Friday, 28 November 2014

'Black Friday' incidents are not necessarily crowd 'madness'

The phenomenon of 'Black Friday' seems to have firmly caught on the UK with reports of scuffles in the stores that participated across the country, and Police in Manchester have criticised Tesco for not being adequately prepared to deal with the crowds that gathered from midnight to pick up bargains. This is something I have been asked about by the media when previous events have created crowd management problems (such as the Ikea 'riot' of 2005), and the questioning usually goes along the lines of;
'don't these incidents disprove your theories as they show that people behave competitively and/or anti-socially in crowds?'   

My response is to say that the theories of crowd behaviour that I and others from my field use don't claim that people in crowds will always behave co-operatively and/or pro-socially, and they may even behave in ways that people today would find abhorrent (such as the racist lynch mobs that were common in the US before the 1920s). We would argue that the crucial factor in influencing a crowd to behave co-operatively or not is whether they have the opportunity to develop a shared sense of identity that can than lead to united action in pursuit of this common cause. The work I did with John Drury  into mass emergencies (Drury et al 2009 a&b) found that survivors of mass emergencies often reported a common identity with others in the crowd who may have been total strangers before the emergency began (eg 'we're all in this together'), and it was this shared sense of identity that meant that co-operative rather than selfish behaviour was often the norm in such situations.

What appears to have happened on 'Black Friday' however, is that far from encouraging co-operative crowd norms, people were instead encouraged to compete with each other. Such problems are exacerbated if stores open out of normal hours, and if any special deals are of a limited nature (eg 'the first 100 shoppers get a discount') as people can fear that they may miss out if they don't get there in time- which explains why crowd surges and even scuffles can break out in such situations. People behave in this way because they are being set in competition with each other, and there is much less of a chance for them to experience a shared sense of psychological unity. I explored a similar example of this when I looked at the fuel crisis in 2012, and I argued then that the media reporting people filling up their cars as 'panic-buying', as well as a government minister telling people to store petrol at home created a social dilemma, whereby people feared that if they did not stock up before others did, then they risked running out of petrol. However, this was what created the shortage, as there is not the capacity in the fuel distribution system for everyone to drive around with full tanks. What would have been an equally true (and more co-operative) message to present to the public would have been that there was sufficient fuel supplies & that they should not stock up if they didn't need to as that in itself could create a shortage.

So, I often find myself saying to the media that people don't necessarily descend into an 'irrationalist mob mentality' (a term I often hear journalists using to describe crowds) in such incidents, and that perhaps rather than asking why people can behave competitively in crowds, maybe instead we should look at ways in which we could encourage them to behave more co-operatively. I would argue that having events such as 'Black Friday' do not help encourage co-operative behaviour, and retailers should think very carefully about how they will manage such situations (or even whether they are justified at all) before advertising them. Furthermore, they need to take more responsibility for preventing the completely predictable (and often avoidable) crowd management problems that such situations can generate, rather than writing them off as examples of crowd 'irrationality'.

Shoppers fight over a TV in a supermarket
shoppers wrestling with staff for a new TV


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Every one for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48.
Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Zimbabwe 'stampede'

Reports are coming in that 11 people have been killed and over 200 injured at a religious service in a stadium in central Zimbabwe which seems to have happened after the event finished and people began leaving. There are also reports from local news that around 30,000 were attending the event, and as it finished, police forced attendees to leave through just one exit. Shortly afterwards people began pulling down a pre-cast wall (pictured below), presumably in an attempt to avoid what could have been severe over-crowding through a single egress point. It was after this, that the police are reported to have fired tear gas (a claim they currently deny), which then caused the 'stampede'. 

Yet again, I feel have to take issue with the use of the term 'stampede' (which has appeared in every report I have seen of this incident). As I have argued after previous fatal crowd crushes at religious festivals in India in February and October 2013, describing such incidents as 'stampedes' implies irrationalist and even animalistic crowd responses that are rarely supported by closer examination of what crowd members actually do, and concluded that crowd crushing is often more likely to be responsible for any casualties (as opposed to people being trampled by the fleeing crowd). Furthermore, using such terms risks deflecting the apportioning of responsibility for this tragedy  from the victims onto what appears on the face of it to be some woefully poor crowd management.  We shall see what further information emerges about this tragedy, but I do wish the media would stop using the term 'stampede' to describe such incidents as it hinders attempts to explore such events in detail and look at how they can be prevented in future. 

