The recent rioting, I mean “peaceful protesting,” has me trying to understand how the law enforcement community should deal with what has become a self-described “revolution” and how to respond to the crowds that are attacking police buildings, personnel, and reputations with greater and greater frequency.
One of the resources that I have turned to again, to understand this summer’s wave of violence and the precipitation of the burning, looting, and vandalism, is Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power.” A survivor of the terror of the socialist movements in Europe, he noted and studied mankind’s motives and the similarity of actions taken across history.
For those of you involved in the planning side of dealing with the “protesters,” understand that within every protesting crowd are what Canetti called “crystals” assigned to agitate and focus the participants to instigate movement or violence. They are the “precipitators,” and if you are to control the crowds, your focus should be on reining in and/or detaining these folks. The problem is that too often secrecy is well kept in social activism and identifying and locating these folks can be difficult outside of the actual protest or riot, depending on who is reporting the event.
One of the key attributes of the violent crowd is that it resembles fire. Fire, like a crowd, can occur anywhere, spreads rapidly and is contagious and insatiable. It is destructive and has an enemy, and acts as if it were alive and must be so dealt with. As Canetti says, “It spreads with the utmost violence” and “there are no inherent limits to its growth.” For Canetti, water is the enemy of fire and law enforcement would be the enemy of the violent crowd. Political leaders who fail to understand this principle will ultimately allow the violence to keep growing. Locking law enforcement in a building and trying to burn them alive is a symbol of great significance for the crowd, and demonstrates that the greater the fire (i.e. violence) the greater grows the mob.
The destruction of controversial symbols and historic statuary is one thing, but essentially disarming the police, taking away vital tools, and leaving officers vulnerable, cannot and will not satiate the protestors. They will increase their demands and acts of violence, just as a fire spreads and consumes more and more of a forest, village, or city. Large numbers of injured and dead police will not placate the crowd, but will only feed its fervor and spin society into greater and greater chaos.
By kowtowing to the crowd, the politicians are kneeling before the mob. Kneeling is presented as a form of passive respect to the crowd, or as a symbol of some form of recognized guilt by the kneeling subject. But Canetti offers an interesting thought regarding kneeling: “There is another form of powerlessness, which is active. It confronts a present power and expresses itself in ways which magnify this power. Kneeling is a gesture of supplication. The condemned man offers his neck for the blow; he has accepted the fact that he will die and does nothing to prevent it, but by the position of his body assists the fulfillment of the other’s will … it is a form of flattery, and extreme because it has to attract attention.”
Traditionally, those who people knelt before were judged by their compassion for the kneeling subject; those with such great power who showed no mercy were forever judged lesser for their lack of sympathy toward the one who showed such deference. Recently, an NYPD Commander who knelt before the Black Lives Matter crowd was injured by an anti-police crowd at another event, revealing the lack of either compassion or mercy within such a crowd.
My advice to those of you seeking to keep communities safe from such violence is to remember the lessons of the past in dealing with violent crowds. Grab the leaders, or what Canetti called the “catalysts.” Catalysts are the solutions used in chemistry to make things precipitate; in this case, their function is to precipitate violence. Remember the similarities between fire and crowds, and that, just as fire has water, crowds have the police. Each can be conceptualized as “enemies,” and this is the way the media seems to constantly want to portray law enforcement. But if living securely in a civil and freesociety is the goal of a true government then both fire and crowds need to be recognized as elements that must be properly contained and
For those of you who face the crowd, I thank you for all you do, and pray America remembers who the truly heroic ones are before it is too late.
Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of “JD Buck Savage.” You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.