Ethics of crowd control under assault

In the aftermath of anti-Trump protests, Alastair Pearson condemns an alt-right approach to tackling rioting


The events surrounding Trump’s inauguration – the arrest of 200 protesters for felony rioting in Washington, the videotaped assault of white nationalist Richard Spencer, the influx of enormous crowds of peaceful protesters to cities around the globe for Women’s Marches – have injected essentially anti-democratic conceptualisations of crowd control into the mainstream political discourse. Understandable centrist discomfort with the behaviour of “antifa-” protesters in DC who were videotaped and photographed destroying coffee shops, police cars and a limousine has given space to a basically anti-liberal argument for how to understand mass psychology. Backed by authoritarian racists like Jared Taylor of the alt-right think tank AmRen, those who belong to this school argue that “historically, Americans have taken a different approach to looting.” Taylor, ignoring, for example, the courageous refusal of the Washington, D.C. mayor to shoot protesters or rioters in 1968, nostalgically recalled a 1913 Texas state police order to “Shoot all looters, and shoot to kill.” More mainstream outlets like ZeroHedge bemoaned the potentially chaotic implications of radical leftist domination of street protests, while simultaneously raising concerns about the “police state” tactics a Trump administration might apply to social unrest. Salon, meanwhile, baselessly inveighed against an “alarming wave of repression” heralded by the arrests, which given the easy accessibility of footage of rioters destroying property in downtown DC do not seem to have been made without good reason.

To be clear, there is no sanction for violence that aims directly at undermining the legitimacy of the state, and protesters who eagerly vandalise the storefronts that are the livelihoods of normal people should not be free from justice. But failing to engage directly with the arguments of authoritarian alt-right about how to handle riots permits the ascendancy of genuine extremists. Highly upvoted Breitbart commenters labeled the rioters “domestic terrorists,” asserted that it was “Time to start relocating these commies to the internment camps,” and in the words of the user “WhiteBluecollarRedneck,” asked “Why not shoot them like the sick rabid dogs they are?” There is a time-honoured tradition of authoritarians seizing upon public unrest to impose new restrictions on private behaviour, and authorising new, repressive modes of silencing free discourse, and this is no different. The answer to that user’s question – beyond the immediate contempt any decent person feels for his rhetoric – lies in the modern social science of crowd control, which provides compelling reasons for both the practical and moral rejection of aggressive policing tactics. This is a question of immediate importance to both the U.S. and UK, given that as recently as 2011 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary considered granting situational authority to firearms officers to shoot arsonists, albeit under more morally ambiguous circumstances than the outright repression sought by the alt-right wing of the contemporary American right.

We should consider how the knowledge of a militarised response whereby police would be empowered not just to shoot rioters with less discretion than they might other criminals would change the dynamic of the crowd response itself. Mainstream social psychology – the Elaborated Social Identity Model, or ESIM – would indicate that familiar ideas like mob mentality and deindividuation are somewhat outmoded, but in a way that would morally complicate the idea of further empowering the police with the power to kill because it would encourage a more hostile defensive response from the crowd, as the dominant evidence-based theory of human behavior during riots indicates. Make-shift identities form rapidly in crowds, even ones composed of a sizable fraction of peaceful protesters, and social scientists think that militarised police – which this police force would necessarily have to be – shape crowd behaviour negatively. Paramilitary police can be useful in policing riots, but only as an instrument of last resort; the consensus preferred model is “graded intervention” whereby police in standard uniforms are scattered throughout a crowd with which they interact and establish legitimacy.

The evidence from the increased implementation of these principles at events in sports like football with a history of violent, gang-linked hooliganism bears out the disutility of paramilitary police as a primary option for riot control and the promise of the graded intervention model. By contrast, the paramilitary model where police are garbed in essentially offensive equipment necessarily changes how a crowd approaches the police by decreasing their perceived legitimacy as a force for the maintenance of order. A police force that was viewed as authorised to use lethal force indiscriminately (and where it was known that those arrested would be killed) would necessarily increase this perception. Crowds would be structurally conditioned by virtue of the increased militarization of the police to prefer more assertive responses – where the police present themselves as antagonists, they tend to be understood that way – and a policing strategy premised on the maintenance of law and order would tend to incentivize an increase in violence and the death of protesters who would not otherwise become violent. It would essentially be entrapment.

To quote Clifford Stott’s article “Crowd Psychology & Public Order Policing” (commissioned by the police regulatory body of the United Kingdom, the author being among Europe’s most respected social scientists): “The scientific literature overwhelmingly supports the contention that collective conflict can emerge during crowd events as a consequence of the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of police force,” which is because of the “unanticipated impact that policing can have upon crowd psychology and dynamics.” The graded intervention model is established as the preferable model for handling protesters on the basis of known social science. Stott explicitly concludes that more forceful policing increases the risk that crowds pose a danger to public order. The use of indiscriminate force can “draw into conflict those who had come to the event with no prior conflictual intention.”

I’d emphasize that Stott directly rejects the “crowd psychology” model that posits agitators easily unsettling crowds that are then transformed into irrational vehicles for chaos, and instead emphasises that individuals within crowds retain a degree of agency that is conditioned in the crowd dynamic to react to the threat of an opposing armed and aggressive police force by drawing in even peace-minded protesters to a hostile response. It isn’t that people are deprived of agency entirely, but that situated within crowds they will react to a police force that starts shooting at them by becoming more aggressive even when they would lack that intent absent the forceful police response. The assertive police response is morally problematised because not only does it provide less effective public order policing than other methods, but it actually turns protesters violent and kills people who would not otherwise have died.

