Why do some mass gatherings turn violent? Experts in crowd behavior say there's still much to learn.
The reign of King Louis Philippe, the last king of France, came to an abrupt and ignominious end on February 24, 1848, after days of increasingly violent demonstrations in Paris and months of mounting agitation with the government's policies.
The protesters surging through the city at first were fairly orderly: students chanting, well-dressed men and women strolling, troublemakers breaking windows and looting. But late in the evening of February 23, the tide turned dark. Soldiers had fired on the crowd near the Hôtel des Capucines, leaving scores of men and women gravely wounded. Some blocks away, a journalist was "startled by the aspect of a gentleman who, without his hat, ran madly into the middle of the street, and began to harangue the passersby. 'To arms!' he cried. 'We are betrayed.'"
"The effect was electric," the journalist wrote later. "Each man shook his neighbour by the hand, and far and wide the word was given that the whole system must fall."
Several decades later, in 1895, those events became grist for one of the first concerted scholarly efforts to understand the mob mentality, Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Ever since, social scientists have sought to describe the dynamics of humans en masse. What, independent of police provocation, causes a seemingly peaceful group of people to turn violent? How coherent in their purpose are crowds? Why and how does a crowd become a mob?
Last week's march and assault on the Capitol, which resulted in at least five deaths and scores of skirmishes with the police, has raised these questions again, and many more besides. News media reports have openly struggled to find the right language. Was this an angry throng, a chaotic demonstration, a protest turned ugly or a deliberate insurrection — or some combination of them all?
A full account of the episode — the inside story, from those who know — may never emerge, given the lack of neutral chroniclers. But ample video footage is available, perhaps more than from any other such crowd action; experts have already begun viewing and analysing the imagery in the context of a vast scholarship on crowd dynamics, and the events of January 6 are likely to be studied and referenced for years to come.
If the scenes from the Capitol grounds reveal one thing, it is variety. There were people in military gear, carrying guns, zip-ties and maps of the corridors; individuals in Uncle Sam hats and animal-skin costumes; others carrying nooses, planting explosive devices, breaking windows, attacking journalists; and hundreds just milling around outside, carrying pro-Trump signs, socialising as if at a backyard barbecue. Perhaps for brevity, headline writers have gravitated toward using the term "mob," but the word hardly captures the totality of the events, much less what researchers have learned about crowd behavior in the last century and a half.
"Crowds do not act with one irrational mind," James Jasper, a sociologist at the City University of New York and author of "The Emotions of Protest," said. "There are many groups, doing different things, for different reasons. That is crucial to understanding how they ultimately behave."
'A crowd is not us'
Le Bon, a French intellectual and writer, was not yet 7 during the 1848 rebellion in Paris and most likely was not a witness to its bloodiest days. But accounts of the rebellion clearly moved him, and he was repulsed by the entity at its center — the "howling, swarming, ragged crowd," he wrote in 1895. From there he built a theory of crowd behavior that has never quite gone away.
"An agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it," Le Bon concluded. "The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed."
(A similar sentiment appears in an eyewitness account of the "common mob" rebelling against a Byzantine emperor in the 11th century: "It was as if the whole multitude were sharing in some superhuman inspiration. They seemed different from their former selves. There was more madness in their running, more strength in their hands, the flash in their eyes was fiery and inspired, the muscles of their bodies more powerful.")
The notion of a group mind held sway among social scientists for decades afterward, and it still has great public appeal. But it began to fall apart during the protest movements in the middle of the 20th century, both in Europe and the United States.
For one thing, many budding social scientists were no longer watching those demonstrations at a remove, on television or in literature; they were active participants. Were they truly mindless sheep, drunk on a crowd mentality that overwhelmed their individual judgment, as Le Bon and an elite establishment would have it? It didn't feel that way to an observer in the crowd.
"A crowd is like a patient to a doctor, the hypnotised to the hypnotist," wrote Bill Buford, parodying these presumptions in his 1990 book Among the Thugs, an account of his time spent in the company of English soccer hooligans. "A crowd is rabble — to be manipulated, controlled, roused. A crowd is not us."
A major shift in thinking about crowd behavior occurred in the middle of last century, and it integrated two competing principles. One is that, under specific conditions, peacefully minded protesters may indeed act out — for instance, when a barricade is broken by others, when the police strike down someone nearby. "Very often these incidents are initiated by the police," Jasper said. "But of course it can come from crowd dynamics too."
