then made interesting comments about our 'peacock society', our appetite for social media, and the roles of men and women on display in the incident.
"In cultural terms I think it was Molly Ahye who described T&T as a 'peacock society'; a 'see me' society," said Kerrigan, explaining:
"By this she meant many members of our society grow up and are socialised within a type of culture where the social recognition of our peers and other members of the society is important to us.
"So in that sense, there is often a blurring of the private sphere of people's lives and the public sphere of their lives–almost like divisions between the public street and the private home have become blurred and merge into each other.
"Ahye was really speaking about the adulation people crave at Carnival time to be seen, but others have extended her metaphor of the 'peacock society' to local everyday life. And I suppose, to a point, this local culture of visibility perhaps played into people's fever over recording and watching the incident unfold. A private argument is held in public, and as such it changes the social rules about sharing and commenting on the incident."
The 'peacock society' goes online Kerrigan also commented on the massive uptake of social media by T&T citizens. He said many people assume that Facebook is used the same all over the world; but it is not:
"Facebook is really a bunch of servers in California that is used in culturally specific and creative ways in different geographical locations.
"The anthropologists Daniel Miller and Jolyanna Sinanan have both published on this in T&T and describe Facebook here (as locals do) as 'Macobook' and 'Fasbook.'
"The argument here is that the 'peacock society' might have once been simply about the offline world, but now it has gone online and exploded.
"Whatsapp groups, for example, in T&T, are filled with people sharing videos of everyday incidents. So perhaps one reason for the hundreds of phones recording the incident on the street is this desire to show and share with others. This is perhaps a way to think about how local culture and advances in technology collide locally."
On being a man–or a woman
Kerrigan said perhaps the incident revealed some of our gender narratives. He asked some relevant questions:
"How were women reacting to the incident? How were men reacting? Was there any solidarity from the women and men toward the woman smashing the car, and if so, what ideas are the crowd tapping into for such solidarity? Is it ideas about infidelity, horning, deputies, polyamory and cheating?"
What about the male response? Did they see the incident as something about which to ridicule the woman? I know I have heard men discussing the incident speaking quite negatively of the woman, without having any idea what she might have been reacting to."
He noted that among the many familiar gender archetypes in T&T, common ones include the woman scorned taking back some retribution; and the man/boyfriend letting her get her payback: "...so the crowd could quite easily lock into a narrative of the events that made sense to them, and a narrative within which they intrinsically know how to react..."
"I do think the gender components of the incident–what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man in T&T–are at play on the street in this incident."
Ellen Lewis, the director of communications for the T&T Police Service, told the T&T Guardian in an email interview last week that five possible offences could arise, but this would depend on the outcome of an investigation. The possible offenses are:
1. Throwing missiles (once this is evidenced in the video recorded or by way of witness statements).
2. Malicious damage.
3. Aiding and abetting in the commission of an offence–this would apply to people allegedly supplying the perpetrator with missiles to enable the crime to be committed.
4. Obstruction under the Highways Act–if/where the free flow of traffic was impeded.
5. Disturbing the peace.
Asked whether she could recall other incidents like this, and what might cause them, Lewis replied:
"Often times the police are called upon to intervene in domestic violence and relationship disputes. Police officers are required to provide counselling to the parties to the dispute through our Community Policing, Victim and Witness Support Unit of the TTPS, and as necessary, referrals are made to such other competent agencies as National Family Services, Ministry of Social Development and the Coalition Against Domestic Violence."
On the possible herd behaviour evident in the video, Lewis said:
"It is a sad reflection on us as a society when adults would seek to incite and encourage another to cause possible physical harm to people, and damage to property, instead of attempting to defuse the situation. We must consider: had the situation been reversed, what would have been the reasonable expectation?"
She said people's education, and their value systems, all play a part. She condemned behaviour promoting violence and criminal behaviour, noting:
"Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference, even within a 'herd' environment."
?Mob behaviour: A case study
On a much larger stage than T&T, and in different circumstances, herd behaviour or mob mentality can take far more alarming, escalating forms, combining with confusion, hysteria and lawlessness to lead to widescale destructive results–such as the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, Canada. The Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team were beaten by the Boston Bruins, and the disappointed fans (many of them drunk) wrought havoc on Vancouver just four years ago. They turned over cars, lit fires, threw garbage at police, smashed glass storefronts, and looted businesses. At least 140 people were reported as injured, including nine police officers, and 101 people were arrested that night. Many rioters stood and posed for photographs, with some even posting the photos on their own social media accounts.
"Online shaming campaigns resulted in some riot participants being fired from their jobs and removed from athletic teams," recorded a Wikipedia entry: "In some cases, violence was threatened against those identified as rioters, prompting one family to flee its home, and others to express concern about the potential of mob mentality online."
The Stanley Cup example in its scale and severity bears little in common with last weekend's St James incident–except for the generic aspect of public incitement to violence, and the use of internet media as a form of instant expression: to shame, to boast, to document, to entertain, and perhaps, to do other things. Later, Vancouver police used the internet and Facebook photos to help prosecute many rioters.