Mobs are dangerous. Highly emotional and impulsive, they often erupt violently. Crowds can turn into mobs if members become indifferent to laws, choose to disregard authority, or take advantage of the perceived anonymity that a large group can provide, and follow instigators into violent acts.
These riots are frightening, fascinating, and shockingly widespread. Headline material for the evening news, mob violence can stem from almost anything from political conventions to concerts, sporting events, jury verdicts, traffic accidents, or defamatory cartoons. If pressed, most of us can think of at least a few riots off the top of our heads, things like Kent State, Tiananmen Square, Seattle Mardi Gras, WTO, Watts, or the aftermath of the Rodney King incident.
Psychological Influences of Crowd Mindset
The crowd mindset of being one face among hundreds can be a very dangerous thing. It's quite easy to get caught up in the fray, not truly thinking about what is going on. It can even be a lot of fun for those involved, particularly when they don't consider the consequences. For some, it's an adrenaline rush that rivals any amusement park ride. Consequently, things can get out of hand pretty quickly. When they do, they are very difficult to stop, even once law enforcement officers arrive to take control.
According to Loren Christensen, a retired law enforcement officer, high-ranking martial artist, and prolific author, there are five psychological influences that affect rioters, their targets, bystanders, and the police who try to break things up. These include:
- Impersonality – So-called “groupthink” is an impersonalizing factor that makes it easier for people to lash out. Rioters do not see their victims as individuals with families, hopes and dreams, but rather as objects on which to vent their rage. Impersonality makes it easier to attack victims because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or any other factors that set them apart from the mob.
- Anonymity – The large mass and short life of a mob tends to make many of its members feel anonymous and faceless. Participants can more easily convince themselves to act without conscience, believing that the moral responsibility for their behavior belongs to the entire group. Consequently, in their own minds they are not responsible for their actions.
- Suggestion/imitation – The massiveness of a mob discourages many of its members to act as individuals, making them more susceptible to follow others like a bunch of lemmings diving over a cliff. There is a powerful instinct to follow the crowd. Only those with deeply ingrained convictions are strong enough to repulse this urge.
- Emotional contagion – The size of the mob and its activities generates a building emotion that can be felt by each member of the mob. It is a powerful influence. Often called “collective emotion,” even bystanders can be caught up in this wave and soon find themselves involved with the mob.
- Discharge of repressed emotions – As a result of the other four influences listed above, certain individuals feel a sense of freedom to discharge any repressed emotions they harbor. They are free to release pent-up rage, hate, revenge, or a need to destroy, acting out accordingly.
Fortunately these influences don't impact everyone. Unfortunately the minority who are affected can cause serious confusion, destruction and injury for everyone else. Because riots can be hard to predict and even harder to stop, it is prudent to pay careful attention to what is going on around you whenever you are part of a crowd. Even if you sense the mood change, catch a glimpse of the opening acts, and anticipate what's coming, it can be very hard to force your way through the press of bodies and escape to safety.
A panicked crowd is just a dangerous, if not more so, than a riotous mob. When someone believes that there is imminent danger and flees in panic, his or her actions can spark fear in others who act accordingly. This fear can be initiated by actions from others such as setting off a bomb or discharging a firearm, and may be exacerbated by environmental factors such as flooding, smoke, fire, or tear gas. It gets even worse if there are limited escape routes, blocked exits, or other factors that lead to desperation where people begin fighting each other to clear a path so that they can get away. Think about all the people who have been crushed to death at nightclubs, concerts, or sporting events when crowds got out of control.
Types of Crowd Behaviors
While it is easy to plan a demonstration, it is somewhat harder to instigate a riot. Nevertheless, anarchists try to do so all the time. Even when they don't, irrational exuberance can turn darn near any large gathering into a riotous mob too, leading to situations where people overturn cars, set fire to buildings, damage property, and harm people. Alcohol and other intoxicants play a critical role as well.
