The Crowd

He raced to help one of the victims and, as he struggled vainly to save her life, he was stunned by the crowd that gathered around; not to help, but to observe, to…what?

Dave Smith Headshot

Illlustration: Sequoia BlankenshipIlllustration: Sequoia Blankenship

Many of the protesters that have shown up at different locales ever since the "Ferguson Troubles" have turned out to be professional demonstrators; they are paid to go to whatever new location of crisis is discovered by the media to aggravate the situation and to inflate the numbers. This is no shock to me; self-selected crowds of individuals showing up over and over again is something we should expect.

I have been an observer of crowds ever since I was a kid and read a short story by the late great Ray Bradbury called "The Crowd." It is an eerie Twilight Zone kind of story in which the protagonist is involved in a car accident and, noting how quickly the mob arrives, he immediately senses the sinister intent of some of those gathering around the wreck. He finds the true nature of those who run to gruesome events, and needless to say I was forever after creeped out by folks who carried scanners and grabbed their spouse to race to whatever tragedy I responded to as a young Tucson crime fighter.

I kept seeing the same couples, the weird stares, the odd crowding around as the paramedics worked feverishly to help the victims at whatever critical incident I was working on duty. I was stunned that Bradbury's story seemed so powerfully based on what actually happened at terrible events. I then decided to find out what motivated Bradbury. That was when things really got freaky.

It seems Bradbury never even got a driver's license, so how was he so aware of the dynamics of a wreck? Apparently when he was a young man in the 1930s he witnessed a terrible traffic accident. He raced to help one of the victims and, as he struggled vainly to save her life, he was stunned by the crowd that gathered around; not to help, but to observe, to…what?

Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti's life was shaped by his experience with crowds in the 1930s as he witnessed the rise of Fascism, Nazism, and Communism throughout Europe. As an intellectual, he was attracted to the Left and was stunned to find himself in a crowd that was going about the business of social justice by burning books. His book, "Crowds and Power," grew out of his observations of the cataclysm that was World War II and the Holocaust. A Bulgarian descendant of Jews who were exiled from Spain during the Inquisition, he suddenly found himself exiled to England, and his observations are important to us in understanding how riots, celebrations, and social movements are created and shaped by crowds.

A crowd, he discovered, soon gains a personality, and law enforcement needs to understand that our role is to help shape and control that persona. Whether it is taking away the ghoulish vicarious needs of the accident scene groupies by moving them back, or understanding the function of what Canetti calls "Crowd Crystals" and how to spot them before the mob gets out of hand, we need to "pre-load" for these situations so we can respond quickly and effectively.

"Crowd Crystals" are the professionals sent to any community with any socially intense activity, like a shooting, that has drawn media attention. Their job is to create and shape the crowd so power can be drawn from it. They are readily identifiable to the crowd as they wear special symbols or messages that focus the group. If we are going to keep things peaceful we should learn to recognize them.

In an episode of "Gunsmoke," Marshal Matt Dillon stymied a lynch mob by calling them out individually, thereby turning the group into individuals. This took away the anonymity and collective power crowds give people. This is a great tactic that works in some cases. However, Crystals are part of a constant pool of people with a rigid ideology and they are not concerned about being called out. The folks who may be coming to your town are probably the same ones who were "anarchists" five years ago or "occupy" folks two years ago; tomorrow they may wear a "Guy Fawkes" mask and wield a rock in their right hand. We need to find a more sophisticated and effective way to handle Crowd Crystals.

The complexity of this challenge means that today, more than ever, it is imperative that we master the ways we can guide and shape crowds to keep them from turning into mobs, or worse. A basic understanding of crowd psychology and a thorough mastery of crowd control techniques are indispensable tools we must have in our kit. Make yourself an observer of crowds; watch for Crystals and understand how they work; and accept the fact that human nature draws people to the scene of a crisis, to be part of The Crowd.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "J.D. Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Officer (Ret.)
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