The classical understanding of the mob drawn from Taine and Le Bon, at least the latter of whom is widely read in introductory intellectual history courses, is no longer considered tenable. Le Bon’s characterisation of animalistic crowd comportment is no longer supported by empirical evidence: “A crowd is not merely impulsive and mobile. Like a savage, it is not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire and the realisation of its desire.” The view of crowds that Le Bon proposed is one that has been easily swallowed whole by reactionaries like those Breitbart commenters at numerous points in recent history. It’s important to emphasise per Stott that a classical theory that “proposes that individuals within crowds are uniformly dangerous and unpredictable because they can spontaneously coalesce into irrational and violent ‘mobs’” promotes an “almost self-evident” conclusion that “they need to be controlled, and this control must be exerted primarily through the use of force.” Le Bon’s understanding of crowd behavior, once cutting-edge but since discarded, has become a largely invisible rhetorical weapon for authoritarians, who should be made to know that their beliefs about rioters are empirically falsifiable.

Stott attributes the “increase in police officers support for and use of tactics which rely upon the use or threat of indiscriminate force” in some parts of England to precisely this misunderstanding of crowd psychology that seems to underpin the proposed policy of shooting rioters.  The policing model alt-right commenters advocate is rooted in this inaccurate understanding of crowd behaviour. Crowds do have wills, but they have wills that are structurally aligned. Crowd behaviour does tend to correlate with the social identity of its participants, meaning that protesters whose demographic makeup is more inclined to view police as legitimate tend to be generally more peaceful, but this social identity is fluid and heavily affected by police behaviour. The use of indiscriminate force against crowds results in harm to protesters viewed by those around them as benign, which transforms the crowd’s orientation towards police – the “law and order” approach ironically delegitimises law and order. There is an overwhelming consensus among social scientists that “aggressive police tactics can and do have the capacity to negatively impact upon crowd dynamics.”

So as to the effect of aggressive policing on crowd behaviour, based on the conclusions of professional social scientists after a survey of the empirical literature, social history and criminology? Stott says that “supporting evidence also suggests that such indiscriminate use of force can then somewhat ironically contribute to a widespread escalation in the levels of public disorder.” Peaceful protesters and passerby who watched an aggressive police response unfold “came to perceive the indiscriminately forceful intervention of the police as an attack on democratic rights.” The police force delegitimises itself in the eyes of people who support the state and its underlying ideals, but who are conditioned by crowd dynamics to adopt a social identity – provoked by the police behaviour – that is antagonistic.

There was no instance across a sample of riots at European football matches where researchers found that escalation to less-than-lethal was used appropriately by police (who tend to apply it disproportionately) with the consequence that it was not effective for managing riots. Inversely, police forces that represent themselves in standard uniforms and which interact with crowds are statistically likely to be associated with “absences of collective conflict.” There was strong evidence that police forces in England that used the graded intervention model of policing transformed the social identity of English football crowds in the long term, eliminating a previously “antagonistic relationship” and suggesting that “the creation of common bonds of social identification between crowd participants and the police” was an attested method of policing that reduced the likelihood of rioting and police escalation of force.

This is why policy is not made in an ideological, doctrinaire vacuum. The question about why police should not just shoot rioters merits this response: because according to empirical social science, such a policy delegitimises the state in the eyes of protesters and passerby, leads to a more violent response by a crowd that has been conditioned to view the police as an aggressor, creates an increased risk of public disorder, and would lead police to kill people who would not otherwise have become violent. The assumption that people would be less likely to riot in the face of sustained violence at every protest that takes a wrong turn also rests on bad empirical foundations. The attested method that actually demonstrates a long-term normative relationship between police behaviour and peaceful crowds in situations that seemed primed for rioting is for a graded intervention method whereby police first and foremost establish a positive connection with the crowd (things like giving directions, reassurances of safety, even posing for photographs), reiterated over a period of time at subsequent events (football matches, protests) that convinces the demographics likely to attend the event that their interests and identity are aligned with the police.

Such a process would be impossible given a track record of police shootings of protesters during riots. That approach would be likely to lead to hostile crowd responses to police during the immediate application of the method and a long-term delegitimisation of the police in the eyes of the protesting public. The fact that crowd psychology, as we now understand it given modern social science, is in effect, does make a difference because of how what we know morally complicates aggressive police responses that serve only to undermine confidence in the state and aggravate public disorder in the near and long-term.

Rioters might, even though ardent supporters of the state and its rule of law, have been agitated to act in the way they do because of the track record of police behaviour they are aware of and the current hostility of the police they are encountering. Rioting, Stott’s evidence would imply, is not always aimed at “undermining the lawful order” in the manner that terrorism does but is often associated with a non-revolutionary reassertion of rights intrinsic to that order by protesters provoked by an antagonistic police response that negatively reshapes what could otherwise have been a positive relationship. It is often explicitly not linked with sedition, because what rioters are reacting to is sometimes behaviour by agents of the state that, in the contexts of the social structure of the crowd dynamic, negatively reshapes their collective identity and can invoke action in defense of rights guaranteed by the state (as Stotts describes happening at the 1990 Whitehall/Poll Tax Riots.)

The moralisation that rioters necessarily aim at undermining the rule of law seems hard to sustain both when rioters themselves sometimes consciously disclaim that notion, and when it is the assertive police action alt-right supporters recommend that social scientists say can be linked with increasing the risk to public order. As usual in the aftermath of 2016 and the year of “fake news” on both sides, it can be extremely difficult to foster evidence-based analysis of the underlying moral and empirical foundations of a policy. Those who would shoot rioters advocate a model of policing that lacks either sort of support.