Lieutenant Dan Marcou, crowd control trainer of the La Crosse Wisconsin Police Department, has codified various behaviors that are noteworthy in a crowd. It is possible to sense rabble-rousers, hooligans, and potential troublemakers by spotting these behaviors in the throng. In most cases, if leaders can be identified and neutralized then followers can quickly be brought under control.
- Impulse-lawless – These people can be found in any mob, and tend to be capable of criminal activity in any scenario. They are typically the leaders who instigate a riot. They are the ones you will find standing on overturned cars; very important to fueling the flames of a demonstration. Many show up at events solely to attempt to start a riot.
- Suggestible – These people will do just about anything. They are followers who will easily get caught up in the emotion of the day and almost immediately join in illegal acts sparked by impulse-lawless individuals.
- Cautious – Like suggestibles, these people are also followers. As the name implies, however, they will only do so if they feel they will not get caught. A strong law enforcement presence or even an obvious closed circuit television or camera crew may limit their participation.
- Yielders – These people are followers, but they will be the last ones to join in the fray. They will eventually succumb to the will of the mob if events run uncontrolled for long enough.
- Supporters – Supporters show up to watch. They are supporting the event rather than a particular cause. These people are likely to put themselves in a position to watch the show rather than participate in it.
- Resisters – These people are completely unpredictable. They may or may not participate. While resisters are not followers, they may use the occasion to espouse their own cause separate from the mob. This is where discharge or repressed emotions can come into play.
- Psychopaths – Like resisters, you have no idea what these folks will do. Watch out for these people as they have the ability to go off the deep end and cause very serious injury and/or damage, particularly if weapons come into play.
Guidelines for Protecting Yourself
In general there are two divergent goals when it comes to dealing with riotous mobs. If you are a civilian concerned about self-defense then your goal will be to escape to safety, remaining as anonymous and avoiding as much of the conflict as possible in the process. You will move away from the danger.
If you are a law enforcement officer or security professional, however, your goal will be to minimize injuries and prevent property damage by managing the crowd to the extent possible. Your job requires that you move toward the danger. Consequently while general guidelines apply to everyone, there are some specific principles that are only applicable to individuals charged with controlling the scene.
General Guidelines for Self-Protection and Escape
Recognize that riots can materialize unexpectedly – Almost any incident involving people and emotion can trigger a violent disturbance, particularly when alcohol or other intoxicants are thrown into the mix. The situation may ignite suddenly with very little warning. Maintain a higher than normal level of situational awareness when navigating crowds, identifying and evading potential sources of trouble to the extent practicable. Diligent observation can protect you not only from violence but also from more mundane threats like pickpockets. Be constantly aware of cover, concealment, and potential escape routes as you move about in case you are forced to flee with little warning.
Monitor warning signs – Like a rock thrown into a pond, you may not spot the initial impact but you can readily detect the ripple effect that flows outward from the point of contact. Pay attention to the body language of people around you. They may be reacting to something important they noticed that you have missed. Any sudden change in the demeanor of the crowd, gathering of onlookers, agitators urging a confrontation, or people rapidly moving into your space may be warning signs of impending violence. Look and listen to what is going on around you; shouting, screaming, or other loud commotions also constitute danger signals.
Watch everyone – Be especially alert for the presence of weapons. If a weapon is fired the situation immediately escalates into a very serious tactical affair. You may be assaulted directly, caught in the cross-fire as law enforcement officers move to restore order, or trampled by terrified bystanders who are trying to get out of the way. Everyone can become a threat, even the good guys. In addition to monitoring the crowd, pay attention to unattended vehicles parked where they shouldn't be, packages left in high traffic areas, abandoned luggage, or anything else that appears suspicious. The sooner you spot potential dangers the better your chances of reacting appropriately.
Evaluate your options before you act – Sometimes it is best to flee right away, but occasionally it may be more sensible to hunker down behind something and defend in place. Take a moment to evaluate your options and make a reasoned choice before embarking on any course of action. If you are inside a building look for alternate exits, particularly in a panicked crowd scenario where the main exit will almost certainly be blocked. In night clubs, for example, windows are often blacked-out so they are easy to miss if you are not actively looking for them.
