Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Proposed article for Morning Star

Below follows an article I wrote for the Morning Star that was supposed to appear after the TUC anti-cuts demo in March, but I don't think it ever did, so it's copied here for posterity! 

Collective disorder- a psychological perspective
In the recriminations following violence on demonstrations (such as the recent TUC anti-cuts protest in London), the Police are often criticised in the right-wing Press for being too ‘soft’ and debates are often had about drafting new laws or giving the Police new weapons to deal with future protests. However, the problem is not a lack of resources, more a case of the Police using their public order tactics more sensibly in order to prevent mass disorder. Indeed, it could be argued that the more measured public order tactics they used on March 26th (the lack of mounted charges or mass containment- ‘kettling’) probably prevented comparatively isolated militant protests spreading into mass disorder, such as was seen during the 1990 Poll Tax riot. However, while such tactics were slightly more sophisticated than those seen at the tuition fees protests last year, this was probably in response to greater public scrutiny of their previous excesses, and there are still deep ideological perspectives underpinning public order policing strategy, that rely on fundamentally flawed views of crowds that risk making disorder more, rather than less likely at large scale protests. Furthermore, while attitudes amongst some senior officers are beginning to change, the view that the Police as an institution tend to have of crowds draws upon ‘classic’ theories that are not only outdated, but also largely rejected by current academic research into crowd behaviour.
‘Classic’ crowd behaviour theories:
Early approaches to crowd behaviour were led by the work of Gustave Le Bon, a French aristocrat living in Paris at the time of the 1870-1 Commune. His observations of the libertarian crowds he saw are almost all uniformly negative, and he believed that just being in a crowd resulted in a loss of one’s ‘normal’ sensibilities;
“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd he is a barbarian”
He also believed crowd members were inherently suggestible, and so easy to incite into disorder by agitators because of their gullibility. Finally, he suggested the concept of ‘contagion’ to describe how individual anti-social behaviour can spread quickly throughout the whole crowd, as people are sucked into a collective ‘mob mentality’. Therefore, crowds were an inherent threat to the status quo, and should be treated as such, as they were prone to violent and/or irrational behaviour. In response to this threat, the authorities had little choice but to prepare for the worst ravages of a crowd, and ensure that they had sufficient resources to defend the status quo from such potential collective outbursts. Le Bon’s theories are still influential today, and media coverage of violent protests is usually peppered with irrationalist descriptions of crowds, such as:  ‘anarchist thugs’, ‘violent extremists hijacking protests’ etc.

An alternative approach:
Social Psychologists who study crowd behaviour are critical of Le Bon’s approach because it is not supported by empirical evidence, and also deeply biased as his status and position would have been threatened by the crowds he observed. They argue instead for a more normative approach to crowd behaviour, such as the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM). Numerous studies of inner-city riots and protest marches since the 1980s have found that crowd members behave in ordered ways that are governed by the social norms of the situation and the collective identity of protestors. While involvement in protests may involve a shift from a personal to a more collective identity, this does not mean that one loses one’s sense of personal identity altogether, and behaviour that conflicts with one’s own personal values is unlikely. Therefore, even in the fiercest of riots, crowd members can and do regulate their own behaviour and are often selective in their choice of targets to attack. For instance, in the 1990 Poll Tax riot, while there was looting of some shops, these tended to be banks and car show-rooms, and smaller shops that were less associated with wealth (such as local newsagents) tended to be left alone by the crowd, and some even remained open, selling produce to rioters. More recently, when students occupied Millbank Towers last November, and a fire-extinguisher was thrown from the roof, the crowd’s response was booing, followed by chants of ‘stop throwing shit!’
The reason that mass disorder occurs (as opposed to the isolated pockets of property damage and the largely peaceful occupation of Fortnum & Masons seen on March 26th) is often because Police Public order tactics are influenced by a LeBonian perspective of crowds, which sees them as an actual or potential threat to public order, and so leads them to plan their tactics accordingly. Unfortunately, this often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is because protest crowds are usually comprised (at least initially) of diverse groups and individuals with differing views of what is legitimate behaviour, ranging from peaceful to more militant tactics. However, the Police tend to see crowds as a homogenous mass, and if commanders fear mass disorder, they often employ indiscriminate public order tactics such as containment (kettling), or dispersal (charges by mounted or foot Police) that treat the crowd in a uniform way. Such tactics often have the effect of psychologically uniting the crowd, meaning that previously isolated pockets of violent behaviour become more widespread, as violence becomes seen as more acceptable to crowd members. As the Police experience more militant behaviour from the crowd, it confirms their view that the crowd is a threat, which propels both groups’ behaviour into a cycle of escalation that is often difficult to break. Ironically, the belief that a violent minority of ‘trouble-makers’ can incite a peaceful majority into violence may also result in the very disorder that the Police seek to prevent, because if they act against the crowd as a whole in order to deal with a ‘violent minority’, this can result in others getting caught in the way and changing to consider more militant tactics as not only legitimate, but perhaps also necessary in the face of what they may consider to be an illegitimate attack against them.

The current climate of public spending cuts, (which will affect the Police as well) means that mass protests are more likely over the coming months and years. However, current crowd psychology models do not consider violence at such events is inevitable, as the vast majority of protest crowds are peaceful. It is certainly possible that individuals may turn up to protests with violent intent, but the idea that they on their own can incite the ‘unwilling’ masses into violence in the absence of wider factors is a myth. The use by the Police of indiscriminate public order tactics is a far better predictor of disorder than people in balaclavas trashing a few windows on Piccadilly. However, the way crowds in the UK have been viewed and treated by the state over the last 200 years suggests that a fundamental shift in how they are managed is necessary if the risk of widespread disorder is to be reduced significantly.

By Dr Chris Cocking, London Metropolitan University,

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