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Why Corona ravers bite policemen

Thanks to colleague Wendy Morrill for pointing out an article in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant about illegal rave parties being held during lockdown. There is growing concern because of the violence that often accompanies attempts to end such illegal leisure practices. The podcast version of the article describes how one drunken partygoer even bit a policeman who was carrying him to an ambulance. There follows a discussion about why young ravers should resist having their fun ended so fiercely. This is a phenomenon not limited to the Netherlands – over new year the mobilisation of 100,000 French police failed to stop illegal parties being held, including one in Brittany which attracted 2,500 ravers.

Why do young people hold illegal parties, and why do attempts to end them so often lead to violence? Several explanations are put forward in the Volkskrant podcast, including frustration with the lack of partying opportunities during lockdown, a wish to break free of rules, and the fact that illegality itself provides a kick. Perhaps most interesting is the suggestion that commercialisation of the rave scene created a younger generation of ravers who lack the skills to organise events themselves. Younger ravers, the argument goes, are used to trusting their health and safety to club owners and hired security, and don’t know how to deal with the unstructured nature of an illegal event.

But maybe there is an even simpler explanation for why such events often end in violence. In our recent research on events and leisure, we have made extensive use of the ideas of sociologist Randall Collins on “interaction rituals”. Collins argues that when people come together in crowds or events, this generates “emotional energy” that produces feelings of excitement and pleasure, causing people to repeat the experience. One of the conditions that Collins sees as essential for the generation of emotional energy is barriers to outsiders, which allows the in crowd to focus their attention on a single goal – such as dancing. Participation in the ritual “generates collective symbols that are defended and reinforced” according to Collins, and “Violations of these symbols provoke righteous indignation towards, and sanctions against, those guilty of transgression”. In other words, a drunken raver who bites a policeman is simply expressing their indignation against anybody who transgresses the rules of ritual, including the police. Perhaps the decision by the French police to let the 2,500 ravers finish their New Year’s party was a sensible one after all.

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