Don't enter an agitated crowd if other alternatives exist – There is a huge difference between a highly-spirited crowd of shoppers, a restless throng teetering on the edge of violence, and a riotous mob, one that most anyone actively paying attention can sense. As things begin to turn ugly, don't hang around to watch no matter how fascinating it might be. Leave as quickly and quietly as possible. Plan your exit route to minimize contact with others, even if it means taking the “long way” around the scene. Slip through gaps between others rather than shoving people out of your way to the extent practicable.
Don't fight unless you have no alternative – If you are forced to fight you may attract undue attention and quickly find yourself facing multiple opponents who want to beat you down or law enforcement officers who don't realize that you are the good guy. If you are knocked to the ground or stumble and fall you may very well be trampled. If you have to fight you will lose valuable time and there is no guarantee that you will survive the encounter, so rather than engaging opponents directly, attempt to deflect or redirect anyone who tries to slow your escape using open-hand techniques.
General Guidelines for Crowd Management and Control:
Know what you're facing – If there is no immediate danger of death or grave bodily injury to you or to a member of the crowd, take whatever time is necessary to learn about the disturbance before you do anything active to suppress it. Know the who, what, why, and where of it. Information is important. All too often agitators are trying to evoke an excessive response that is not warranted by what has occurred. Protect people first and then worry about property.
Don't act alone – The last thing you should do is enter a crowd alone. If you can, co-opt others, encouraging crowd members to break up disturbances within the mob rather than wading into the group by yourself. Assess the situation, wait for adequate backup, and don't do anything hasty.
Don't get ambushed – Disturbances or obvious violations just outside your reach may be attempts to separate you from your support, lure you into the crowd, and set you up for attack. Don't get drawn in. Maintain the perimeter and push back. Don't get pulled into the middle and surrounded. In addition to physical entrapment, beware of video surveillance as well. Control your emotions; don't get caught doing something stupid on film.
Beware of “cop baiting” – Members of the crowd often go to great lengths to make officers angry, hoping for an overreaction that will play to the media. That's not only bad public relations but also a lawsuit begging to happen. In some areas, anarchists actually teach classes on how to make police officers look bad on camera. You can easily find such information on-line as well. Baiting can be aimed at any authority figure though, so bouncers, ushers, and security personnel need to be cautious of this tactic too. Give verbal commands telling the crowd to leave. Fair warning will help legitimize the use of reasonable force later if it comes to that.
Control contact with the crowd – Make initial contact on safe turf, avoiding spots where obvious troublemakers are already at work. You should determine when and where to intervene, formulating a strategy with your compatriots. When you decide to act, do so decisively but with restraint.
If they're going on their own, let them leave – Don't forget that the crowd outnumbers you. If members want to leave, let them. Your goal is to minimize injuries and prevent property damage to the extent possible. If the crowd begins to disperse at your command, or on their own, it makes your job easier. Don't slow the process of people leaving by detaining minor violators. Always leave them an escape route. If otherwise law abiding people feel trapped they are likely to panic and lash out violently.
Make noise – It often makes sense to approach a scene loudly (e.g., using sirens and lights). While sometimes such actions can escalate a situation, more often than not followers will flee when they see the authorities coming. In such cases you will only need to deal with the hardcore rioters, individuals who will try to cause things to escalate no matter what you do. Aggressive noises, such as synchronized pounding of riot shields with batons, can be very intimidating and cause many crowd members to disperse on their own.
Rely on the right equipment – Having the right equipment and knowing when and how to use it is essential. You can be needlessly injured or unnecessarily forced to hurt others if improperly equipped. Make certain your vehicles and equipment are not trapped where the crowd can attack them or cut you off from them. Have plenty of water available when us ng full gear as it can cause you to overheat.