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason?Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling. 10 (2) p.219-36. Available at:

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Elite panic won't help protect Australia from Ebola

The recent decision by the Australian government to suspend visas to those travelling from the West African countries most affected by Ebola could reflect a worrying development in responses to the current outbreak. The motives behind such a move seem rather dubious, as it again appears to be more the need for politicians to be seen to be doing something as opposed to a clear and present threat to the Australian population (so far there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Australia and I would guess that the numbers of those currently seeking visas from the affected countries in West Africa are probably negligible) In this blog-post, I will argue that such visa bans are unlikely to provide significant health benefits, could very well be counter-productive and may even risk increasing xenophobia, especially if other countries follow suit.

Over-reactive & ineffective?
The visa ban has caused anger in the affected region, and sparked criticism, with Amnesty Australia saying it has no public health justification (because visa applicants to Australia are already screened for illnesses and so would provide limited extra protection) and that; "all it does is ensure that already exceedingly vulnerable people are trapped in a crisis area and sends a signal about Australia's commitment to actually dealing with this crisis in a responsible way as a member of the international community.Sierra Leone's Information Minister has called the ban "absolutely counter-productive", and a Ugandan government spokesman even claimed that: "Western countries are creating mass panic which is unhelpful in containing a contagious disease like Ebola". Now while I would take issue with the idea that ‘mass panic’ may happen, I would agree that some of the preventive measures we have seen so far are often of little clinical benefit, and tend to be implemented by governments against expert advice in response to what they feel is political pressure to do something. In my last blog I looked at how the UK government’s recent decision to introduce border checks for Ebola were criticized by public health experts as having little clinical benefits and I suggested that they could be an example of elite panic, whereby the authorities over-react because of a misplaced fear of ‘mass panic’ in the general population. Such actions can also create a self-fulfilling prophesy in that telling the population not to worry about a crisis can create the very crisis the authorities are trying to avoid. The 2012 UK fuel crisis is a perfect example of this; when the Cabinet Office Secretary, Francis Maude was widely blamed for a wave of ‘panic-buying’ of petrol, after advising people to stock up on petrol at home in an attempt to undermine a proposed strike by fuel tanker drivers.

Australia's Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison

Increased stigmatisation and prejudice?
Another concern is that restrictions on travel from Ebola zones imposed by the largely unaffected developed countries could feed into any local xenophobic attitudes, which could generate more prejudice towards those perceived (often wrongly) to be at risk of spreading the outbreak. For instance, Australia’s Immigration Minister was reported as telling his parliament that "the government's systems and processes are working to protect Australians" I find statements like this deeply troubling, as they could all too easily feed into nationalistic narratives, and a fear of others who are ‘different’. Furthermore, measures by some US states to quarantine health workers returning from the Ebola affected region have drawn criticism after a US nurse complained that she was treated like a criminal. Reuters also reported the head of the U.N. Ebola Emergency Response Mission as criticising this decision as potentially counter-productive as it may put off people volunteering to help; "anything that will dissuade foreign trained personnel from coming here to West Africa and joining us on the front-line to fight the fight would be very, very unfortunate". The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon also spoke out on the plight of returning volunteers, saying they "should not be subjected to restrictions that are not based on science. Those who develop infections should be supported, not stigmatised."

Ebola protest
Travel bans from Ebola areas may have limited short-term populist appeal, but are unlikely to provide long-term health benefits

As I have previously said, we should not be complacent about Ebola and there may yet need to be other measures introduced to tackle the current outbreak in West Africa and prevent its spread if the situation deteriorates further. However, any restrictive measures need to be based upon sound scientific advice and not by short term populist measures driven by political rather than public health considerations- something I fear we are currently witnessing. By far the vast majority of cases have been in Western Africa, so it seems at best disproportionate (and at worst, racist) for Western countries to bring in visa bans that are unlikely to bring any increased health protection. Furthermore, the risk of a major outbreak in the developed world, so far seems minimal. People are not contagious until they develop the symptoms of Ebola, and the highest risk of contagion is when people are in the final stages of disease (and often too ill to walk, let alone get on intercontinental flights), so those most at risk are the brave volunteer health workers who look after the victims. Stigmatising such people on their return with over-restrictive measures are of dubious health benefits and could even be counter-productive if they deter them and others from going to help. Finally, the international community desperately needs to work together in a unified way, and unilateral attempts to raise the drawbridge (like Australia has done with its visa ban) risks fracturing such unity and may harm collective international efforts to defeat Ebola.