At the same time, as a rule, impulsive violence is less likely to occur in crowds that have some social structure and internal organization. The protests of the civil rights movement were tactical and organised, as far back as the 1950s. So were many sit-ins in the 1960s and '70s, against nuclear power and the Vietnam War. Windows were broken, there were clashes with police, but spontaneous mayhem was not the rule.
"During this era, you now have Kent State, urban riots, civil rights marches," said Calvin Morrill, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. "And the idea of the group mind does not give social scientists any room to explain the different levels of organisation behind all those protests and what they meant. Ever since then, protests, whether non violent or not, have included tactics, strategy — and training — precisely to make sure the crowd does not lose its focus."
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally trained many groups of Freedom Riders, detailing how best to respond to police provocation and what to say (and what not) if arrested. Those lessons carried forward. Many protesters at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant site in New Hampshire, in 1977, and at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California, in the late 1970s and early '80s, had learned to go limp to avoid blows from police officers, and to wear boots rather than sneakers. (Sneakers slip off when you're being dragged.)
Such training is not reserved to groups pledged to non violence, of course, and it includes specific roles for individuals with special skills, and a kind of middle-management layer. Protest groups bent on provocation, whether left-leaning or right, often include so-called violence experts — young men willing to take some swings to get things started.
"Absolutely they are trained, trained to go right up to the line and mix it up, then fall back," Morrill said. "There's a long, long tradition of these tactics."
Depending on the protest, and the mission, organised protests may also include marshals, or guides, helping shuttle people around, and so-called affinity groups — squads that take some leadership responsibility as the protest evolves. In its Tampa, Florida, demonstration last summer, Black Lives Matter reportedly had almost 100 marshals in fluorescent vests patrolling the crowd, as well as medics, all communicating with walkie-talkies and trained in de-escalation tactics.
"You're talking groups of four to 10 people, protest participants, often friends who come in from another city or town to look after people who are injured or freaking out," said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, of affinity groups. "And these groups will coordinate with each other, and if the crowd is assaulted or scattered, they're capable of deciding, 'What should we do next?'"
Controlling the critical masses
Mass actions do not take place in a vacuum, of course; they are extended interactions with the police and other security officers.
Just as the understanding of crowd dynamics has shifted significantly in the past half-century, so too have police tactics and threat assessment. During the anti-war and civil rights protests that ended in violence in the 1960s and '70s — the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965; the Kent State student protest; the 1971 anti-war protest in Washington, DC — the approach was to show overwhelming force, followed by mass arrests. Now the initial strategy is often containment. The police or security officials typically issue protest permits, blocking out areas where protesters are allowed and, by extension, prohibited.
Security forces are trained to ignore yelled insults and small acts of hostility, like pushes and thrown water bottles. And they receive training in absorbing surges in a crowd, moving people as gently as possible, and quickly responding to pockets of violence and isolating agitators, said Ed Maguire, a criminologist at Arizona State University. If a crowd is a potential bomb, the job of security is to continuously defuse it.
"They set up what are called skirmish lines and try to keep demonstrators away from those," Maguire said. The mentality is one of negotiation more than confrontation, he said.
For all of these advances in thinking, the surge on the Capitol last week was a reminder of how much is left to learn. The footage from the siege, Maguire and other experts said, reveals little about the strategies of either the crowd or the police, if any were at work. For the Capitol Police, that has resulted in some embarrassment, at least one resignation, and questions about political influence and double standards based on the race of protesters.
"It just felt like a mishmash of tactics and confusion, as one journalist put it after the Ferguson demonstration," Maguire said. "No clear structure in the crowd and absolute chaos on the police side: no clear sense of credible incident command, of wearing the right gear, carrying the right weapons. All of that seemed to be missing."
If there are patterns to be discerned, scholars have an array of new tools to explore them. For instance, computer scientists can now model crowd behavior by digitally "populating" a street or park with a crowd, programming the likely number of provocateurs, and simulating the whole affair based on different police tactics.
But there will always be surprises, human ones, and the only way to glean those is to hear what the participants have to say, to a trusted interviewer. The video footage from Wednesday shows that, when the crowd actually breached the Capitol, many of the invaders weren't sure exactly what to do next.
"People seemed surprised they had gotten in," Jasper said. "There are great shots from the hall of statues, where protesters stayed inside the velvet ropes, like tourists, looking around sort of in awe."
With no apparent structure or strategy, the crowd had no shared goal or common plan. The same haphazard quality that had allowed pockets of violence to open was probably part of what ultimately defused it.
"It looked like, in the end, it was just a matter of attrition," Jasper said. "People wanted to go find a bathroom, or a pub, or somewhere to sleep."
Written by: Benedict Carey
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES