Crowds are not people, my friend

Do people in a crowd start to behave in some sort of collective way, in which each person is influenced by those around them to such an extent that the crowd seems to have a collective will of its own and acts like a single large entity?

This belief forms the basis for the way that authority figures react to large crowds, with police cracking down indiscriminately, and often brutally, on everyone in the group for what may be the actions of a few isolated individuals, thinking that such force deters the crowd as a whole, rather than making the effort to identify and apprehend the few who may have caused the problem. We often see this with mass demonstrations that often start out peacefully. But when a few people start acting violently, the riot police will then attack the entire demonstration, starting with the people nearest to them, and the situation then spirals out of control.

This article suggests that this is misguided and treating crowds as a single entity leads to the wrong kind of responses, and risks making the whole situation worse. Furthermore, it enables provocateurs who have no sympathy for the causes behind the demonstration to disrupt it by deliberately provoking the authorities.


  1. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    I noticed early in my political activist career that it only takes a few people – maybe only one – to get a crowd moving. I bolted across a field, running away from the main group, to catch up to a friend and had several hundred people running after me (just in case I kenw something? did something?).

    And during my campus’s Viet Nam war protests, when keeping it cool so the local county sheriff had no excuse to come in and bust heads, we had a simple solution to the provocateurs urging violence … a burly Viet Nam vet would walk up behind them, twist their arm behind their back until it hurt, and tell them to STFU.

    In case of mass movements, we had runners whose job description was to head off in various directions and split the crowd.

  2. Glenn says

    This describes police riots. A police officer or two acts out and before long the police mob is swinging clubs at anything with a pulse.

    Yes, mobs are not people without respect to whether they are uniformly dressed in blue.

  3. plutosdad says

    In Chicago at last year’s UN protests, the police picked out individuals they thought were trouble and removed them before anything started up. I read an article and the strategy of watching for “troublemakers” and pulling them out early rather than after they caused trouble was a new idea and it seemed to work.

    Whether we think that is a 1st amendment violation or not, the protests were surprisingly peaceful. Only a couple people were hurt and most of them were hurt by other protesters (initial reports were someone got run over but those were wrong, and it was the cop who was beaten and received a concussion, and another bystander got knocked down by the crowd and had to also go to the hospital). Since at so many other Occupy protests police used mace and deliberately harmed protesters, I was proud of the job our city did, at least relative to most other cities.

    Anyway, maybe that is a good strategy to use, pull out the people who look violent, and leave everyone else alone.

  4. hoary puccoon says

    So cool to read the cited article and see Clark McPhail quoted. He was my professor at the University of South Carolina sometime back in the preCambrian.

    I saw McPhail’s ideas work at a rally against an arms fair near the O’Hare airport in Chicago. One extremist group worked hard to turn the confrontation violent. They poured pig’s blood on some cops and then went limp when the cops, quite understandably, arrested them. Fortunately, the Chicago police had prepared for the protests by doing some workshops with the American Friends Service Committee. (Yes, I know it’s a religious organization, but, anyway….)

    The net result was, the arms fair was wrecked because the arms dealers cancelled, but the protests remained peaceful, and a good time was had by all. But the Chicago press was furious! They’d been all geared up to report action, drama, and blood running in the streets. Instead they got the chief of police saying to the protesters, “Let’s be friends,” the protesters cheering the chief of police, and, generally, an event that was better suited to the social page than the front page. So there are ups and downs to any outcome.

  5. says

    Anyway, maybe that is a good strategy to use, pull out the people who look violent, and leave everyone else alone.

    Usually the people who look violent are the guys who show up wearing uniforms and body armor and helmets, carrying automatic weapons. Obviously someone came prepared for a riot.

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