The UK Disasters & Emergencies Committee has now set up an appeal for donations to combat Ebola- the first time this has been done for a disease outbreak

Monday, 13 October 2014

Ebola outbreak- Keep calm and carry on, or 'panic' and freak out?

The current Ebola outbreak has so far seen over 8300 cases, with at least 4000 fatalities-the vast majority of these being in the three West African countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. However, there has been a media  frenzy focusing on the tiny minority of cases seen so far in the developed world, with reports that a nurse in the US has contracted Ebola after working with the Liberian national (Thomas Duncan) who died of the disease- the first case of transmission on US soil. Here in the UK, call handlers on the NHS non-emergency 111 phone-line, staff will now be asked to conduct checks for Ebola amongst callers. The UK's Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has announced that we should expect a 'handful of cases' in the UK, which seems to be an effort to help prepare the population for what now seems an inevitable spread of Ebola in this current era of global trade and transport. Throughout this latest outbreak, I have noticed different narratives emerging which I think reflect interesting (but also sometimes concerning) aspects of how Ebola is being represented in social discourse, and these often include reference to the terms 'fear' and 'panic'.

Ebola & strategic uses of 'panic'
First of all, a recent blog by John Drury looks at how responses to Ebola can illustrate the strategic functions that use of the term 'panic' can serve, such as apportioning blame to those who are displaying over-reactive or maladaptive behaviours. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with how I argue that 'panic' is often used (wrongly) to describe what outside observers of mass emergencies see as maladaptive crowd responses. A paper I co-wrote with him on the Hillsborough disaster (Cocking & Drury, 2014) looked at how survivors used 'panic' to describe their experiences, but they also rejected the notion that they were somehow to blame, and the term was frequently used to apportion responsibility onto others (e.g. they would argue that the Police 'panicked'). The term elite panic (Clarke 2008) has also been used to describe the authorities' distrust of the population to behave 'rationally' in mass emergencies and the measures they can impose in the mistaken belief that 'mass panic' will be the predominant response to any incident. John Drury also raises the issue of whether the current responses by the UK authorities show elements of elite panic, such as the decision to begin screening for Ebola at UK border entry points. For instance, the CMO has admitted that such screening for Ebola is "unlikely" to pick up many cases, "if any", begging the question of whether it has been introduced more because of a political need to be seen to be doing something, than because of a belief in its clinical efficacy. For example, The BBC reports that a doctor at Public Heath England has said in a leaked e-mail that screening was a "purely a political gesture, unlikely to provide public health benefits". This appears to fit with advice from the UN Co-ordinator for Ebola David Nabarro, who said that screening was more effective at the point of departure from Ebola affected areas, as those testing positive could then be prevented from leaving and thus spreading the disease further.

How we’ll know if Ebola hits our borders
Entry checks for Ebola may have little more than a placebo effect 

Fear of & fascination with Ebola?
David Nabarro also told Channel 4 News that the current outbreak was worse than a movie, which may not help dispel public anxieties, and perhaps also inadvertently mirrors the strange mixture of horror and cultural fascination that we have with Ebola. For instance, this August, the BBC Radio 4 programme Summer Nights featured a very good general discussion about the outbreak (which at the time was largely confined to West Africa), but it also explored why there was a kind of perverse curiosity with diseases such as Ebola. Guests discussed how people often have a fear of, but also a fascination with conditions that have graphic symptoms, and that there were possible similarities with other cultural manifestations of this fascination. For instance, horror movies, such as Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (where the UK is ravaged by the accidental release from a government laboratory of a super-virulent disease called 'Rage' which is spread by blood and saliva, and turns those infected into violent zombies) plays upon themes of distrust of the government and fear of strangers, both of which are present in the current Ebola outbreak. One guest even described Ebola as 'a Hammer Horror virus’, and made the point that it may be more sensible to fear airborne or insect transmitted diseases (such as the flu, or malaria), as they are easier to catch and potentially much more deadly (globally over 600,000 people die annually from malaria). However because Ebola has such graphic symptoms, people tend to fear it more, hence the popularity of films like 28 Days Later.

