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Crowds hold signs at the site of Quick Trip after Police Chief Thomas Jackson release of the name of the officer that shot Michael Brown. (PHOTO: R. Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com)

Lessons in crowd control from Ferguson, Europe and the classroom


I was doing some errands the other day, catching up on podcasts in the car between them, when I heard this: "The behavior of crowds tends to be determined by what's happening outside the crowd.

"Say you have a group of protesters demonstrating in the street, there might be quite a lot of them walking down the street doing their thing. And if the police change their behavior towards them, if they start to crowd them in or stop them from walking down a particular street, or they start to get aggressive, then that very quickly changes the whole dynamic inside the crowd. The crowd, as a whole, tends to respond in kind to what's going on outside it."

This was Michael Bond, a British science writer, talking to David McRaney on McRaney's podcast "You Are Not So Smart." The episode, on the behavior of crowds and how social scientists are changing their understanding of how crowds (and mobs and riots) behave, was recorded and released before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the violent protests and clashes with police that followed and continue to this day.

Yet as I listened, I could not help but draw the connection between what Bond was saying about crowds and what is happening now in Ferguson and around the country.

Bond's latest book, "The Power of Others," is all about crowds and mobs and their behavior, and how social psychologists have been working hard to undo the damage done by more than a century of reliance on a mythical understanding crowds and mobs. Much of this false understanding is from an 1895 book of hypotheses and anecdotes collected by one Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon's book, according to McRaney, "explains that humans in large groups are dangerous, that people spontaneously de-evolve into subhuman beasts who are easily swayed and prone to violence."

And in the years since, Le Bon's thesis has informed the way people in authority respond to crowds, from large, organized, peaceful demonstrations to small spontaneous uprisings. The belief that crowds are inherently dangerous means that, usually, the response is heavily armed and ready for the worst.

The images and news coming from Ferguson over the last few weeks have confirmed this. As crowds gathered to protest the death of Michael Brown, and the years of racial animus in St. Louis County preceding Brown's death, the authorities' response looked like an army repelling an invasion rather than police monitoring a protest.

We've all seen the videos of police pointing loaded weapons in the faces of unarmed marchers, breaking up live news feeds and arresting journalists, and screaming profanities and death threats at completely calm protesters. In this age of social media, we can watch our Twitter feeds as the situation in Ferguson goes from one person throwing a water bottle to dozens of arrests and tear gas in just minutes.

We also saw what happened when one day, about a week into the protests, Ferguson native Ronald S. Johnson, a captain of the Missouri Highway Patrol, took over policing for a short time and changed the tone by having his officers walk with the crowd and promise to work with, rather than against, those protesting peacefully for their cause. During that short span -- up until the police response again grew more militarized -- things were calm in Ferguson, arrests were down and so was the looting and arson and mob violence that had characterized previous nights of the protests.

Bond talked about exactly that sort of situation on the podcast, telling listeners how European police changed the way they dealt with English soccer fans, known for their rioting and hooliganism. Bond said, "Whenever English fans went to a European city, the police in that city would treat them all as potential thugs. This had the inevitable effect of turning everyone in the crowd aggressive towards the police."

Why? Because that kind of treatment creates a distinct line between "us" and "them." Bond explained, "People tend to turn toward their in-group in these situations." This changed when police started using "liaison officers" in the crowds, opening lines of communication between the crowds and the authorities, and creating trust. "Them" suddenly were a part of "us," and the bad crowd behavior of English soccer fans changed in response the change by police.

But Ferguson today is back to its militarized state, with police ("them") trying to control the crowds ("us"), and the results keep coming back ugly -- arrests, violence, threats to media and more.

And as I drove, listening to Bond talk about crowds and police response, I couldn't help but think of how it applied to my own situation as an urban high school teacher. I spend all day as the sole authority figure trying to control a "crowd," if you will. One of the first lessons we learn as teachers in those situations is "don't escalate": Never, ever, turn the knob up on your own response no matter how high one or more of the students in class have turned theirs.

Keep lines of communication open so that students trust you and can let you know when real problems are coming. Virtually all of my students really don't want to fight or riot or otherwise disrupt the day, and if they trust me or some other adult, they'll tell us before something big or dangerous happens. When they don't trust us -- and this has happened in schools I've taught in -- we end up with (what the media will call a) riot on our hands.

When I got home from my errands and could google Michael Bond, I found that, indeed, he had written about what's happening in Ferguson. And he was not happy with the police response.

"One of the most worrying aspects of this drama," Bond wrote, "is what it reveals about U.S. crowd-control methods. … In the U.S. … police still seem to cling to the old 'riot squad' methods. They are wedded to the idea that large protest groups are inherently dangerous and that force is the best way to deal with them."

Bond gives examples of how this has changed in Europe, and even talks about how, after US riots in the late 1960s, a commission established by President Johnson recommended major changes in how protests are dealt with. But nothing has changed.

On the podcast, Bond offered what I thought was a great reason why things haven't changed. Talking about the riots in the U.K. in 2011, Bond described the police response as being aggressive, which caused the crowds to be aggressive in return.

Then, he said, "politicians immediately grabbed onto this historical line that everybody in that crowd was inherently criminal and bad. And of course what that enabled politicians to do is dismiss any genuine grievance that those communities might have had, to dismiss them out of hand. This myth of crowds being mad and evil allows those in authority to was their hands of it and not take responsibility for any cause of it."

And there it is: if the crowd behaves badly, even if just a visible few behave badly, then the whole crowd and its legitimate complaints can be dismissed as unserious, dangerous, and criminal by those whose actions led to the protests in the first place. (Remember, for example, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took the prank call from a blogger pretending to be David Koch: "But, uh, what we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers." Walker: "We thought about that.")

The lessons coming from Ferguson this summer have to include a complete change in the way the U.S. responds to mass demonstrations and protests like this. No longer can we let those in authority use the police to turn those demonstrations violent and deflect from the issues that caused people to march in the first place. If we hear nothing else, that must come through loud and clear.

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