In 28 days later, victims with the 'Rage' vomit blood onto others, which rapidly spreads the infection

Ebola & the fear of fear
While I would reject descriptions of public responses to the current outbreak as 'mass panic', it is clear that fear of Ebola and its potential spread is influencing how it is being represented in social discourse, which can in turn result in some worrying public responses. For instance, there are concerns that xenophobia and prejudice could increase because of the outbreak, and Reuters have reported that in Dallas, African immigrants are worried about the backlash from the recent death of Thomas Duncan. Closer to home, a planned visit to a school in Stockport, near Manchester by a nine year old boy from Sierra Leone was recently cancelled after the Headteacher declared that there had been 'misguided hysteria' by some parents about the risks to their children from the visit (which seemed to be negligible as there was no evidence the boy had been in contact with anyone infected with Ebola). Tom Clark from Channel 4 News argues in his blog that the fear over the current outbreak is spreading faster than the disease itself, but that this is also ultimately counter-productive;

If there’s one lesson from west Africa, it is that fear is a far more efficient contagion than Ebola itself. Ignorance, mistrust and terror have only made things worse. Worth bearing in mind as Ebola slowly, but perhaps inevitably, makes its way here. 

There is much that is concerning about the current Ebola outbreak and its potential to spread, and more resources need to be provided urgently to assist those West African countries currently being decimated by the disease. Furthermore, governments and the media in the developed world should take a measured approach when dealing with this outbreak, by not adopting knee-jerk alarmist responses that may not allay public concerns and could be counter-productive in the long term.  However, public fears about Ebola may be more based upon lack of awareness about the disease and distrust of the authorities, as opposed to any inherent public 'irrationality'. So, rather than simply implementing short-term measures that politicians think may serve a populist agenda (such as screening people on entry to the UK), it might be better in the long-term to engage with and address any public concerns about the outbreak through better education about the disease and how to prevent its spread (such as early detection of symptoms and washing with soap and water after coming into contact with infected bodily fluids). Being open about the risks, not withholding information, and treating the public as potential partners in preparation for, and the response to Ebola may also be part of this education process which could contribute towards preventing the further spread of this terrible disease.

To donate to MSF who are on the front-line of tackling Ebola in West Africa, click here


Clarke, L. (2008) Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself. Social Forces, 87 (2): 993-1014.

Cocking, C. & Drury, J. (2014) Talking about Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as discourse in survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 24 (2) 86-99.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Hong Kong policing & Britain's colonial legacy

An article I wrote for The Conversation on Hong Kong Policing can be found here, which is a shortened version of the piece below.

The recent mass demonstrations in Hong Kong that have been calling for greater democracy saw the Police initially responding with riot squads, tear gas and pepper spray against peaceful protestors. However, this authoritarian response merely caused the protests to grow, leading to the temporary withdrawal of the Police. On Sept 30th Human Rights Watch called for the authorities to avoid using excessive force, and there was a stand-off during the national holiday to celebrate the founding of Communist China. Protestors had planned to occupy government buildings if the Chief Executive CY Leung didn't stand down by midnight Oct 2nd, resulting in a heavy police presence outside the Chief Executive's building.  In a recent Press Conference, CY Leung still refused to quit, but has offered to hold talks and this offer has been accepted by protestorsThe situation currently appears to be calmer, although many protestors are still on the streets.

Historical contexts:
There are interesting and rather ironic historical antecedents to how the current situation has been dealt with by the authorities that date back to Hong Kong's colonial past. For instance, Chris Patten (who was the last governor of Hong Kong when it was handed back to China in 1997) has accused the Chinese authorities of reneging on commitments to uphold democratic principles. However, the way in which the Hong Kong Police Force initially dealt with the protests owes much more to when it was a British colony, and this style of policing doesn't seem to have changed significantly since the British handover in 1997. So, their recent use of riot squads with short shields, tear gas, (with rubber bullets in reserve) is nothing new, with this approach being developed in the 1960s to deal with the colonial administration's fear of rebellion by Chinese Communists and/or local Trade Unions. Furthermore, the way they respond to public order incidents has also influenced policing closer to home. Gerry Northam's 1989 book- Shooting in the Dark argued that British policing shifted in the 1980s from a policing by consent model, to a much more coercive and para-militarised approach, based upon how the colonial Hong Kong Police were organised. He recounts that after the riots in the summer of 1981, (which saw the most significant urban disorder in England for a generation), the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) invited the Director of operations at the Royal Hong Kong Police to their private annual conference, to advise UK police on how they dealt with crowd disorder. From this conference, ACPO set up a working group to review their riot control tactics and develop a national training package for all UK forces. This resulted in the development of the ACPO Public Order Training Manual, a secret document which only emerged during the trials resulting from one of the largest set-piece confrontations of the 1984-5 miners' strike.

Hong Kong Police short shield unit September 2014

The Battle of Orgreave

The Battle of Orgreave happened when 10,000 striking miners were confronted by up to 4000 police officers from across the country at the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, resulting in running battles between pickets and police, with 93 arrests and over 100 injured from both sides. This incident was significant because it saw the first major public display of the new paramilitary tactics that British police had learnt from their colleagues in Hong Kong, with Waddington (2011) arguing that the police planned a set-piece confrontation rather than reacting to violence from pickets as was suggested by the media. During the day police in riot gear would stand in formation holding long shields, and periodically part their lines to allow mounted police and officers with short shields to charge at the crowd, with snatch squads making arrests. In 1985, the  BBC produced a documentary about Orgreave and interviewed John Alderson, a former Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police. This was his response on seeing footage of the fighting at Orgreave;

'This is a carbon copy of the Hong Kong riot squad…The British people should never accept colonial style policing. It isn't democratic policing, it’s forceful, repressive policing. Instead of exporting the developed British tradition to the colonies, we are now importing colonial policing into Britain. The question that now faces us all is now this- if we've seen the Hong Kong Police tradition used in Great Britain in 1984, what are we going to see in future on the streets of our big cities?’ 
(quoted in Northam,1989 p.59-60 )

The Battle of Orgreave may have happened over 30 years ago, but I find this quote rather prescient, given the trend towards increasingly militarized policing in Britain that has happened since (especially since the 2011 riots)-something I argued against in a report I wrote regarding the introduction of water cannon and that is also summarised in a previous piece I wrote for the Conversation.

Battle of Orgreave 18/6/1984

British double-standards?
We shall see how the situation in Hong Kong develops, and hopefully there will not be a bloody crackdown by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) similar to Tiananmen Square in 1989. So far the Chinese authorities seem to be relying on the Hong Kong Police to manage the situation, perhaps fearful of the reputational and economic damage that could follow from sending in the PLA. However, if the Police do decide to take a more repressive approach to the protests (which seems possible given the recent admission that they have begun stockpiling rubber bullets and tear gas at the Chief Executives' Office), then those in the UK should think carefully about how they respond. For, while any brutal repression of the predominantly peaceful protests in Hong Kong should rightly attract international condemnation, it may be slightly hypocritical for British politicians to criticise the actions of a police force that was originally set up by a colonial British administration largely because of the fear of rebellion amongst the local population, and this force's public order tactics have directly influenced to this day how our own police deal with public order situations in the UK.    


Gerry Northam (1989) Shooting in the dark: riot Police in Britain. Faber & Faber: London

David P. Waddington (2011): Public order policing in South Yorkshire, 1984–2011: the case for a permissive approach to crowd control, Contemporary Social Science, 6:3, 309-324

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scottish referendum 'disorder'? Don't predict a riot!

As I write this, the polls are now open for the referendum on whether Scotland decides to become an independent country and thousands of Scots are queuing to cast their vote. As an Englishmen living south of the border, I will refrain from offering an opinion on how the vote should go (although I suspect the Cornish half of me may yearn for greater devolution for Cornwall if the 'Yes' campaign wins!), but I do find the media predictions of possible 'disorder' after the vote rather annoying and irresponsible to say the least. For instance, on 15/9/14, The Independent reported that Scottish Police will be on 'high alert' after the result of the vote is declared on the morning of September 19th. More recently, The Times on 17/9/14 ran with the almost hysterical headline, 'Fears of mob violence as pubs open all night for vote count', and even the normally measured John Snow from Channel 4 News was asking guests in Edinburgh if they thought there was going to be 'trouble' after the vote. Such media speculation is insulting to the vast majority of Scots from both sides of the referendum debate who have conducted themselves in an overwhelmingly civilised (if at times impassioned) debate over the pros and cons of independence, and this speculation reflects what I think is a deep mistrust of people coming together en masse.Therefore, I will argue in this post that riots in the wake of the referendum result are not inevitable (or even likely), and that exaggerating the risk could even generate a self-fulfilling prophesy that increases the chances of any such disorder happening.

Illustration: Monica Burns

Comparisons with English examples
In a previous post I looked at two examples of recent urban disorder in Tottenham, London (the 1985 & 2011 riots). I argued that while both happened in a context of tension and strained community relations (both involved deaths at the hands of the Police, with Mark Duggan's shooting in 2011 sparking four days of rioting across England), neither riot happened straight after the incident, and there were also specific events that happened in the aftermath of each death that triggered the disorder. For instance, I felt it was crucial to explore how the crowds that gathered in response to these deaths interacted with the police, and that there were mistakes that the police made in managing the protests in each situation that triggered a riot. However, there were other similar situations where riots did not happen. So I argued that disorder in such tense situations is not inevitable, but that creating an atmosphere that emphasises the potential for disorder can make such disorder more likely to occur. The current situation in Scotland is clearly different in that there have thankfully been no fatalities related to the referendum debate. However, what I think is also interesting is that unlike the incidents in London where I argued that the Metropolitan Police seemed to go along with a media narrative emphasising the possibility of disorder in the aftermath of Mark Duggan's inquest, the Scottish Police so far seem to be trying to avoid following such a position. For instance, the Chairman of the Scottish Police Federation issued a Press Release on 17/9/14 that attempted to play down any risks of possible disorder, as illustrated in the following extract;

It was inevitable that the closer we came to the 18th of September passions would increase but that does not justify the exaggerated rhetoric that is being deployed with increased frequency. Any neutral observer could be led to believe Scotland is on the verge of societal disintegration yet nothing could be further from the truth... police officers have better things to do than officiate in spats on social media and respond to baseless speculation of the potential for disorder on and following polling day”

Historical comparisons- a 'Scottish Approach' to policing?
A quick look back at the history of Scottish urban disorder also raises some interesting issues. While researching for this post, I really struggled to find examples of recent widespread disorder in Scotland (thanks to those who helped with this search). For instance, the riots seen in England in 2011 and the early 1980s did not spread North of the border, and while there were mass campaigns of civil disobedience in Scotland against the hated Poll Tax, there were no riots like the one seen in London on 31/3/1990. Furthermore, the 2005 G8 Summit at the Gleneagles Hotel did attract some of the largest protests in central Scotland's history (resulting in over 700 arrests in total), but these were largely peaceful, and none seemed to result in widespread urban disorder.The most recent example I could find of a large riot in Scotland was the Battle of George Square in Glasgow 1919, where the local Police lost control of a crowd of up to 60,000 workers on strike and the British government deployed 10,000 soldiers supported by tanks (see photo below) so fearful were they of the Russian revolution spreading to Clydeside. Apparently local Glaswegian soldiers were not deployed because of the fear they might mutiny and join the strikers! To find another large riot in Scotland, I had to go back to the Tron riot in Edinburgh, Hogmanay 1811-12, where the wealthy inhabitants of the New Town were attacked by youths from the deprived Old Town, resulting in the death of a police officer and five youths subsequently being sentenced to death for their part in the riots. 

Tanks deployed after the battle of George Square, 1919

These historical examples lead on to the question of why Scottish cities have not seen similar outbreaks of the urban disorder that has happened in England in recent years, given that the underlying social contexts (such as deprivation, inequality, youth alienation, etc.) are often similar or worse than in the English communities where disorder occurred. Some observers have tried to address this issue, offering a variety of reasons why riots are less frequent in Scotland. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2011 riots, Marianne Taylor from the Guardian considered whether it was policing, urban planning, different gang cultures, or even bad weather in August 2011 that meant they didn't spread to Scottish inner cities. Gorringe & Rosie (2010) also looked at how national identities were manifested in the policing of the G8 Summit protests in 2005. The senior police officers they interviewed believed that the particular 'Scottish approach' used at the protests (a less confrontational approach, and reluctance to deploy specialist public order officers in riot gear etc.) contributed to the lack of widespread disorder, and they felt this set them apart from English policing. However, this view was not universally shared, and a member of the Scottish Socialist Party they interviewed rejected this notion of 'Scottish policing', arguing that they could be just as forceful as some English police forces are and equally alienated from the communities they police in some inner-city areas. Gorringe et al (2012) later looked at the policing of the 2009 NATO summit  in Edinburgh and concluded that while the police stated their intention was to 'facilitate lawful protest', this approach was not ultimately effective in practice, and 'frequently reverted to styles of policing designed to contain protest' . 

It's always risky making definitive predictions about whether or not disorder will occur before an event as there's always the chance that you will get it wrong! I also have to confess that there may well be gaps in my own knowledge of Scottish public order incidents which limit my ability to offer much more to this debate. However, from my own studies of crowd disorder in England, I would argue that how crowds interact with the police at specific incidents is crucial to our understanding of these events. So, in the unlikely event that any disorder does occur, it will be vital to forensically examine the chain of events leading up to each incident, rather than assuming that disorder was 'inevitable' in such contexts. I would also suggest that just because we are seeing an impassioned debate by the Scottish people about the future of their nation, this does not necessarily mean that they will begin rioting when the result is announced. Furthermore, it is irresponsible for the media to suggest on spurious (or even absent) evidence that we will see widespread disorder and 'mob violence'  in the aftermath of the vote on September 18th, and merely reiterates the deeply flawed views of collective processes that are prevalent in social discourse in general. I worry that there's also an element of implicit xenophobia in some of the English media as they seem to distrust the ability of Scots to come together peacefully after the result. One thing that I have heard mentioned by people from all sides of the debate is how proud they are of their fellow Scots for engaging in such widespread debate on this issue (often from a grass-roots level). So, whatever happens in this referendum, I think those of us South of the border should be inspired by this exercise in mass democracy, rather than fearing disorder in the aftermath of the referendum.    

Gorringe H and Rosie M (2010) The 'Scottish' Approach? The discursive construction of a national police force. The Sociological Review, 58 (1) p.65-83

Gorringe H, Rosie M, Waddington D & Kominou M (2012) Facilitating ineffective protest? The policing of the 2009 Edinburgh NATO protests. Policing & Society, 22 (2) p.115-132.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Ferguson 'riots'- militarised policing is not the answer

The town of Ferguson, Missouri in the US has now seen ten days of almost nightly disorder, according to the latest BBC reports. This was sparked by the fatal shooting of the Black teenager Michael Brown, promoting accusations of racism by the African-American community against the police (Ferguson's population of 21,000 is two-thirds Black, but there are only 3 Black officers from a total of 53 in the local Police Department). The town currently looks more like a war zone than a previously unremarkable suburb of St Louis in the mid-West, with the media presenting images  that seem more reminiscent of scenes from apartheid South Africa. The recent deployment of the Missouri National Guard has not yet quelled the disorder either, with 31 protestors arrested during the night of 18/8/14 (there is also evidence that Amnesty human rights observers were told to leave the vicinity and did so with their hands up), and I would argue that this increasingly militarised response may well be one of the factors that is perpetuating the situation.

Militarised policing:  
The police deployed in the evenings in Ferguson are heavily armed with a range of sophisticated weapons (such as: tear gas, sonic devices, baton rounds, and stun grenades) making them look more like soldiers than civilian policeman. What these devices all have in common is that they are indiscriminate crowd control weapons designed for dispersal that treat crowds in an indiscriminate way and cannot differentiate amongst protestors. In previous blog posts and an article for The Conversation, I argued that the introduction of water cannon into British policing would probably be counter-productive as it would contribute towards the increased militarisation of the police and could result in more disorder rather than less. This is in line with research done by a variety of academics into crowd behaviour using the Elaborated Social Identity Model (e.g. Stott, 2009) which argues that treating crowds forcefully and indiscriminately often escalates disorder, and was recently covered in a Newsweek article;  

'Studies [ ] show that police have the power to either lessen the tensions of an angry group of people or goad them into a riot. This conclusion is based on the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), which is the leading scientific theory on managing a boisterous horde of people. What the ESIM shows is that an angry crowd can be driven to riot if they believe they are being treated unfairly—for example, by being confronted by cops decked out with military weaponry. When police treat a crowd justly and humanely, the chance of an uproar decreases and participants trust law enforcement more.'

Riot police in Ferguson (18 August 2014)

Irrationalist narratives of crowds:
I have also noticed that the language used to describe the protests in Ferguson reflects a pervasive mistrust of crowds in society that is heavily influenced by pathological  views of crowd behaviour (that are often flawed and not supported by current evidence). There are also commonalities with how protests were covered after similar events in the UK (such as the 2011 riots after the shooting of Mark Duggan by London's Metropolitan Police). For instance, the Ferguson Police Captain Ron Johnson claimed in an interview that;
"a small number of violent agitators... hide in the crowd and then attempt to create chaos" 
I have seen no CCTV footage to support this assertion, but I would take issue with the premise behind this statement- that there are a small number of people with malicious intent who are responsible for 'inciting' the peaceful majority to behave violently. This assumes that crowd members are easily influenced by others to do things that they would not do otherwise. If crowds were this easily influenced by others, then why don't they listen to the police announcements to disperse and go home?! The reality is that the idea of gullible crowds, uncritical of any social influence is largely a myth not supported by evidence from studies of crowd behaviour. If violence does occur it rarely happens because a violent 'minority' has whipped up the the crowd, and is more likely because of the police treating the crowd in an indiscriminate way which psychologically unites crowd members to act together against what are perceived as illegitimate attacks against them. Ball & Drury's (2012) study of the narratives presented by the media and politicians of 'irrational' criminality after the 2011 riots in the UK, shows how the statistics used were often selective and/or mis-represented, and the conclusions drawn were not supported by detailed examination of what actually happened. Finally, locals from Ferguson also seem to reject this dominant narrative of pervasive 'criminality', and there have been much more positive accounts of recent events by those involved in them. For instance, the BBC has reported how some locals perceive an almost festival-like atmosphere in Ferguson;

Sarah from nearby University City has spent four days in Ferguson.

"What they're not showing in a lot of the media is how diverse these groups of people coming out are and how welcoming everybody is. It's really wonderful to be in this community right now. There's so much love and support."

Another man described efforts by young men to protect several local stores and the greater community from looters.

"People care about this community and the people who are looting are not necessary residents of Ferguson. They're opportunists," he said. "It's really really sad to see that people still want to take advantage of the situation and feel that it's right to loot. But one sin is not greater than another and ignorance does not justify ignorance."

The second statement to supported by the photo below (that is circulating on Twitter) that appears to show rival gang members (wearing different coloured scarves) standing together to protect a shop from looters, This also illustrates that protestors are placing limits on the crowd's behaviour, which also undermines another common myth of crowd disorder- that once riots begin, anything goes and 'mob rule' takes over. This fits with evidence from the 2011 England riots (Reicher & Stott, 2011) that found similar complexities in crowd behaviour, with non-police emergency services (such as fire-crews and paramedics) rarely being attacked by protestors, and when looting happened, it was often selective (and not indiscriminate) and some local properties were even protected from opportunistic looters by people who had previously been fighting the police.

The disorder in Ferguson is happening for a complex set of reasons, and I cannot claim to have all the answers to explain why such events occur and escalate. However, I'm pretty confident that such events happen in a social context which needs to be considered when looking at solutions (such as the deep inequalities in American society and how African-American communities often feel they are being victimised by a still predominantly white police force). Therefore, trying to de-contextualise such events by blaming the behaviour of a minority of bad-intentioned individuals, and responding to legitimate protests with increasingly militarised policing is not going to provide a solution. Furthermore, it can only further alienate communities from their local police forces if they are met with such overwhelming force when they take to the streets.
In a previous post I argued that disaster response should not be militarised (such as when National Guard soldiers were withdrawn from Iraq in 2005 and redeployed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), as it was predicated on a fundamental distrust of crowd behaviour, and I would say similar issues are at play here.The US Police are probably amongst the most heavily armed police forces in the world, but this has not stopped urban disorder happening, and something is clearly badly wrong, when US citizens in 2014 are openly talking about their own police as an occupation force. The reasons why such events happen and escalate have to be explored in a broader social context and long term solutions will not be found by turning police forces into the paramilitary outfits we are currently seeing on the streets of St Louis.

Update 20/8/14:
Since writing the above post, there has been another tragic shooting by police of a Black teenager in Ferguson. So far, there does not appear to have been a repeat of the previous disorder, but it is clearly early days yet, and we shall have to see how events unfold. The BBC have reported that protestors have marched peacefully through the streets to protest against the latest shooting and 'hundreds of police were out on the streets, but kept their distance'. I believe this illustrates that disorder is not inevitable in the immediate aftermath of fatal incidents involving the police, and that what is crucial is how such tense situations are managed afterwards. In a previous post on disorder in the UK, I looked at two separate riots in Tottenham, London- both sparked by the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police (Mark Duggan and Cynthia Jarrett). I pointed out that after each incident there were delays in the disorder beginning (48 hours and 24 hours respectively), and that it was vital to look at how the police interacted with the community afterwards to understand how riots can begin in tense situations. Both situations involved forceful public order policing that resulted in angry (but peaceful) crowds becoming much more hostile to the police as a result of what they saw as indiscriminate and illegitimate police tactics that escalated the situation. I would suggest that how the police interacts with the community in Ferguson over the coming hours and days may very well influence whether the disorder continues or dies down.  

Cocking, C (2014) Dousing disorder or fatally fanning the flames? A study of the possible psychological and physiological effects of water cannon. Report for the public consultation into the proposed introduction of water cannon by the Mayor of London Office for Policing & Crime (MOPAC).University of Brighton, Feb 2014; Available online

Reicher, S. D. and Stott, C. J. (2011). Mad Mobs and Englishmen: Myths and Realities of the 2011 ‘riots’. London: Constable Robinson. available on Kindle 

Stott, C. J. (2009). Crowd psychology and public order policing. Unpublished report submitted to the HMCIC inquiry into the policing of the London G20 protests. Available online